Running is hard

Taking a short break from our journey through the 8 limbs today, let’s talk about embracing the totality of our experience, including both the delightful and the difficult parts, as Pema Chodron encourages us to do in today’s quote. This of course relates to several areas of yoga philosophy, such as non-attachment and contentment, or learning to find our happiness and joy even when things aren’t going exactly the way we would like them to. This is a hard pill to swallow, but such an important one, in that it trains us to not allow our life circumstances (which inevitably change and sometimes really suck) to direct our inner experience, our state of consciousness, our bliss. Too often we allow that outer experience, or the way we perceive that outer experience, to ruin our mood, to block our ability to see the beauty all around us, to obscure all the things for which we are grateful, to interfere with our happiness, and to cover up our true state, that deep inner sense of peace and bliss. Who wants to go around like that??!

I know at least that I do this, because I’ve been doing a quite a bit of it the past few days, and especially today. I’m writing this blog to help pull myself out of it. You all know that I am an avid yogi, and have been practicing yoga for many years. My practice is strong and full, and while I can’t do everything I’d like to be able to do, in general I am very happy and fulfilled by the state of my yoga practice. I feel like my body is strong and resilient, and perhaps in as good a shape as I have been in for many years. For some crazy reason, I decided that I would sign up to run a 5k through a cancer support group that I love, called SheStrong. I hadn’t gone on a run in over 5 years, though I do walk and hike a little bit here and there. In the past (like in my 20s and 30s), I used to run now and then, but whenever a breast cancer run came up (like the Komen or others that were annual things in Tucson), I would just go out and run them without any real preparation. This year, I gave myself a little over 2 weeks to prepare for this 5k, thinking that should be ample time. I started out slow, and ran 1 mile, and then a few days later 2 miles. Then on my third run, I decided to try a different pair of shoes (which I now realize wasn’t too smart), and overall felt a little stronger running, BUT I finished the run with some moderate pain in one ankle (I think it’s an Achilles tendon issue). At first, I thought it was just the shoe, and that it would resolve quickly. I did the usual, ice, ibuprofen, rest. The pain got a little better over the following few days, though never resolved completely. This morning I decided to go try to run again (in my original better shoes), knowing that I might have to go slow, or even stop a few times throughout the run. Sadly, I couldn’t run at all. Walking was ok, but every time I tried to run, or even jog at the slowest possible pace, the ankle pain really flared up. I wondered whether I ought to just keep going and push through the pain. But I decided that wasn’t smart, and that I might make the injury worse if I did that. But I felt pretty dejected, frustrated with my body, disappointed that I will probably have to walk, not run, the 5k (which is in just 1 week) if I can even finish it at all. My usually strong and resilient body doesn’t feel quite so. ๐Ÿ™

However, as I was walking back from my failed run, I was lucky enough to be able to look out over the ocean, breathing in a nice warm ocean breeze. I took a few nice deep breaths and I realized how silly I was being. Is it really that big of a deal if I can’t run the 5k? I mean, my dear friend just started chemotherapy this week for recurrent ovarian cancer, and she is staying positive and strong. Surely I’m not going to whine over this ankle injury and let it ruin my attitude and my day. So I came back to everything I’ve learned through yoga philosophy AND through my own cancer experience. Here are a few of the important ones:

  1. Patience. I know the ankle will heal and I’ll probably even be able to run again someday if I just give it the time it needs to recover. If you’ve read my prior blogs, you know patience is NOT my strong suit, but boy does having cancer give you a big dose of it. I guess I just needed another dose this week. Thanks Universe.
  2. Ahimsa, or non-harming, in this sense toward myself. I must listen to my body and really hear what it needs, rather than force my will and desire to complete some task on myself and end up worsening my injury. I must not let my ego result in self-harm.
  3. Contentment and gratitude: Even though I couldn’t run, I was able to go for a short walk and breathe a little ocean air. I am grateful that my body is as healthy as it is, and for all of the other things I am able to do, including my yoga asana practice, which isn’t really limited by the ankle injury. I recognize that so many others have more difficult problems than I do, and I am really fortunate in so many ways. A minor ankle injury really isn’t that big of a deal.
  4. Non-attachment. What is the big deal about running this 5k anyway? It really isn’t important,except to my ego. Just let it go.
  5. Self-study, what can I learn from this last week? I learned that, while I am very strong and capable on the yoga mat, other forms of exercise tax our bodies in different ways, and I need to be a little more cautious with my body. After all, I’m no spring chicken (as my mother recently told me LOL), and my body has been through a lot in the last 4 years. I learned lessons in patience, ahimsa, contentment, gratitude, and non-attachment as above. I learned that I have some control over how I respond to things that happen. I can choose to be upset and frustrated and feel dejected and weak. Or I can roll with the punches, brush off that negativity, remember how much progress I’ve made in my recovery in other areas, be kind to my body and allow it to heal, cultivate self-love and compassion, and find the joy in today, whatever that looks like.

So that’s my story today. I’m working on developing inner strength, inner peace, equanimity, and unwavering joy, by embracing both the delightful things and the difficult things in my life. But I’m not perfect by any means. That is why I continue to practice, continue to study, continue to learn, and continue to grow. So that I might be the best human being I can be. Yoga helps us do that. Running, I’m not so sure about (LOL, just kidding! I’ll try again once I am healed).

Namaste friends

Yoga asana in breast cancer

So let’s keep moving along in our discovery of the 8 limbs of yoga! We have discussed the yamas and the niyamas, and that brings us to the 3rd limb, asana. As you probably already know, asana refers to the physical practices, exercises, or postures, which are what most people think about when they hear the word “yoga”. So asana is often the first limb that people begin to practice, as was the case for me. When I started practicing yoga, I had no idea about the other 7 limbs, nor any idea of the depth of my inner space that I would reach through yoga. I had no idea about the idea of self-realization or inner exploration, nor how yoga would affect my mind and spirit, just as much as it would my body. And I think asana is an excellent place to start, because the body is such a perfect entryway to the deeper aspects of yoga. As Dr George Sheehan says “The mind’s first step to self-awareness must be through the body”.

So yoga asana refers to a wide variety of physical postures, which are practiced in many different sequences and many different styles of yoga. From chair yoga to restorative yoga, to yin yoga, ashtanga yoga, and vinyasa yoga, there are styles out there for every person and for every different stage of each individual’s life. As Krishnamacharya famously said “If you can breathe, you can do yoga”. Yoga asana can be very slow and gentle or extremely vigorous, depending on which style you practice. Yoga asana moves the body into different positions to strengthen the physical body, improve flexibility, and optimize the flow of energy, and therefore the physical health in the body. But yoga asana also strengthens and focuses the mind, training our bodies and nervous systems to maintain a state of relaxation, even under challenging conditions. Yoga develops self-awareness of both body and mind, such that we are much better at feeling and recognizing what is going on inside of us. Even without knowing it, yoga asana trains us to breathe better (we’ll get to pranayama in the next blog), and to develop focus, concentration, and a moving meditation (we’ll get to dharana and dhyana eventually as well). Importantly, yoga asana doesn’t just mean learning or mastering fancy postures such as handstand or one legged balancing poses that look pretty. The word asana actually translates to “seat” referring to a seat one would take for meditation practice. So asana, originally, was designed to prepare us in body and mind, for meditation.

So for us as cancer survivors, you can see how important asana practice is in terms of the benefits that yoga brings. For me personally, yoga asana is key in keeping my radiated chest (and adjacent shoulder) supple, open, and pain-free. Yoga asana helped return range of motion and strength to that shoulder. But maybe more importantly, yoga asana empowers me, reminding me of my inner strength and resilience. It has trained my body and mind to be able to quickly return to relaxation after any type of stressor, be it mental or physical. For example, when fears of recurrence creep in, as they occasionally do, I am now more aware of them, and so able to take a few deep breaths, and redirect my energy and attention to a healthier thought pattern. I am also much more in tune with my body and mind, so that I can better recognize when I need to rest or regroup, rather than just pushing myself to the max all the time. Yoga asana helps me get out of my head, and into a place of mental stillness and peace. Yoga asana, for me, is my favorite type of meditation, a moving meditation. And even if I get stressed out and emotional about some life situation, I can do my asana practice, and know that I will feel better, more relaxed, and have more clarity afterward.

I could go on and on. But I’ll stop here and encourage you to think of all the ways your yoga asana practice has affected or helped you along your journey. Just keep practicing and know that those benefits will just continue to deepen the further you go on this beautiful inner journey called yoga.

Thanks so much for following along with me

Namaste friends

Stoke up that inner fire

Before we move on from the niyamas, let’s discuss another one of them, called tapas, also known as self-discipline, or inner fire. Tapas refers to that fiery commitment inside of us that drives us to do the things we know are good for us, the things that we know will take us in the direction we want to go. Whether that means toward a healthier lifestyle, professional development, educational goals, simply a more joyful state of being, spiritual evolution, or whatever you are trying to cultivate in your life, tapas helps us get there. And of course we all know that in order to achieve anything, we have to put forth continued effort over a period of time. As Henry David Thoreau so eloquently put it “As a single footstep will not make a deep path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives”. So of course this refers to physical practices like yoga, but also to our thought patterns and behavioral habits. In order to make progress in any area of our lives, we must find and stoke that inner fire, that self-discipline that helps us remember why we are doing something. For example, why do you practice yoga? Is it because is helps calm your mind? Makes your body feel less stiff or inflexible? Maybe it helps with chronic pain of some kind? It helps you feel empowered, like you know you are doing something good for yourself? Or maybe you just feel that “yoga buzz” after you practice and you feel generally good all over? Tapas is that fiery voice inside of us that reminds us, when we are lapsing into laziness or old bad habits, that we know deep inside we will feel better when we do what we know is good for us. Tapas reminds us why we are doing what we are doing, and what we are working toward.

However, it is important, to stay really in touch with our inner voice, so that we don’t let our tapas turn into self-harm. We must not push too hard, and get into over-exercising, energy depletion, or injury. This is a great example of where one of the niyamas (tapas) and one of the yamas (bramacharya, or right use of energy) really complement each other beautifully. While tapas teaches us to stay committed and disciplined on our path, bramacharya reminds us to listen to our bodies and our spirits to really know what is the right use of our energy. And that pushing harder isn’t always the right answer. So as in my pic, “Discipline does not mean control. Discipline means having the sense to do exactly what is needed” (Sadhguru). On that particular day, my cat felt that what he really needed was a nap, while I was feeling strong for practice! ๐Ÿ˜‰

I think this is important for everyone, but especially important for us cancer survivors. Our bodies and minds are going through extreme stresses and fluctuations as we go through treatment and into recovery, and we must really learn to be in tune with ourselves so we can do exactly what is needed. There will be days when what we need is a nap. And there will be days when we have the energy to push ourselves and challenge our bodies and minds to see where we can go. We will be best able to get in tune with our true selves when we learn to find some stillness, some peace, and some presence. Fortunately yoga, breathing, and meditation all help us here! So keep practicing, find your stillness, tune in to your inner space, and then you will know exactly what you need to do.