Updated: May 4, 2020
No pain, no gain.
Sometimes things have to get worse, before they get better. Chaos is often a catharsis for change. If we always stay in our comfort zones, we don't evolve. Just as a precious gem has to go through the fire to be polished, painful trials often present themselves to polish us. I had left my busy job as a Yacht Chef, to settle into a seemingly quieter, tranquil life on my small, Mediterranean island to teach Yoga. Not long after I decided to follow my passion to teach full-time, I got diagnosed with a devastating form of breast cancer. I had undergone a rare Ovarian Cancer prior in my early twenties, and had been Cancer free for over twenty years. The thought of a reoccurrence of any kind had long faded and the news was shockingly unexpected.I had alway maintained a healthy lifestyle and practiced Yoga on and off since I was 8 years old. It felt like the earth shook underneath me.
My life as I knew it, would end. In order for my mortal life to continue, a huge shift in awareness, my own anatomy and my carefree lifestyle would never be the same, Fear seems to replace all that I had ever known. A wave of helplessness and grief washed over me. As I sat in my Doctor's office discussing the surgery and treatments, my dark sense of humour flitted back and forth to the "Death or Cruxification" scene in Monty Python's , The life of Brian. I felt trapped and doomed, as I faced the tough road ahead. Could I endure the gruelling Chemotherapy treatments again? Would I live? My alternative herbal treatments were failing me. I was blindsided, confused and angry that my own body had somehow failed me too.
I practiced Yoga five times a week, ran a 5 k weekly, ate organically and maintained a relatively healthy Ayurvedic lifestyle. My dreams and plans for the future faded into a thick cloud of fear and loss. My regular Yoga practice had always been my lifeline. The thought of the surgical damage to my muscles and body structure made my heart sink. Yoga had pulled me through some heavy moments of grief and sadness during my lifetime. Conscious movement helped me release and cleanse my soul. It had liberated me from PTSD, low esteem and depression. It made me feel free, fearless and most of all, alive! I couldn't imagine another 2 years ahead of surgeries, Chemotherapy and possibly limited movement for life. I was uncertain on how to make it through, or even if I would live. Losing my health left me feeling vulnerable and isolated. My illness swept over me like a Tsunami, wiping out and destroying my very existence. I had to come to terms with being bed ridden and the daily pain manangement that ensued from complications. Just lifting my head was an achievement. I was completely dependant on others and even needed help to breathe somedays. I could no longer work, attend classes or even get out of bed for that matter. My yogi circle of classmates and friends shrunk considerably. A few of them even walked right out of my life!
The Cancer treatment involved a radical mastectomy, removing lymph nodes in my arm ( eventually causing lymphedema), complete hair loss, and most of all, chronic pain. Every part of me felt so foreign and out of order. I felt maimed, sad and shattered.
After having survived one of the toughest years of my life, I was left with a battered, broken body. There were some days when the pain in my bones was so great, I could barely bat my eyelashes! My "go to" for everything was my regular Asana practice, so what would I do now? I couldn't even lay in Savasana. Why did I have to endure all this pain and what did it serve? I needed answers.
I found myself reading a lot more! I surrounded myself with all sorts of " healing self- help" books, until I stumbled upon my old, dog-earred copy of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. This rediscovery sparked my journey into deep self inquiry, along with a regular pranayama practice I could do sitting in bed. Patanjali and I would have a torrid affair of self acceptance, resistance and finally surrender. I wanted to move forward in my physical healing but the inner work was even more painful.
Stillness? Meditation? really?? Me alone with all this fear based, negative self talk ? The incessant "chitta" rattling my brain? Facing inner demons and releasing old familiar patterns, was it necessary to rehash it all to heal? So
was that the path to self realisation and liberation? Or more Pain? Sutra Schmutra!!!
I again focused on healing my body and let the mental junk fester for a while. My ego refused to deal with the dark stuff.
Toward the end of my treatments, I had slowly begun a moderate home practice to recuperate the use of my affected arm. It was slow, frustrating and....you guessed it, harrowing! I was suffering from a painful and life disrupting Lymphedema. I was angry at my body and due to the medications I was given, my emotions were a rollercoaster of fear and self loathing. One day the excruciating pain and swelling became immeasurable. I missed the simple act of stretching my arm over my head or even reaching for a cup of tea. I missed my practice, my former, slender, limber body, my hair, my life, my independence. I was attached to the past, a shadow of all that I once was.
As I tearfully cringed through my movements, I noticed Patanjali's, Yoga Sutras, again looming in the distance on my coffee table. I walked over the book and again sunk my nose right into it. I was desperate for answers. Why all this suffering? What can it possibly serve? How can I move forward from here? Then my real yoga journey unfolded, beyond the body, beyond asana, but deeply rooted in the spirit. The Sutras state there are eight limbs of Yoga. My Ego gracefully accepted that Asana was just a small part of this union to the divine. I opened the book to chapter two. The greatest tool for healing is believing! It is advised to practice "pratipaksha-bhavana" or the process of transforming negative thoughts into positive ones.
The mind and spirit have a much greater influence on healing the body than we think. I began using pratipaksha-bhavana and dharana (concentration) to get though the excruciating moments. I had to re-program my mind and soul to be compassionate, and supportive to my ailing flesh. I had to release the attachment of who I once was and then embrace the "new" me, scars and all. I crawled toward being present.I finally came into acceptance, the body was limited but the mind is not. The mind would be my doctor, my nurturer, while my spirit would fuel my will to move forward.
Pain became my greatest teacher in stilling the mind, the path to complete healing. Little did I know all this pain would be ensued by wisdom and love. I had focused so intensely on the physical part of Yoga, I had forgotten why we bother doing the asanas. In my distress, I was overlooking the lesson of this experience. The pain triggered a new awareness. Healing can only begin if we still the mind. Only through the practice of meditation can we come to know ourselves enough to heal ourselves. Only in that stillness can we connect to the divine and offer up our complete trust. It is in this process of tethering our mind and hearts to the divine source, that we truly evolve and progress. "Chaos is often a catharsis for change. If we always stay in our comfort zones, we don't evolve" While the asanas had helped me maintain a strong body, the other 7 limbs would guide me through an extraordinary inner journey of profound restoration. It was time to become reacquainted with all of Yoga. We are made of many layers, not only flesh. Our will to survive comes from within. Pain manifests to warn us that something is wrong and needs our attention. Instead of shrinking away from it in fear, we can open to receive it's message. In my case, it prompted me to spend more time in meditation and allow my body to heal at it's own pace. It told me to, "start where I am, not where I was", allowing me to release the past and move forward. This shift in perception reintroduced me to the idea that healing is a holistic experience. It must occur on the spiritual, emotional, physical and mental level. It awakened me to the fact that all bodies are different, and that we all change with injury and age. We must embrace this change as our personal evolution, "our story".
We all have our own unique gifts to share, no matter our current condition. My aches and anguish, would lead me to offer myself and my students a more fulfilling, well rounded practice. I learnt to appreciate each movement consciously in detail. Each transition and pose was slow, deliberate and mindful. I felt every sensation of each muscle, joint and ligament, intricately working in unison to create motion. I developed an authentic understanding of the human body and it's ability to repair itself.
During a serious illness, we must learn to respect and honour our body's healing response. Though sometimes injuries or disease change our physiology, we can work with our own body's intelligence to flourish and maintain optimal health. Meditation was such a crucial conduit for me to really accept and love my new body. It is important to know that every organ, cell, and atom in your body is there to nourish and support you. Our bodies are manifestations of what we think and feel. What a great gift of realisation! I had the opportunity to slow down and renew my entire being on many levels. I really came to appreciate the power of poses like Savasana, instead of rushing through it at the end of a practice. I had reached a new, deeper level of stillness and restoration I had never experienced. Acknowledging pain as a teacher, rather than a negative sensation, has increased my awareness for self care, patience and compassion. Pain was a great catalyst for me to grow spiritually and emotionally, linking me to a deeper connection to the divine in all of us. I am blessed to be able to pass on the pain relief techniques I had learned to others in need. There is no greater gift then to empower someone with knowledge to heal themselves. While the pain fades as each week passes, the lesson remains. Without this tedious trial, I would have never evolved enough to pursue the path of my own truth. Every difficult occurrence we endure brings wisdom. I have lost much during this treacherous passage with Cancer, but also gained insight beyond measure! If we take pain as a signal, rather than fear it, we can transform our lives in a significant way.