How self-awareness can optimize health and happiness after breast cancer

Eckhart Tolle is my all time favorite author. His simple spiritual messages speak to me so deeply, and relate so beautifully to the wisdom of yoga philosophy. One of the important things that yoga teaches us is to gain more self-awareness. This can take several avenues, including heightened awareness of the body, as we learn to tune in more to the movements of our bodies in asana practice, the flow of breath in asana, pranayama, or meditation, and even the more subtle movement of energy throughout the body in all of our practices and in daily life. Improved body awareness can be so important, especially in cancer survivors, in helping us heal, tolerate and even thrive during our treatments, and then regain strength and endurance when we are ready. It is so common in modern culture to just push our bodies to do whatever we think they should be able to do, without really listening to whether this is working for them or not. For example, waking up and guzzling down some caffeine to get you ready for a long work day, mindlessly consuming something quick while staring at your computer through lunch, followed by some carbs to combat the afternoon energy slump, then forcing yourself to go to the gym after work because it is the “healthy” thing to do, quickly eating dinner in front of some junk tv before collapsing into bed so you can do it again tomorrow, may seem like a “normal” way to conduct your life. But if you really think about it, does it even make sense that this lifestyle is good for your body? And do we ever listen to our bodies’ exhaustion, sluggishness, foggy mind, tension, anxiety, or chronic health conditions and wonder if our bodies are trying to tell us something? Yoga helps us to be more aware, to listen to our bodies and to be able to tune in to what they really need and what makes them feel best and operate most efficiently, both while we are dealing with cancer and beyond.

This increased awareness that yoga teaches us also relates to our ability to tune in to our own thoughts and emotions, improving our ability to observe them without being mindlessly swept away in the ever-changing currents. When we learn to observe ourselves more mindfully, we are then able to really feel how these different thought patterns and habits affect us. For example, when you get swept away in anger at someone who treats you badly, how does that make you feel? Tense, pained, hot, gasping for breath, or exhausted? On the other hand, how do you feel when you are generous and compassionate with someone, or you lend a hand and really help another? Calm, tranquil, open-hearted, and joyful? Perhaps your responses are different than these, but you get the idea that if we are mindful and learn to truly pay attention to what is going on in our bodies and our minds, then we can recognize when things are not optimal and we can choose if we want to make any changes to help ourselves.

So this is what Eckhart is getting at when he says “Be at least as interested in what goes on inside you as what goes on outside. When you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place”. Whereas if we are not mindful, and we are always focused outside of ourselves (on our deadlines, our goals, the stack of work on our desks, comparing ourselves to others, getting that last chemo, or getting that 10,000 steps) it is easy to lose sight of ourselves and what we really need to be doing to stay healthy in body and mind. But if we learn to pay close attention to everything we do and how it makes us feel, then we can choose to prioritize the activities and thought patterns that make us feel our best. In this way we have the power to make our lives healthier, happier, and more joyful.

For example, how would a 20 minute walk around the block feel instead of working through lunch? If you feel a little more energy and clarity of mind, then stick with that habit. If it just stresses you out more because you lost 20 minutes you could have been working, then that option isn’t for you.

How would you feel if you took a couple of deep breaths and just ignored the insult from the snarky relative or rude coworker, rather than allowing yourself to perseverate on all of the reasons why they are wrong (even if it is true), recognizing that this just causes you undue stress and tension?

How do on-line support groups make you feel? Inspired and motivated, learning new ideas from others? Or does it just make you feel bad and judge yourself if you didn’t exercise or eat as healthy as they did?

How do you feel when you take some time to relax and read a book? Or take a bubble bath? Or go to that yoga class you like? Or take a walk in the park? How do you feel when you work all weekend? Or when you have coffee for lunch? Or when you agree to do something you didn’t want to do or didn’t have time to do? How do you feel when you snap at a loved one out of frustration and tiredness? How do you feel when you think about how frustrating cancer treatment is or when you let yourself get caught in fear of recurrence? How do you feel when you focus on the things in your life for which you are grateful?

Just begin to notice how every little moment in your day feels to you. And try not to think about how you think it should make you feel, or what everyone else thinks about it. How does it really make YOU feel. And then you can work from there. Maybe no major changes are needed. But maybe just the smallest adjustment to your schedule or your habits, thought patterns, and interactions might make a huge difference in how you experience your days. And the icing on the cake is that this growing sense of awareness, of mindfulness, in and of itself, will make you feel better as well.

It’s your life. So pay attention to what is going on inside you and do what you can to make it a good one.


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