Using yoga to navigate the intersection of heart and mind

Paulo Coehlo said “The spiritual path can only be traveled through the daily experience of love”, and I couldn’t love this quote more. Of course he doesn’t mean only romantic love, but rather love as a state of being, love as a way of living, of going through life with a completely open heart, full of compassion and understanding for those around us and for ourselves, fully in tune with our intuitive heart, really feeling each experience deeply (not just thinking about it and judging it), and an eager openness to finding bliss in whatever life brings us.

Interestingly, I am traditionally much more of a cerebral, or thinking-mind- dominant person. I was always science and math oriented, and wasn’t good at believing or feeling anything that couldn’t be proven to me by documented facts. Then of course, living in the medical field for much of my life, that mindset was just solidified. Everything had to be proven in well designed, solid, scientific studies for me to give it much credence. I did, however, in caring for individual patients, have many moments of pure love, where the mind and the facts melt away, and true human connection just lays your heart wide open. Those moments were some of the best moments of my practice, although of course I also loved discussing the science behind cancer treatment and remain fascinated by developments in the field and new treatments that can cure many people of cancers that would have been lethal just a few years ago.

My yoga practice, over the years, has really helped me to be much more in touch with my intuitive heart, and to recognize and understand the intersection between mind and heart. In yoga we often say things like “Feel how your body is in the pose, don’t think about it”, to help us stop over-thinking and practice dropping into ourselves, into that space that is deeper than the mind, into our true selves, what some might call our soul. Yoga allows us to use our bodies as the doorway to that space. Most of the time, we run around controlled by our thoughts: what am I doing next, what do I think about that, what might go wrong, how I wish something were different, etc. Yoga trains us to be able to suspend those thoughts, even if just for a few moments, and just BE. To allow things like fear, anxiety, and judgement (which all come from too much thinking mind) to drop away, leaving peaceful freedom and open-heartedness, that state of being pure love. Of course the thinking mind often comes back into action, but the more we practice moving into BE-ing, the easier it will be and the longer we can stay in that blissful state.

Now this isn’t to say that our thinking mind isn’t a valuable tool! Of course it is. The thinking mind does amazing things for us. For example, the thinking mind can interpret the scientific research supporting yoga in cancer survivors! And you know I love science. While I do think it is of prime importance for us each to focus on how yoga works for us individually, how we truly feel on the inside when we keep up our practice, it also helps to know that there is sound science supporting those benefits as well.

The medical community has finally embraced mind body practices like yoga and meditation because the benefits have now been proven in scientific studies in many different conditions. There is extensive literature on the effects of yoga in cancer survivors. In fact, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) endorsed recommendations originally made by the Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO), that include recommending yoga and meditation for: overall quality of life, fatigue, depression/mood disturbance, and sleep. These recommendations were published by Lyman et al in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO), the premiere cancer publication, in 2018. Similarly, in a Cochrane Review (which analyzes multiple scientific studies together to come to an overall conclusion on the evidence), it was concluded that there was evidence to support the use of yoga in breast cancer survivors in improving health-related quality of life, reducing fatigue and sleep disturbance, and reducing depression and anxiety (Cramer et al Cochrane Database 2017). Further studies on other specific symptoms like lymphedema, chemo induced neuropathy, hot flashes, etc are ongoing. The science behind how yoga results in these benefits is fascinating, and includes deep effects on our nervous systems, immune systems, musculoskeletal systems and more! We are beginning to have a much better understanding of just how yoga works to make us feel and function so much better.

Navigating the line between mind and heart is something that we, as breast cancer survivors, have to do continuously. We must pay attention to details and understand scan and lab results, our medications and side effects, and new information that our doctors share with us at each appointment. But we must also learn to let go of too much thinking mind, which can exacerbate fear and anxiety, and prevent us from feeling our true open intuitive hearts. We must learn to live in a state of love and joy, despite the stressors and difficulties that might arise. I submit to you that yoga will help you do that. But don’t just rely on the science that states it is so. Do your practice, and really feel, in your body and in your heart, if it is true for you too!


“You are the universe in ecstatic motion”

Rumi said “Stop acting so small; you are the universe in ecstatic motion!”. I love this quote because it just makes me feel my inner strength and resilience, my true self, my divinity, even. I think that a breast cancer experience (or any other difficult life experience, for that matter) can sometimes make us feel helpless, weak, small, and defeated. We can feel like we have no power to weather the storm, to turn the sails, and to come out the other side healthy and not damaged. And of course it is ok to have flashes of that mindset. It is only natural. But we must recognize that sort of thought pattern when it begins to arise, and change that inner discourse to something healthier and more empowering. Because in reality, we truly do have that power.

In the quiet moments of our yoga practice, when we can truly turn our awareness inward and allow the outer world to melt away, we can get in touch with that place inside of ourselves, where we have this power. And by power, I don’t mean like brute force power, or power we might use to control others. I mean that quiet, peaceful, imperturbable power and fortitude to withstand anything our life throws at us. I mean that dynamic flexibility and deep faith that allow us to gracefully roll with the punches, and not get disheartened when things get tough. Because they do get tough. That is just real life. We, as cancer survivors, have had to dig deep and find this inner strength and resilience over and over again, from the first diagnosis, through telling our loved ones, through different types of trying treatments, and through long follow ups and recurrence scares. But the truth is that we have infinite ability inside of us to handle life’s difficulties, if we can just learn to see it and to tap into it.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (the original written text on yoga), he says “Study thyself. Discover the divine”. Whatever our spiritual beliefs are, yoga can help us look deeply inside of ourselves and find that place of true power, that place of divinity, of the universe in ecstatic motion. Don’t let yourself walk around being anything less.


Finding beauty in the clouds

Ever notice how the cloudy skies produce the prettiest and richest sunsets? So too, in life, sometimes things that seem negative or undesirable on the surface can wind up, unexpectedly, resulting in great opportunity and our biggest growth.

Yoga philosophy (in Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga) teaches us to train ourselves in non-attachment (aparigraha) and contentment (santosha), among other things. If we can learn to be less attached to how we think things should be, and instead learn to find contentment in whatever our circumstances happen to be, we can eliminate much of our suffering, opening ourselves up to discovering those unexpected beauties and those opportunities we never thought existed before we opened our minds.

Having cancer seems like pretty much a negative thing on the surface. BUT, as many cancer survivors relate, it can actually turn into some very positive outcomes, if we just re-frame our minds, using guides like non-attachment and contentment. We can learn to appreciate more, to prioritize better, to not let trivialities disturb our peace, to love more, to spend more time cultivating joy, to be more compassionate with ourselves and others, and to take better care of ourselves – in body, mind, and spirit.

With this mindset, each and every moment carries with it its own beauty, richness, and blessings. And therefore each and every moment nourishes us and supports us in our growth and transformation on this journey of life. So soak up those clouds, my beautiful friends, and all the color they bring.


Finding stillness in the breast cancer storm

Lao tzu said “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders”. Before I found yoga, I don’t think I ever even knew what the word stillness meant. There wasn’t much time for stillness in my life, or so I thought. Between long busy hours in the office and the hospital, driving to and from work, meetings after work, trying to get some exercise, drinking enough water, running errands, spending time with my hubs and rarely my girlfriends, there just really wasn’t much time for anything else but sleep. I literally cut my own hair for years because I didn’t want to take the time to go to a salon! LOL, it wasn’t pretty. Imagine a hamster on a wheel. And I actually thought that if I was being still, I was wasting time that could be spent actually accomplishing something “important”. I’m pretty sure I am not the only one who felt this way. It is common in our culture to always be doing, running, achieving. And if we aren’t constantly doing something, then we either feel lazy or like we are missing out on something fun. Then throw cancer into the mix, with the appointments and treatments and everything else that is required of us, and wow, there is even less time for stillness. Or so I thought.

Yoga and yoga philosophy (and actually my cancer experience too, now that I think about it!) opened my eyes to the fact that when we allow ourselves to run, run, run, in this epidemic of busy-ness as it is sometimes called, we are cutting ourselves off from so much. We are actually missing much of the richness of life, the beautiful texture of the little moments, the simple joys hidden in each experience, the glory of nature or the smile of a loved one, the true bliss of just being ourselves. If we are constantly thinking about and/or running off to the next moment, the next accomplishment, or the next thing to mark off of our list, all of these beautiful little still moments of presence are lost. Talk about a waste!

Importantly, it is in the stillness, in these moments of just being, that our bodies and minds can rest, relax, heal, and regain balance from whatever challenges our lives have brought. Without that stillness, we remain in that vicious cycle of stress, tension, and disequilibrium that is SO unhealthy. And we, as breast cancer survivors, need to heal and restore harmony and balance as much as anyone! Having cancer sort of forced me to be still at times, because I just really didn’t feel well enough to do anything else. And I consider this such an important gift from my cancer experience; learning that it is not just ok, but tremendously important, to put down my desire to run and do, and instead just be. So now, I make stillness a priority. I always begin my yoga practice with settling in to find that place of stillness. And I try to revisit that place throughout my days, as often as I can.

What I eventually learned is that we can learn to choose. Once we recognize the profound importance of stillness, and of really relishing those moments of just being, we can actually choose NOT to let ourselves get swept up in constantly running and doing. We can change our commitments, our schedules, and our priorities to make the time for stillness and present moment awareness. We can make time for yoga, or meditation, or walking in nature, or just spending time with loved ones really being together and soaking up all of those beautiful little moments. For many of us, we will still have busy lives with work and family and responsibilities. But if we can just take a few minutes for stillness here and there, I think we’ll find we really love how it makes us feel. Just take a few minutes and look away from your computer screen and out the window at a beautiful tree or a blue sky, listen to the birds, and just feel your breath. Breaking up a busy work day with just a few short interludes of stillness will help tremendously, and give your body and mind a break to enter into that relaxation response where deep healing can take place. And as we learn to practice stillness, we will be better and better able to shift into that place with ease whenever we want to. As with everything, it just takes practice.

I’ll meet you on the mat to practice finding our stillness.


Book review time, again

This is another book that you absolutely must read, if you are a cancer survivor interested in learning how you can take control of your situation, or at least how you respond to your situation. And as we know, we cannot control the outside world. All we can control is how we respond to the outside world. But in this control over our response lies our power. AND, in this response lies the key to whether our cancer experience continues to be stressful, painful, and full of suffering, or whether we can transform that experience into one of peaceful acceptance, growth, resilience, grace, and joy — despite the difficulties that cancer brings.

Mindfulness Based Cancer Recovery is concise and easy to understand, but at the same time a profound and potentially life-changing manual on how we, as cancer survivors, can learn to use mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga to help us navigate this difficult experience. The authors do a beautiful job of describing how most of us react to stressful situations, like cancer, with fear, panic, and anger, and how this stimulates the stress response in our bodies and minds, starting us into a vicious cycle of maladaptive coping and negative emotions that just make things worse. Alternatively, they describe the possibility of responding to stressors with awareness and clarity, which allows us to recognize that stress response when it begins, and then engage healthier maneuvers to counteract it with the relaxation response. This then stops the vicious cycle of negativity in its tracks, promotes healthier physiological conditions in the body, and gives us the power to choose better coping strategies and move forward with balance and equanimity.

The book then gives us step by step instructions on how to achieve this new way of responding. Their program is an 8 week system, in which you learn a number of mindfulness techniques, yoga, breathing, and more. They relate some of the research that has documented this program’s success in helping cancer survivors feel better, have less mood disturbance, less stress, more energy/vigor, and more mental clarity. Who doesn’t want all of that?! All it takes is putting in the effort and time to develop these skills ourselves.

Mindfulness Based Cancer Recovery (MBCR) is a similar program to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). If you love this material, I also recommend his book “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness”. It is a much longer and more detailed work, so it takes a bit longer to read. If you prefer more formal structure, there are MBSR programs in many cities around the world, where you are led through the program with trained teachers.

Finally, as you may have realized, most of the techniques that are used in MBCR and MBSR are very similar to those of the traditional 8 Limbs of Yoga, as set out by Patanjali, and now practiced by millions around the globe. These 8 Limbs of Yoga are what guide my practice and my teachings, so you will learn many of the same strategies here at Yoga with Leona. Please check out the books, keep practicing with us, and see for yourself how these practices impact your life for the better.


Clarity with Inner Peace

Often in a yoga class, the teacher will say at the beginning of class “Set your intention for the practice”, and I think this is a great way to focus your mind on something that is important to you, rather than letting the mind run off on your grocery list, or what you should have said to that jerk who was argumentative with you yesterday, or whatever other wild stuff our minds tend to do. We are taught to set the intention in the present (ie “I am xxxxxx”, rather than “I will be xxxxx”), to just go ahead and bring it to life in the now, rather than imagining something that might happen in the future. And of course, you can choose any intention you want, be it “I am healthy”, “I am resilient”, “I am content in the now”, “I am loving awareness”, “Abundance flows to me”, “I trust in the universe”, or whatever speaks to you. You choose what you want to embody, and then you use the energy of the practice and your focus during the practice to help make it so.

For me, pretty much every time I hear “Set your intention”, the word PEACE is what comes to me. Inner peace seems to be the thing that I hope the cultivate the most. Of course, other intentions come up occasionally, but “I am peaceful” is far and away the most common. Inner peace, to me, carries with it so many things that I want to develop more of in my life. As Rumi says in the quote in the photo, when we develop inner peace, allowing the waters to settle, an intense clarity comes along with it. This clarity helps us see things as they are, without all of our emotional overtones clouding or distorting the truth. And it also helps us to see the big truths, like the moon and stars mirrored in our own being, rather than just staying stuck in the weeds of small thoughts and concerns. And of course, seeing the big truths with clarity will help us to know what we truly want out of life and how to get there.

This image of settled water and clarity, or clear reflections off of still water, is used often, and I find it a great analogy to our human predicament. When we are stirred up and agitated, of course we can’t see or think clearly because our emotions and thoughts don’t allow it. But if we can take a few deep breaths, and find that space of inner peace, often we see the situation in a completely new light, finding clear and easy solutions to our questions that, before, were really stumping us.

One could also think of the concept of inner peace and how that state affects our nervous system. You know I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of sympathetic system overdrive (which happens with chronic stress) and all of the bad things that happen in our bodies with that (chronic inflammation, cardiovascular disease, mood disorders, immune system dysfunction, and on and on). Sympathetic overdrive would be analogous to a turbid, stormy sea, with big waves disrupting the stillness of the water. The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, is active and balancing out that sympathetic activity when we are in a state of inner peace, when the storm calms and the waters settle. And when the parasympathetic system can achieve this balance, the body has the clarity to heal itself.

And finally, maybe in the simplest terms, I just feel better when I am able to cultivate this sense of inner peace. It just doesn’t feel good to be agitated, stressed, angry, fearful, and disturbed. So why would we allow ourselves to stay in those places if we had the choice. And fortunately, most of the time, we DO have a choice. We may not realize it when we are in the midst of some upset. But we can learn to notice quickly when we get off track, and to respond calmly and intelligently to right our own course. (See the video on Meditation to learn more about programs like Mindfulness Based Cancer Recovery and how they teach us to do this).

In summary, cancer and cancer treatment sure can feel like a huge never-ending tsunami, which distorts and agitates the water of our being. But we can learn to restore inner peace and tranquility, stillness to our waters. And this inner peace will help us have more clarity of mind, to be physiologically healthier in our bodies, to heal, and to just feel better. Yoga can help us get there. See you on the mat.

Book review time

Ok y’all, I’ve been thinking I wanted to share with you a few of my favorite books. So of course, I felt like I had to start with this one! This comprehensive and easy to understand book was written by Tari Prinster, the founder of Y4C, or Yoga 4 Cancer, with whom I trained last year. You can find it on Amazon. I also highly recommend checking out their website, which is packed with great information, as well as a directory of Y4C trained yoga teachers across the world.

Tari is a breast cancer survivor herself, and so understands all of the challenges we face firsthand. She demonstrates profound compassion and understanding, and shares some personal accounts of the inner emotional experience of having cancer that many of us will identify with, and has helpful advice on how to traverse the experience in healthier ways. She has been teaching yoga to cancer survivors now for more than a decade, and has called on medical experts in different fields to help her develop the program in a truly scientific manner. Based in a deep understanding of what happens in the body with cancer and cancer treatments, her program is specifically designed to help cancer survivors receive the benefits of yoga in a safe and effective manner. She is very cautious in providing clear instructions for beginners, so that they may learn to practice safely, taking into account whatever physical limitations they may have from treatment (or for other unrelated reasons). BUT (and this is one of my favorite things about her), she also encourages cancer survivors to know that they can work up to a strong and vigorous practice if that is what they want. She empowers survivors to continue to build strength and flexibility, not just believing that all we can ever do is gentle yoga because of our cancer history. The book provides many illustrations of different postures, including a number of different sample practice sequences designed for different times in your treatment and recovery. She also explains a lot of the science and biology behind how and why yoga is particularly beneficial to cancer survivors, which helps immensely in understanding what the practice is doing for us on a deep level.

In summary, I believe every cancer survivor should read this book and consider how yoga might help them in coping with the effects of the disease and treatment. Whether you are young or old, fit or not, have a prior yoga practice or not, and whatever stage or type of cancer you have, you will learn important information in this book that will help you take some control of your situation and harness the power of these ancient healing practices.