Monday, July 29, 2013

Swan Medicine

In Native American culture, an animal appears to you in a dream, vision or waking life in order to offer you some medicine, or help with your life. The swan is my latest medicine.

My First Swan Appears

Swan Lake ballet
Between the ages of 4-14, I was convinced that I would become the next Prima Ballerina. Before I could attend ballet classes, I watched PBS performances, read books, played records that offered lessons (these were like pre-podcasts, for those of you who don't know what records are), and danced around to the music of Chopin, Debussy and Tchaikovsky. Swan Lake was one of my favorite ballets, because the music was so haunting and to a child, the choreography felt authentic: moving your arms like wings while peddling your feet as if your were in the water.

As a dancer, I was privileged to perform a famous part in the ballet, the dance of the four swans. (I can still bust it out, by the way!) I practiced the bowing swan movement over and over, pulling the grace and fluidity of the swan into my body.

During my years of dancing ballet, I experienced many injuries to my feet, ankles and back. We tried physical therapy, along with changing ballet schools, thinking that a different stress on my body could help, but it didn't. At the ripe old age of 16, I retired my ballet career.

The Swan Pose

Swan pose
When I was 29, I tried a yoga pose that really felt good. The teacher called it Pigeon Pose, but I've also heard it referred to as Swan. The pose took away much of my chronic back pain - almost instantly! And, it felt really natural. I later realized that this was the pose I had been adopting since I was a child. Later, when I was taught this pose in dynamic yoga classes, I would roll my back, which really connected with the swan bows I had done so many years before. This pose is one that I practice daily, and not just because it keeps my back pain at bay. It is a link to my past, present and future.

The Meditative Swan

My meditation timer
When I began teaching yoga to people with cancer, I knew that I had to develop coping practices. On some days, the calm I experienced in my morning meditations evaporated in the face of pain and suffering, and I would come home exhausted and heart-weary. I started visited a park in Campbell that has a lake where flocks of geese, ducks and a few swans live. I sat on a bench near the water and let the breeze blow away any sticky thoughts, resting my attention on my breath and the sensations of nature around me. At first, I set a timer so that I wouldn't keep peeking at my watch. I soon discovered that the birds at this park are very used to people feeding them. At exactly 13 minutes into my meditation, I could expect to become the subject of rivalry. The ducks came first, and if they didn't have goslings to tend to, the geese would come to scare off the ducks. Or, a great big white swan would come to check out what all the commotion was about - either gliding across the lake, or marching awkwardly across the grass, riddled with goose droppings. The swan never speaks to me, but I can feel its presence when it is about 3 feet away. I'm aware of its curiosity and strength. It usually stays nearby me and then drifts off when I make to leave. I always thank this powerful creature for letting me share space.

The Equanimous Swan

Last week was particularly emotional for me. On Sunday I led a memorial service for a student whose cancer had finally claimed her. On Thursday, I wasn't sure if my voice would hold up during the service, because my grief was showing up in my throat - offering the most horrible sounds as my heart tried to squeeze out its pain. I went to a friend's yoga class and was speaking to her about it. She offered me the image of the swan as a meditative focal point. The white swan can swim through the dirtiest water, then stop, shake and be brilliantly white again. She asked me to embody this quality of the swan: dive into the pain and difficulty, because it is what I am called to do, and then shake it off, rinsing it away to once again feel the clear, bright peaceful quality of my own inner swan.

Nearly 40 years after I first discovered Swan Lake, I am still learning from the swans. Thank you.


  • Please see my previous post about schedule changes coming in September.
  • I'll be leading a 1-day yoga teacher training at Breathe Los Gatos on August 3 this workshop will teach how to meet a cancer survivor's needs within the context of a general yoga class. If you are a yoga teacher, you will need these skills at some point, no matter what class you teach. More and more people are living with cancer these days. If you are a survivor and you'd like your yoga teacher to get this training, please let him or her know about it. Click HERE to find out more.
  • Please 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!
  • Remember, if you can't make it to class, you can always pop in my DVD, Healing Yoga for Wellness, available at, Breathe Los Gatos, Pacific Healing Arts, Cancer CAREpoint resource center and Kaiser Mind-Body-Wellness center.