Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Turn the Page

"2013 was the Year of the Snake, but 2014 will be the Year of the Horse, according to Chinese astrology," one of my students told me recently.

He went on to explain that the Snake represented, for some, the process of transformation and shedding - sometimes painfully. He also explained that the Horse can represent a lot of welcomed work for some of us and for others it may be a wild ride. He told me that he has been following Chinese astrology for several decades now and found it to be somewhat accurate, but that it offered him something to reflect on and work with, in terms of his own personality. The model has proved useful to him in his personal and professional life.

I know that the Chinese New Year is still a month away (Jan 30 or 31, depending on your calendar), but I decided to reflect on these qualities now, as we turn the calendar page to the next year.


The past twelve months have certainly been transformational for me. I am not the same person that began this weekly blog back in January. Education, loss, success and failure have all shaped my character. I see those changes in my personal relations, my teaching and my business planning. As this year comes to a close, I use a mantra to let go of old fears (I actually say the words, "less fear" during my meditations now).

In my business, I have always strived to be useful: Yoga for people with cancer... Tools for teachers who want to teach yoga to people with cancer... Fundraising to build the tools... All these ideas began because I saw them as useful - first to me, then to others. In 2013, the ideas got bigger. The fears grew, too, but my mantra (and my family!) helped me to stay focused on what I could do, in each moment, rather than be overwhelmed by the enormity of need that exists in the world.


When our son was living at a horse ranch last year, we got to ride horses each time we visited him. On one of those rides, the horses decided to race. I'm not an experienced rider, and I felt out of control as the horse took off. But the stride was so much nicer than a trot, and it felt like we were flying, so I soon began to enjoy myself! It wasn't until I thought about stopping that I became afraid.

I don't know what, exactly, the Year of the Horse will bring. It could be a wild, out of control ride. It could be joyful leaps of weightlessness. It will probably be some of both, and the fear will creep in once I think about stopping. In 2014, I've set up some big goals for myself. I'm leading an extensive yoga teacher training by myself for the first time ever. I'm traveling to Africa for the first time ever. I'm organizing a fundraiser with a goal of $25K for the first time ever.

Leap... Leap... Leap...

Welcome, 2014. Welcome Year of the Horse. Welcome life.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Why We Need Holidays

A friend wrote on his Facebook page last month his displeasure about the lies surrounding the celebration of Thanksgiving. It's true that many of our holidays have evolved into someone our ancestors would never recognize. But I argue that we still need these holidays, whether we celebrate them in the original spirit or not.

When you break down the traditions and eliminate the commercialism, you are left with the truly necessary need to connect with each other. At some point, our ancestors may have sacrificed a great meal source or created a public display that honored their connection to their chosen deity, but all of that really is about connecting to each other. We need to feel less alone in this life; we need to feel that we have guides on our path; we need to know that others are guided in the same way.
Photo by Chris Kotsiopoulos,

If you don't understand what I mean, try stepping outside at night in some remote place where the moon, the planets and the stars are the only lights you see...

It's acceptable for us to feel that insignificant, as long as we sense an overarching architecture. It's less lonely when we realize there are others looking up and experiencing the same vastness - maybe even at the same time as us.

So, this year, as you juggle the stress, emotions and superficial qualities of the season, remember to look up at night and recall why you are sitting down to feast, why you are showering your loved ones with gifts, lighting candles or singing songs. Weave your thread in this vast tapestry with beautiful awareness.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Rest in Peace, Madiba

"When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace." ~ Rolihlahla "Nelson" Mandela, 1918-2013

The first time I heard about apartheid in a way that really registered was in 1982. I was dancing ballet and that year, my school introduced a visiting ballet teacher from South Africa. We spent months learning our parts in preparation for a tour through Scotland and England, culminating in a performance for an international dance festival in Aberdeen, Scotland. Our visiting teacher brought two dancers from Johannesburg along with her. I was immediately enthralled by their accents and asked them millions of questions about their home; luckily, they were very nice and patient with me, and we became friends. We joked nonstop about the differences between our upbringings and countries and cultures, but there was one thing that they shared that stayed with me throughout the years:

In their country, they were afraid all the time. 

They were taught to fear places, people, times of day and certain celebrations. When I
My Afrikaner ballet friends
asked more about these fears, they explained to me that, because of the color of their skin and their upper class status, they were likely targets for the militant black people in their country. They were not allowed to go anywhere without one of the many people who worked in their homes, most of whom were black. They had nannies who drove them to school, ballet, or social functions. This was such a strange life to 13-year-old me, who took several busses to get to my ballet classes - alone. I don't remember expressing it, but I do remember feeling pity for them, because all that privilege seemed too close to restriction for my tastes.

It was several years later that I heard The Specials song, "Free Nelson Mandela". I was in high school at the time, and much more interested in world politics. I was still confused about my ballet friends' fears, and wanted to know more. I started reading some of Mandela's words and so much of it resonated with me. I didn't know yet that anything could be done, I just knew that this world had to change. I channelled the unique outrage and ambition of the teen rebel, and apartheid was the perfect target for my outrage. It bothered me that people were afraid because of the color of their skin. I saw this fear on both sides of the issue, and watched as it escalated the problems in South Africa.

I had no direction for this emotion, so I wrote. I composed essays, poems, letters (never sent) and protest chants (never demonstrated) about the injustice of apartheid. In 1990, when Mandela was released, I wept. I didn't realize that the hard work of tolerance, forgiveness and evolution were just beginning.

Mandela must have been witness to countless acts of violence as well as love to understand these human traits as he did, because suffering affords us an opportunity to witness kindness. Some of the most atrocious acts of violence and miraculous acts of forgiveness were recorded during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Mandela helped establish. This commission helped to calm my young adult heart, and inspired me to see people in a different light - not as predators and victims, but as people.

Mandela was a unique person, but he was not alone. Who he became was a product of the suffering and compassion that he witnessed around him. He wrote,

"No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

Some have called Mandela a saint. I choose to think of him as a man who was born to extraordinarily difficult times, and decided to do more than just think about injustice. With his passing, his legacy falls to us now. I am renewed in my passion to bring about justice where I can. When I think about what I want to make happen in the coming year, my heart skips a beat, but I know it's what I need to do, so that one day I, too, can rest in peace.

Thank you for your service, Madiba.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Yoga and the Art of Parking

NOTE: Lorien will be on vacation Dec 9-25, but regularly scheduled classes will continue with subs.

On Thanksgiving morning I practiced at the yoga studio, left in a state of gratitude and bliss, and then was witness to some interesting behavior in the parking lot:

I paused while backing out of my parking space to allow pedestrians to cross behind me and I noticed a white car, whose driver we'll call Patient Driver (PD), slowed to allow the pedestrians to pass as well. Behind PD, a new car appeared, driven by someone who we'll call Impatient Driver (ID). ID was driving very fast and had to stop suddenly behind PD. ID then honked the horn and whipped around PD to park into the spot that PD was waiting for.

At this point, I finished backing up and was ready to leave the parking lot, but I noticed in my rearview mirror that PD had parked her car in the middle of the lot and walked - slowly and deliberately - towards the car driven by ID.

In that moment, two things became very obvious to me: 1) Contrasting personalities are about to collide. 2) Both drivers are heading into the studio to take the same yoga class (the studio was the only business open that day, and only offering one class), it's likely their mats will be near each other, so whatever is discussed in the parking lot will carry over to the class as well.

As I drove away, I thought to myself that the conversation between these two people could go either way. It could be a moment for PD to practice compassion; it could be an "aha" moment of clarity for ID. Or, it could become destructive...

The cynic in me played the entire conversation out in my head - all of it negative, which made me question why we practice yoga. Why behave one way in the parking lot, then another inside the studio?

If I'm going to treat my fellow humans as things - obstacles or vehicles to get what I want, or as invisible things that I can ignore, then what does it matter if I can wrap my leg behind my head?

We approach yoga in the west from the physical perspective, occasionally gaining the glimpse of ease during moments of relaxation and release, but that is just one layer of the lens. You know how the eye doctor asks you to look through the lenses and asks you to determine which one is clearer? That is precisely what the complete practice of yoga is meant to do - offer you a sharper, more complete lens through which to see the world.

There is the lens of the physical world, which explains to you how to feed your body and move through the physical world with more effective responsiveness.

There is the lens of the energetic world, which asks you to trust in a world you cannot see and, instead, feel beneath the surface of things.

There is the lens of the mental and emotional world, which becomes clearer and clearer as you clean off the residue of karma.

There is the lens of the intuitive world, which provides a sharp focus to our decisions.

And there is the lens of bliss, of spirit, of egoless being, and the experience of this binds all the other lenses together in one big "aha" view of clarity.

Returning to the parking lot story, if ID is only seeing the world through the first or second lens, then I can imagine that the conversation only added fuel to a negative bonfire. But...

If ID is starting to experience life through the other lenses, he or she may see this situation as an opportunity to grow.

Which do you think it was? Please remember this story as you find yourself in either driver's shoes.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Winter Wellness Preview

California has a nice long fall, but soon enough winter will be upon us, with cooler temperatures, rainy and icy roads, less sunlight, but more parties. This is typically the season that even those of us with the strongest immune systems get overwhelmed by the variety and strength of the pathogens floating around, and end up sick. Here are some tips to help:

Keep it clean

photo: amoderngirlslife.blogspot.com
Proper hand washing, gargling with warm salt water, pranayama (breath techniques) and applying oils to your skin helps defend the parts of us most vulnerable to catching a bug. Ujayyi (victorious) breath and Kapalabhati (skull-shining) breath are best practiced during the day, and alternate nostril breath in the afternoon or evening. You can use special Ayurvedic oils, or a simple sesame oil (not toasted) to massage into the inside of your nose, and along your skin - especially at your joints. When you are applying the oil to your skin, brush it on with a mild amount of pressure, wipe the excess and then sit in a steam-filled room, if possible. The steam will open your pores and allow the oil in.

Lighten up

Winter is our season for longer nights and less daylight. Studies are showing that sunlight not only helps us maintain emotional balance, but also supports our immune system. Which is why Dr. Servan-Schrieber, author of Anti Cancer: A New Way of Living, recommends 20 minutes of sunlight a day.

Move / don't move

Your immune system depends on your movements to circulate the blood and lymph through your body. Your nervous system depends on your stillness to calm the chaotic energy of fall and winter. So, which do you do? The answer is: both. Exercise, stretch and gently move your body throughout the day, but be sure to offer yourself some time in stillness - either with meditation, breathing, yin or restorative yoga. You need both to sustain health.

Ideally, you would set a routine that balances out your day. For example, if I know I'll be using the day to drive from store to store and shop for presents for my family and friends, I realize this will make me exhausted and potentially could flare my back pain. I'll begin my morning with some strong stretches for my back and some breathing and meditation. Once I'm done with my shopping, I'll spend a while in restorative poses that gently release my back and soothe my nerves. Letting go of tension from my body and stress from my mind also helps my immune system.

Sing, chant, hum

photo: 8tracks.com
In the wise words of Big Bird, "Don't worry if it's not good enough for anyone else to hear, just sing, sing a song." (Actually, Louis Prima wrote the song, but we only ever remember the Sesame Street version.) Singing helps keep away depression, circulates blood and lengthens your exhale, promoting the release of toxins from your body. So, however you can do it, find a way to sing or chant or hum!

On Sunday, December 8, I will be at Willow Glen Yoga to teach the full workshop called Winter Wellness. This workshop will be accompanied by live music and will include some lecture, breath work, chanting, gentle movements, standing postures, yin and restorative practice - all designed to circulate and restore you. I hope to see you there!

Pre-register HERE.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Interconnected, Interdependent You

The Buddhists use the image of Indra's Net as a symbol of our interdependence:
Photo by Chris Lombardi
“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.” ~Francis Harold Cook
If we are represented by each of those jewels, then we begin to see how each of us relates to the others - connected and reflected, which opens us up to empathy and compassion for our fellow humans.

Most people understand this concept, in this context, but then dismiss it for other settings. 

San Jose hills
Long before I read Francis Harold Cook's words, I understood something about this concept of connection, and it formed the matrix of reality for me as a young child. I remember driving along Highway 101, south of San Jose, where the hills are covered by short grass and scrub, making them appear to be various shades of brown. As we drove through Morgan Hill and Gilroy, I saw cows grazing on those hills, and their hides we similar in texture and color to the hills they stood upon. At some point in my early adolescence, I connected the hills with the cows and asked, "What if the substance that we stand upon is only a larger form of what we are, and we just don't see it because we don't have a big enough perspective to catch the connection?" The cows, after all, wouldn't see the similarity between the hill and their coats unless they saw the scene from a distance - assuming they were creatures who could maintain interest in these things. All they would see was the next clump of grass, the shade tree, etc. What if the entire known universe were something else entirely, but we couldn't understand it because we didn't see the connections from our small perspective?

I read an article recently about how our bones are connected (among other organs) to our minds. You can find the full article here. In the article, French geneticist and physician Gerard Karsenty states, “No organ is an island,” and the article continues to discuss how the bones relate to many different body systems. Western medicine seems to be catching up to ancient beliefs that the all the parts of the body relate to each other in different ways - sometimes obvious and sometimes very subtle.

When we step back and get the bigger picture - no matter the size of the subject, we begin to see that this model of interdependence relates to all things.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Holistic Wellness

During my early training on how to teach yoga, I learned something interesting: some people think only in terms of negative. I don't mean that they are negative people; rather, that the lens of their mind's eye only sees things in terms of negative. This lens might have developed out of a self-preservation situation, or some other natural occurrence. However it grew, the mind can only frame experiences in terms of the negative. For example, if I ask someone who has lived with chronic pain all their life to paint me a picture of what a good day looks like, they may give me answers such as, "less resistance to movement" rather than "more mobility", or "less fatigue" rather than "more energy". It's a subtle language difference but the way the mind, body and energy process this subtle difference is big.

I'm a fan of language. I'm always looking for better ways to say things, using clearer analogies and more precise cues. I can be a bit obsessive when it comes to naming my classes and workshops. I've been obsessing for several years now about a certain title for the cancer work that I do. I'm always looking to find the best way to describe my work without using this negative frame.

The word wellness is one of my favorites, because it goes beyond the negative and brings us back to the positive. What would a day be like without pain, or illness, or fear or stress? How would I name that day? Wellness encompasses so much, just like yoga. There is physical wellness, but there is also mental, emotional and spiritual wellness.

Wellness implies that good feeling that you get when the sun is shining on your face, the warmth in your heart rises up to meet the warmth on your face, you are smiling without regard to who is watching and time stands still. 

Photo from ahealthiermichigan.org
In the winter months, we are more vulnerable to this negative thinking. There is less sunlight and more stress to contend with. Our normal healthy routines are replaced with the hustle-and-bustle-type of holiday activities. Social situations are required, which can be draining for the introverted types. It's important during these times that we understand what our own personal wellness requires and fit that in as a priority today - not tomorrow.

Asana, meditation, breathing practices, exercise, massage and regular sleep can make such a difference during this season. What supports your wellness? Make a wellness plan today.


Monday, November 11, 2013


"Inhale... Exhale... Begin again."

These four simple words became a mantra during meditation this past week. They were spoken by yoga teacher Djuna Mascall during one of our first morning sits, and they continued to return to me throughout the week, reminding me how powerful the practice can be.

I spent 5 days at Esalen in Big Sur, soaking up the hot springs, sitting in the meditation hut that is located at the juncture of the river and the ocean, practicing yoga with students and teachers who never fail to make me smile, and eating delicious food from the Esalen gardens. Throughout the 5 days, my mind echoed Djuna's statement:

Each time I sat for meditation, I noticed my tendency to wander and then I brought myself back with these words.

Each time I struggled through the more challenging poses - holding revolved triangle for 20 breaths! - I noticed my strain and came back to the mantra.

Each time I sat down to eat, whether in company or alone, I took a moment to remember her phrase.

Simple. Powerful.

What's implied in these four little words is that we have an infinite number of chances to renew our commitment to whatever it is we've set our minds to. With every breath, we release our previous success and failure and accept the opportunity to start anew, like the ocean waves that serenaded our week, or the sunrise that erased the previous day's stories.

Another quote that was shared repeatedly by all the teachers there - Tias Little, Brenda Proudfoot and Djuna - is the following from Anne Lamott, a lovely description of the allowing that occurs when we follow this practice of inhaling, exhaling and beginning again:

“We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.”


Monday, October 28, 2013

The Ridiculous and the Sublime

"Revelation... Transformation... Authentic Self... Higher Self... Access... Capacity"

By themselves, the words above seem harmless, or even uplifting. And yet, I cringe each time I hear a yoga teacher use them. What I call New Age Speak has become a pet peeve of mine.

I was at a yoga retreat several years back, studying in an idyllic setting with a celebrity yoga teacher. I was completely distracted by what she was teaching because she was using all these New Age buzzwords (and other words that I am almost positive she had made up). I became irritated because I couldn't understand why would she use these words, when there are others that are far more easily understood and less trendy. Was she was trying to compensate for feeling insecure? Did she want us all to know how much philosophy and psychology she had studied? Does she really talk this way in her everyday life?

I'm sure that some people do speak this way in everyday conversations. However, when we are trying to appeal to everyone and anyone, it's important - in my opinion - that we chose language that goes down easily.

From the Ridiculous...

I gave a stress management talk for a human resources summit once, and I asked them to stand up and do some yogic breathing. As I was talking them through an aligned standing posture, I mentioned the word "buttocks". A few nervous giggles broke out, and pretty soon the entire room of over 100 was laughing. I was so used to using anatomical terms that I forgot to change my language for the layperson. Years later, I still remember that lesson.

Last night, I watched a yoga documentary that included interviews with several of modern yoga teachers who are globally recognized. These teachers were asked to explain different aspects of the yoga practice and why it was so powerful. Some of them articulated the complex concepts with clarity and everyday language. Some of them used so many of these buzzwords that I became distracted again. I had to rewind the video several times, and by the end of the documentary, I was very annoyed.

So, here's my rant:

New Age speak does not make your ideas more available; in fact, it can distance you from your audience. If you are going to use an unusual term, explain it; don't assume people know what you mean. There are always easier ways to explain whatever concept you are trying to get across. And,

if you don't know the concept well enough to phrase it in a simple way, then maybe you shouldn't be talking about it.

...To the Sublime

By contrast, when I am with a teacher who does have a clear grasp of the concept as well as the ability to express it in a way the audience will understand, those concepts sink in and take hold more easily for me. In those cases, I feel all the understanding was already there, hidden inside a locked case, but I just needed the right words to open the lock. Comprehension floods in and takes root. Those are the concepts that I can then easily express, without the need for fancy, flowery, superfluous New Age speak.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Immunity Community, a Yogic Perspective

Last week, I received a flu shot and was reminded of just how amazing my body is.

As I felt the effects of the virus moving through my body, I reflected on what was happening inside, a similar practice that I ask people with cancer to do every day. My body scan took me on a tour of my immune system, a vast network that recruits participants from every other system.

The Concept of the Immune System

What is the immune system? Can I point to its physical location, like I would point to my respiratory system, or my skeletal system? The answer is no, because my immune response is a holistic one. If I take a look at my experience with my flu shot, I catch a glimpse into this holistic system, a complex Rube Goldberg-like series of chain reactions.

Act I: Enter the Pathogen

I'm not a fan of getting poked with needles, so the first response that I experienced was my nervous system's stress response. As soon as the nurse walked into the exam room with the prepared needle, my breathing sped up and my heart beat faster, triggered by my desire to get away from what my mind perceived as a threat. I used my senses - eyes and ears - to discern this potential threat.

If I had been given the spray version of the flu shot, my nose and respiratory system would have been next to be triggered. Instead, I received the shot in my arm. My nervous system, skin, muscles, fascia, blood and lymph vessels were affected immediately by this breach in my defenses. Within 20 minutes, I could feel my body's effects to receiving the foreign pathogen as my upper arm, the deltoid muscle, grew sore. By that evening, mild soreness had spread to several joints, and my skin felt mildly tender.

Act II: Community Response

The flu virus was delivered into my system via the blood circulating through my muscles and the rest of my body. Running parallel to the circulatory system is the lymphatic system, a network that looks like a fishing net with masses at the larger intersections, called lymph nodes.  A high concentration of lymph nodes are located at my neck, armpit, chest, groin and abdomen. My lymphatic system acts like an intelligent garbage-collection service for my body: it slowly drains through my body, allowing the blood cells to attack potential threats, which they then identify and store the information about for later protection. Like a very well-connected agent at the airport security checkpoint, my lymphatic system will inform the rest of my lymph nodes about a threat - in this case, the flu virus - so that when it appears on the scene again and tries to drain through another node, my body can disarm it before it does any damage. The limitations to the incredible lymphatic system are that it has no pump to drain the lymph fluid through my body, and the fluid only moves in one direction: from the periphery in towards my abdomen.

I can support this lymphatic network several ways. By practicing diaphragmatic breathing, I massage my thoracic duct, a large gland that runs through my respiratory diaphragm and "escorts" the lymph fluid out of my body. I can also move my body and practice isometric exercises or massage my skin to encourages lymph drainage, because the cycling of muscles contracting and relaxing, or the movement of blood through the vessels that are close to the lymphatic vessels will promote lymph movement. Passively opening my joints, using gravity and my body position and reducing tension also supports lymph drainage.

Act III: The Yoga Ally

I awoke the day after my flu shot feeling uncomfortable, a mild headache brewing, and a sense that the systems we not running efficiently. Still in bed, I began a supportive routine, one that I teach my students with cancer so that they can also support their immune response.

Bridge Pose

    Windshield Wipers
  1. Neck circulation: I gently massage my neck, from ears to collarbones, then slowly shaking the head no, then slowly nodding the head yes.
  2. Armpit circulation: I gently massage the skin in and around my armpits, then from my elbows towards my chest, followed by shoulder circles and bridge pose, to stimulate the lymph vessels in my armpits and chest.
  3. Upper body twisting: keeping my knees bent and pointing upward, I twist my torso towards one arm, then the other.
  4. Knees to chest: closing/opening my hip joints by pushing my knees into my chest, then away, followed by circling my knees around my hips. 
  5. Ankles/knees/hips: imitating a frog swimming in water, I circle my ankles and hips,
    Banana Pose
    as well as bend my knees; after, I straighten my legs and focus on flexing and pointing my feet.
  6. Lower body twisting: with my knees bent and feet wide apart, I keep my torso still and drop my knees from one side then the other (slow windshield wipers).
  7. Side bends: I come into the banana pose by straightening my legs and moving them to one side with my arm extended overhead.
  8. Resting butterfly: Bringing the bottoms of my feet together and opening my bent knees out to the side, I open my arms as well, so that both my armpits and my "legpits" are being stretched.
    Resting Butterfly (with props)
  9. Seated breathing: I focus on expanding my ribs in all directions as I inhale (diaphragm moves down), then narrowing my ribs inward (diaphragm moves up).
  10. Meditation: with each breath, I focus on what my body is doing to manage this pathogen. I notice all my systems that have rallied to take care of it, and breathe out a sense of gratitude for all that my body does.
    Breathing, Meditation

This sequence is constantly evolving and growing, and it has been greatly influenced by many teachers, students and research, including: Tias and Surya Little of Prajna Yoga, Cheri Clampett and Arturo Peal of Therapeutic Yoga, Tari Prinster of Y4C, the Lymphoedema Support Group.


  • Share my blog with others, and invite them to sign up. This is one of the best ways I have to get news out to you all!
  • Dec 8 1:30-4:00: Winter Wellness, a Gentle Yoga Workshop for Your Health, at Willow Glen Yoga. See the Events page for more info. This is Lorien's last workshop of the year, and will feature LIVE music!
  • Remember, if you can't make it to class, you can always pop in my DVD, Healing Yoga for Wellness, available online at www.amazon.com and www.eBay.com, and in stores at Breathe Los Gatos, Pacific Healing Arts, Cancer CAREpoint resource center, East West Bookshop and Kaiser Mind-Body-Wellness center.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Naming Our (Cancer) Fears

“I don’t like that word,” she told me, handing me back a flyer for my upcoming yoga workshop. 
The flyer read Yoga for Cancer Survivors in big, bold letters.
“What word,” I asked. “… Cancer?”
“No,” she said, “survivor. What does that even mean? I didn’t survive cancer, I live with my cancer. Every day.”

Petra Lentz-Snow, practicing
in Death Valley
She is not alone. Many people are put off by the term survivor. Some don’t feel it applies to them until they are free of cancer, some feel it’s too heroic a term, especially compared to the countless loved ones who struggled and did not survive, and some identify more as a survivor of cancer treatment survivor than of their disease. The word cancer has many emotions tied to it, and so does the term survivor.

Some people view their cancer journey as a minor detour, while others see it as a life-changing turning point. One of my students continued to leave her hair very short, even after her chemotherapy was done and her hair had come back in. When I asked her why, she replied that she wanted a daily reminder to never return to her unbalanced way of life, which she believes attributed to her cancer diagnosis. She wanted a visual that would keep her perspective broad and her heart open, which is what her diagnosis did for her. Her cancer journey was a learning experience for her.

For those of us who live a life with goal-oriented action in mind, always striving for the next summit, perhaps at the expense of our health or emotional balance, a cancer diagnosis can be a turning point, and an opportunity to explore other ways to be in our world. 

I think the biggest reason why the word survivor prickles people is that it implies that the person is completely done with their cancer journey. To survive cancer means, in our minds at least, to be rid of it for good. Unfortunately, cancer doesn't always agree to stay gone. But to dwell on the idea that it may return affects our health and, ironically, our ability to keep it at bay.

So what name do we use?

In medical language, living with cancer refers to the time period between diagnosis and treatment, living though cancer refers to the treatment time period, and living beyond cancer refers to the time after treatment. 

“Do you think that a cancer diagnosis is inevitable, that we are all at risk?” A friend texted me one day. She was on a daunting cancer journey that quickly metastasized, and she was told that, even with treatment, her life would be cut short by cancer. If you look at the statistics predicting how many of us will receive a diagnosis, it is tempting to believe we will all have cancer at some point, and it’s also tempting to feel hopeless about it. I knew what she was really asking, so I answered that question instead: “I believe that we can live with cancer.” 

I want all my loved ones to do everything they can to tip the scales against cancer and in their own favor, including living without fear. But if we are to live with cancer and without fear, we must understand this disease and understand our own fears around it. When I told my friend that I believe we can live with cancer, I wasn’t meaning the medical term. I meant that we can learn to have a partnership with our cancer cells, through knowledge, acceptance and presence. We can recognize and defend against this disease’s opportunistic quality, we can accept life’s challenges and joys with equanimity and we can build stronger, deeper ties to our bodies, breath, mind and emotions, sinking into our present moment again and again.

“I see the partnership,” she replied. 

Last Thursday, she left this world. Without fear.