“Good times, bad times, you know I’ve had my share” — Led Zeppelin

In breast cancer, as in life, there are always going to be some days which are “better” or “worse” than others. But one thing that yoga teaches us is that so much of this has to do with our own judgement of the situation, and how we choose to react to that judgement. Santosha, which is the 2nd of the niyamas (the internal practices or guidelines for our behavior as we relate to ourselves) in the 8 limbs of yoga, teaches us to find contentment or a sense of satisfaction with ourselves and our situations, despite external circumstances. This allows us to find peace, true joy and happiness, despite the fluctuations in our surroundings and material things, which of course are all impermanent. Practicing santosha, or contentment, allows us to break free of the suffering we put ourelves through by always wanting things to be different than they are. When we drop that attachment to things or conditions, and instead become open to receiving whatever life brings us, we open ourselves up for gratitude, growth, peace, and bliss.

Of course, some days truly are very difficult, and it can feel almost impossible to be content. This is natural. I mean, the first few days after each of my chemotherapy treatments were truly crappy (no pun intended, as I received Perjeta, which causes severe diarrhea!). But like everything, those sensations and side effects were temporary, and eventually subsided, leaving space for better days to come. This photo is from one of those better days, about 2 weeks after my first chemotherapy. My hair had begun to fall out, so I shaved my head. But I was getting my appetite and strength back, was feeling a little better, and decided to do some yoga. It felt amazing to feel good again, and I realized I would be able to get through this, knowing that the bad would come and go, with beautiful rays of light in between, illuminating all that I had to be grateful for.

I was grateful for the chemotherapy I was receiving, which is really a modern miracle, capable of curing many women with breast cancers that would have killed them just decades earlier. I was grateful for the supportive care medications that helped with the side effects, for my loving and supportive family, for peanut butter cookies that tasted like magic when my appetite returned, and so many other things that were truly good in my life.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama said “Unfortunate events, though potentially a source of anger and despair, have equal potential to be a source of spiritual growth. Whether or not this is the outcome depends on your response”.

So don’t worry if you have some rough moments. We all do, and it is natural when going through something difficult. But try to remember santosha, and find some level of contentment, despite all circumstances. Remembering the things in your life for which you are grateful is a great practice to help you cultivate santosha. Listen to some music that you like, take in a little nature, or practice some calming breathing exericises (more on this in the Pranayama video coming soon). As you feel the contentment creeping in and replacing more negative emotions like anger or frustration, you will feel the peace and joy expanding in your life. And the next time something difficult comes along, you will find it easier and easier to minimize the negative effects of those difficult experiences. And maybe instead of Zeppelin’s “Good times, bad times”, you’ll feel a little more like Louis Armstrong’s “What a wonderful world”.

Sending my love and light to you, as you progress through this cancer journey. Namaste.







Peace warrior

Anybody else ever feel a little unsure about all the “warrior” imagery in the breast cancer world? I know some people feel a little off-put by all the pink ribbon stuff, especially in October (or Pinktober, as some call it), when it seems like it is everywhere, being crammed down everyone’s throat, from the grocery store to the football players’ uniforms and more. The pink stuff doesn’t really bother me. In fact, I really embrace it, and am glad for the visibility of the push for advances in breast cancer care. However, the pink warrior/fight like a girl theme doesn’t really work for me. Don’t get me wrong, the breast cancer experience is indeed a tough battle, and our bodies and minds have to do a lot of fighting to get through it. But I guess that is exactly my point. Especially when I was actively in treatment, I really felt like I had more than enough fighting going on inside of me, like the last thing I needed was to perpetuate the idea of battle any more. From the toxicity of the chemotherapy and my body’s reaction to that, to the physical wounds from surgery and the inflammation from radiation, and the emotional resistance I felt against the cancer in general, I felt like my entire being was a war-zone. What I truly craved was peace; peace in my body, and peace in my mind. It seemed (and still seems) to me that what I needed most was to try to help my body and mind return to a place of peace, so that healing and recovery could take place. Yogic ideas from the yamas and niyamas (2 of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga) helped me find that space.

Eckhart Tolle has been a favorite of mine since long before my cancer, and many of his teaching are right in line with basic yogic principles. During my active treatment, his writings about non-resistance and acceptance of the present moment spoke to me so profoundly.  He says “To offer no resistance to life is to be in a state of grace, ease, and lightness” and “The moment that judgement stops – through acceptance of what is – you are free of the mind. You have made room for love, for joy, for peace”. This was exactly what I needed, to help me recover from all that breast cancer brought. Rather than go on mentally perpetuating the fight against my cancer, which I felt only created more turmoil and suffering in my mind and spirit, I accepted it, made peace with it. I mean, no amount of being angry could make the cancer go away, so why would I allow that anger and resentment to stay and make me more miserable than the cancer itself did?! Now, this is not to say that I enjoyed it, or that I wasn’t thrilled each time I passed another milestone, such as the final chemotherapy or the last day of radiation. But by releasing my resistance and aversion to the things that I needed to do, I felt such an increase in the sense of peace in my being, and the treatments actually became easier to tolerate. It is said that it is actually our resistance to, or our attachment to things or experiences that makes us suffer most. And this is taught in the yamas and the niyamas of the 8 limbs of yoga. We will talk more about these in detail in some of the videos.

Of course, if the warrior theme speaks to you, and makes you feel more empowered in your breast cancer recovery, by all means, fight on sister. We all have different ways of approaching this experience, and only you can know what feels healthiest for you.

In the meantime, I do love the physical asana warrior II (as in the photo above) in my yoga practice, so I’ll just take it nice and slow, with long deep breaths, and call it a peace warrior.

Wishing you all peace and healing on this breast cancer journey.  Namaste

How does yoga work?

Well, this isn’t a simple question, and certainly not one that can be answered in one blog post. But I will begin to try to answer it with one of the many ways that I believe yoga works, which is also one of my favorite things about yoga.

As you can see in the photo, Bishnu Ghosh (brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the famous book Autobiography of a Yogi) said “In the midst of movement and chaos, the practice of asana will generate physical and mental stillness”. So for any of you who are new to the yoga world, true yoga is much, much more than just a bunch of physical exercises and flexibility drills, as it is often perceived in the west. I will get into the full description of true yoga in other posts and in some of my videos, but I mention it today just to clarify that “asana”, as mentioned by Ghosh in the quote, refers to the physical practice of yoga postures, and is one of the 8 limbs of yoga.

So as Ghosh suggests, the physical practice of yoga asana helps us to cultivate mental and physical stillness.ย  If you are anything like me (and most humans, I think), physical and mental stillness haven’t always been very familiar things in your life. It is common, and even encouraged and revered in our culture, to be busy all the time: busy in body, and busy in mind. We rarely take time to cultivate stillness, and if we do, we feel guilty about it, like there is something we should be doing with every second of every day. And this incessant busy-ness can send us into a whirlwind of chronic stress, that strains our bodies and minds, and can even contribute to serious illness (see my workshop video on stress and the nervous system if the details of this interest you).

Yoga practice trains us, in body and mind, to handle difficult situations with ease and equanimity, and to be able to find that still, calm place inside of us despite all circumstances. And it is from that place of stillness and calm that we can best operate in the world, making decisions and acting from a place of love and truth, rather than from a place of stress, emotion, and reactive behavior patterns.

Life naturally presents difficult situations all the time, right? It’s just the way life is. We lose our jobs, get divorced, lose loved ones, and even get diagnosed with cancer occasionally. And the smaller stressors happen even more frequently. We get cut off in traffic, someone steals our smart phone, you get the wrong food order at take-out, your kid struggles at school, your chemo gets delayed because of a screw up at the pharmacy or because your labs aren’t quite up to snuff. So when we are in that whirlwind of chronic stress and busy-ness, it is our tendency to react to these sorts of stressors emotionally, and sometimes in very maladaptive ways. This leaves us acting in ways that aren’t always in the best interest of ourselves or those around us, and that makes all of us suffer even more than the original experience itself would have. Don’t get me wrong, it sucks when some of these difficult things happen, but allowing them to wreck your mental and physical well being is a choice. So how can we learn to respond more mindfully and cultivate healthier coping mechanisms?

Well this is where yoga comes in. So one of my favorite things about yoga asana practice is so simple, yet so powerful. When we practice physical asana, our bodies and minds are placed into difficult circumstances (for example, standing in warrior II position for 10 breaths can really start to burn in that front leg quadriceps muscle and get pretty uncomfortable). It might be our first reaction to say “geez, I can’t stay here any longer! It feels like my quad is going to spontaneously combust”. But our practice trains us to come back to our calm, slow, rhythmic breath, finding again that place of stillness, each time we think we are about to lose it. And instead of falling down the wormhole of panic and hysteria, we harness the power of our breath, and come back. This practice creates a positive cycle of calming/relaxing signals between your brain and your body (see again the Stress and the Nervous system video for more detail on how this works). You learn that you could indeed hold that pose, how good it feels to do so calmly, and your body becomes healthier at the same time. After just a short while practicing, it becomes easier and easier to find and stay in that place of stillness, despite all of the difficult positions you place yourself in, and eventually you start to return to that place naturally, without even consciously trying. Even more importantly, the training then starts to show up in the way you react to things outside the yoga room. When you are made to wait a long time at the lab to have your blood drawn, you take a deep breath, and use the opportunity for a little stillness practice, instead of getting angry. I mean, I doubt if the lab personnel are back there screwing around just to make you wait. So why throw a fit and chew out the poor girl at the front desk? They might be busy and overworked, and could use a little kindness from you. Eventually you will notice that even the way you react to bigger challenges grows and changes in positive ways. As TKV Desikachar said “The success of yoga lies not in the ability to perform postures, but in how it positively changes the way we live our lives and our relationships”. Who doesn’t want that kind of positive change??

Being diagnosed with breast cancer and navigating breast cancer treatment was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. But I really believe my yoga practice helped train me to handle it with as much ease and equanimity as possible. I’m not going to lie, I still freak out from time to time when fears or frustrations hit. But with the help of yoga, I can quickly regain my balance, come back to my happy place, and get on with my life.

Give yoga a try, and see how it helps you.


photo credit Josef Kandoll Wepplo



Changed but not broken

My Mom bought me this beautiful figurine two years ago when I was sick during chemotherapy because she knows I love fairies. If you look closely you can see that one wing has a crack across it at the upper aspect. She apologized that it was broken, but I honestly thought that it was, in fact, perfect for me. I was feeling a little broken at the time; bald, sick, and knowing that I had a bunch of surgery ahead of me that would leave my body scarred and not quite the same. A little like a fairy with a broken wing.
Interestingly, a few months ago I realized that I have a partially “winged” scapula on the right side, which was the side of my cancer. It turns out this is a potential side effect of mastectomy and axillary node dissection, in which a nerve is damaged that controls a muscle called the serratus anterior, connecting the side ribs to the underside of the scapula (or shoulderblade). The result is that the scapula doesn’t move properly, and in some positions it protrudes like a wing off of your back. Some people have significant pain in the shoulder and upper back as a result of the dysfunction of these muscles and the scapula. I am lucky in that mine is not as dramatic as some peopleโ€™s. And clearly many women have other complications much worse than this.
This serratus anterior paralysis is likely permanent for me, since it is still present nearly 2 years after surgery. But this is just one of many examples of a situation in which yoga has helped me in my recovery. Not only do the asanas themselves help me to strengthen surrounding muscles, so I am as little affected as possible. But the body awareness that we learn from practicing asana makes me much more aware of what is going on in my body so I can do more to try to keep the area in proper alignment. I have been fortunate enough to have very little pain associated with it, and I think that is thanks to yoga. Finally, focus on my favorite of the niyamas (part of the 8 limbs of yoga), santosha, or contentment, helps me to remain content despite all conditions. A deep, and abiding sense of contentment keeps me from feeling frustrated or upset about anything that happened as a result of my cancer treatment. Instead, I feel grateful that I am able to do what I can do, and I find the changes in my body are just a new challenge that gives me different things to focus on in my practice.
With santosha in my heart, I look at my little fairy, and now I think I am not broken at all, but instead just beautifully changed. Thank you, to yoga, for that.