Choosing a daily mantra to help protect your mind

Any of my Tucson friends recognize these pretty angels? I had them in one of my exam rooms in my office at Arizona Oncology. I thought they would give my patients something pretty, positive, and inspiring to look at while they waited for their appointments. Then when I moved to Mexico, I brought them with me, and they now hang in my bathroom. Interestingly, when I was sick with my own cancer, they gave me something pretty, positive, and inspiring to look at each day while I was getting dressed. In yoga, we often choose a mantra, an intention, or an affirmation for our practice. In fact, I think this is a great practice to do every day, even if you aren’t doing a physical yoga practice. So I thought I’d share my angels, as they provide some good ideas for potential mantras.

Sogyal Rinpoche says “The definition of mantra is ‘that which protects the mind’. That which protects the mind from negativity, or that which protects you from your own mind, is called a mantra”. So we choose a mantra to help train our minds in the way we want to think, which helps protect us from getting stuck in negative thought patterns. Just as with everything, the more we practice bringing our minds back to our chosen mantra, the better able we are to redirect our thoughts when we need to. Don’t forget, it isn’t wrong to have negative thoughts or emotions. It is completely natural. We just don’t want to stay there all day. So this is where coming back to your mantra can help.

So a few tips on choosing or setting your mantra. Your mantra can relate to anything that you want to focus on or bring more of into your life. So you might choose “I am peaceful and at ease”, “I am strong and resilient”, “I am healthy and strong”, or “I receive my day with openness and enthusiasm”. Next, it helps to set your mantra or intention in the present, as though it is already true (even if it is something you are just striving for). So instead of saying “I will try to be more loving and kind”, we say “I am filled with loving kindness”, making it so in the present, instead of some future possibility. Other examples might include “I release all anxiety in order to be light and free” (this one is from Thich Nhat Hanh), “Every cell in my body is healthy” (this one is from my friend and fellow thriver Lori), “I am resilient and handle any obstacle that comes in my path with grace and ease”, “I trust my intuition and honor myself”, or “I am loving and kind to myself and others”.

I also like to wear bead bracelets, and at times will choose a number of qualities I want to cultivate, and then list one for each bead. For example if the bracelet has 7 beads, I might say “Peaceful, resilient, dedicated, equanimous, curious, kind, open”. Then whenever I am waiting in line or sitting on the couch, I count the beads on the bracelet to help me remember my list. I also love sanskrit mantras, and the melodious quality in the chanting that comes along with the meaning, but will write about that another day. But if singing spiritual songs or prayers works well for you, that is mantra too! Remember, you can choose anything that helps to protect the mind!

So make your mantra/affirmation/intention your own, crafted to whatever resonates with you. We all need different things, and even that can change from day to day. So practice setting a mantra that works for you, and then practice coming back to it throughout your day. I think it will help you feel and be your best.


Are your habits in line with your highest intentions?

Happy Spring Equinox, the first day of spring! Did you do anything to celebrate today? Do you have any traditions of customs for this day? I am in the habit of celebrating each turn of the season (spring and fall equinox, and winter and summer solstice) with 108 sun salutations. The pic is me after completing my practice this morning, resting in savasana ๐Ÿ˜‰ I love sun salutations, the simplicity of them, and how I can step outside of my mind and drop into a moving meditation as I repeat the movements of my body over and over, coordinating with the rhythm of my breath. 108 is physically challenging though (which I also enjoy), so I split them into 4 sets of 27, with a few minutes of rest in between the sets. During these rest breaks, I like to take stock of how the past season has been for me, how I have felt, and whether there are any changes I need to make for the new season. I focus on whether I have been thinking and acting in alignment with my true self, or whether I might have lapsed into old habits that are not in my best interest. Then I reflect on anything I might be able to do in the coming season to cultivate healthier habits, to maintain balance in my life and my mind, to maintain awareness of my state of mind as much as I can. Am I being peaceful, kind, loving, compassionate (to self and others), non-judgemental, and equanimous? Am I taking good care of myself in body and mind? Do I feel content and joyful at the end of each day? If not, with loving-kindness and without judging myself, I consider where I might be able to do better, and make plans to do so.

Henry David Thoreau said ” As a single footstep will not make a 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”. Habits are so important in shaping our lives and the way we feel each day. And the great thing is it is totally within our power to choose what type of habits we want to cultivate. We may have some less healthy habits that we have created in the past as a response to something traumatic like a cancer diagnosis, to try to defend or protect ourselves, or in an attempt at self-soothing. But once we bring awareness to these habits and recognize whether or not they are ones we wish to continue, the choice is ours. We can create new habits that are healthier and more in line with how we want to live our lives.

So take a few minutes this weekend to evaluate your habits. Do you have any less healthy ones you’d like to grow out of or replace with something better? Do you have some really positive ones you’d like to enrich even more? And they don’t have to be big habits. It can just be taking 5 minutes a day to practice stillness or to practice conscious breathing. Maybe 30 minutes once or twice a week for journaling. Maybe you work a little less and make time for coffee with friends. Maybe you commit to walking in nature 3 times a week, or practicing yoga on some schedule that works for you. Maybe you make a commitment to healthier eating by trying to eat all the colors of the rainbow each day, or by drinking more water and less soda. Maybe you practice loving kindness meditations, directing love and gratitude to your body for getting you through everything up to today (instead of feeling anger or frustration or judgement at your body, which can be so easy to do in cancer recovery). Or make time to read some books you’ve been meaning to read. You decide what habits you want to develop, what you really feel you need, and then put in the effort to stick with them and see how you feel. As your habits build, you’ll not only feel the benefit of the positive action or thought pattern, but you’ll feel empowered and realize that you can do anything you set your mind to. Today is the day, on this first day of Spring, to choose how you intend this next season to be.


Are you flexible in body and mind?

You’ve seen this quote before because it is one of my favorites: “The flexibility we gain in asana is the living symbol of the suppleness we gain in relation to life’s problems and challenges” – BKS Iyengar. Many people think of flexibility first when they think of yoga. Images of super bendy people tying themselves into pretzels or contorting their bodies into unimaginable shapes are all over instagram, so these come easily into our minds. And of course, it is true that improving the flexibility of our body is a big part of yoga. But it definitely isn’t the only, nor the most important part. So let’s talk about flexibility.

I took this picture to remind myself to talk about flexibility of the chest/shoulder for us breast cancer survivors. This pose (and others that require the same opening of the chest wall and pectoralis muscle) were impossible for me for a time after recovering from my surgery and radiation. And my radiated side still, 4 years and lots of yoga later, is a bit tight. But after hours and hours of slow, steady effort, I am able to get into the position without pain. As you know, surgery (be it lumpectomy, mastectomy, or reconstruction) and radiation to the area of the breast create scarring across the front side of the chest wall. And our body’s natural reaction to an injury like surgery is to lay down scar tissue, which creates some contraction of the area as the body tries to heal. Radiation also causes a special kind of scarring, called radiation fibrosis, which causes a thickening and loss of elasticity of the skin, muscle, and connective tissue. Finally, immobility during recovery can also cause some contraction of this area and tightening of muscles. All of this results in contraction of the front side of the chest and shoulder, and a forward rolling of the shoulder, which can be uncomfortable or even painful. And if left untreated can end up in a frozen shoulder. So this type of stretch, which opens the front side of the body, stretching the skin, pectoralis, and other tissues of the chest wall, is so important in recovery after breast cancer. Of course we have to do it slowly and gently over a period of time. But it can be done, and it makes us feel so much better when we can get our chest loosened up again.

But flexibility in life is perhaps the more important skill that we learn from our yoga practice. Life is constantly changing, right? And presenting us with new and different challenges and surprises, requiring us to be able to shift gears and adapt to each new circumstance or obstacle. In yoga, as we train our bodies and minds to tolerate different positions and actions of the body and breath, we lay the groundwork for more flexibility out in the rest of our lives. This is what Iyengar means in the quote. Yes, flexibility in our body is important, but it is really just a symbol of the deeper flexibility that we gain from this practice.

And wow, does a cancer experience require us to be flexible! From things like waiting on test results, to ever-changing treatment schedules, new recommendations for treatment duration or testing regimes, to constantly changing treatment side effects and changes in our bodies as a result, to elation at good test results, and fear and worry with not-so-good results, a cancer journey is ever-changing. And the only way to get through this maze of twists and turns is to learn to be flexible, adaptable, resilient, and equanimous. To try not to get totally bent out of shape when your appointments have to change, or when you need to get another scan to better evaluate some abnormality. It is easier said than done, and I know that it is impossible to go through all of this stuff and not ever get flustered. But if we can just learn to be a little more flexible and at ease in the unknown, we will suffer much less as we navigate our way through. If we can realize that we are resilient, and we will figure it out, whatever the next step requires, we can relieve ourselves of some of that anxiety and tension. Yoga teaches our bodies and minds to do this. We use our breath, we relax into the unknown, we feel our strength, and we engage in the present as much as possible. Then with clarity and a calm mind, we do whatever we need to do.

So whether you just need a little more flexibility in your pecs, or you want to see what deeper flexibility you might be able to cultivate in your mind and your life, give yoga a try. Slow, gentle, persistent effort will get you there.


Holding on loosely through a cancer journey

Rumi famously said “Life is a balance of holding on and letting go”. It is really true. And in the early 80’s (my formative childhood years), the rock band 38 special similarly said “Just hold on loosely, but don’t let go”. I still love that song, and can sing all of the lyrics! My cancer journey has really been a time to feel this message. For most of my life, I was just a person who could buckle down and muscle my way through any challenge. I could handle a lot, and maybe almost prided myself on my toughness. But wham! Cancer happens. And cancer isn’t something where you can just bite your lip, lower your head, and mow it over with your willpower and stubborness. A cancer journey unfolds on its own time, teaching us patience and the ability to release our need to control things with our will, or to force them to happen on our desired timeline. Many things are simply out of our control, and to try to hold on to that control is just inflicting unnecessary suffering on ourselves. And a cancer journey also often hits with such intensity (both physically and emotionally) that we cannot just muscle through, even if we wanted to. We learn to loosen our grip, to surrender, to let go, or let be what will. Along the way, we learn to identify when we can fight back a little and show our strength, and when we must again surrender and quietly accept the situation…. and in that dance, in that exquisite balance between holding on and letting go, we find freedom and grace.

So too, in yoga, we have to learn to balance holding on and letting go. Very commonly we get in our own way by gripping too intensely, or trying too hard in a pose. You might notice that in a backbending pose you feel a ton of tightening in the muscles of your back, and if you can learn to relax those muscles and soften into the pose, you’ll find more depth as well as more comfort in the pose. This is common in many postures, some more than others depending on your particular body type and what come easier to you. So next time you are practicing asana, really tune in to your level of effort and try to feel when you are fighting against yourself. Soften into the pose, while still maintaining a steady gentle strength. Find that perfect balance between effort and ease, and you’ll discover amazing depth. This is where the magic happens. And this magic can then accompany you off of your mat and into life’s challenges, be they cancer, or job stress, or interpersonal relationship stress, or whatever.

As 38 Special taught me at an early age, just hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna loose control. (I hope you are singing it in your head now too!).

Namaste friends and Happy Saturday!

Let nature light the way in breast cancer recovery

Nature is so glorious! I LOVE all of the brilliant green colors produced when light shines through the leaves. But nature isn’t just beautiful to look at. It is really healing, relaxing, and rejuvenating. There is plenty of research that says that spending time in nature will benefit your health and well-being, including reducing cardiovascular disease, obesity, mood disorders, stress, inflammation, and even improve your immune system function! So, while I love yoga, I also really enjoy just getting out for a walk or a hike and taking in the beauty of nature. Breathing the fresh air, feeling the breeze and the sunlight on my skin, and just stepping away from everything for a few minutes each day can make a huge difference in how I feel.

Also, remember that all of the health organizations recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week, and these recommendations come from decades of research proving that the benefits of exercise are real. These benefits are clearly proven for cancer survivors too, and maybe we can even benefit more than the average person. Not only will exercise make you healthier in body and mind, and help you recover from your cancer experience, but it will make you feel better as well. It doesn’t have to be anything special, and you don’t have to break any ground speed records to get the benefits. Any and all activity that gets your body moving and gets your heart and lungs working is great.

And if you can combine a little time in nature along with a little exercise, you’ll be benefiting from both. Maybe you practice yoga a few days of the week, and go for a walk in nature on the other days? Maybe you do some yoga in nature, or just throw in a yoga pose or two during your walk (I can’t help myself ๐Ÿ˜‰ )? Even if you can’t easily get to a deep lush forest, any local neighborhood park, tree-lined street, or school ground with a little grass and a few trees will suffice. Maybe find a buddy who also wants to develop an exercise regimen, so you can encourage each other and help maintain that motivation. Create whatever schedule works for you, and just cultivate the habit so that it becomes a natural part of your day. Once you get into the routine, you’ll feel so good you’ll want to keep going.

Exercise and taking in a little nature are also great ways to help get our minds off of our cancer treatment or other life stressors. Just a little change of scenery can be the catalyst you need to help you begin to see things in a new light.

Of course if you are still in the midst of active cancer treatment, there will be times when you just don’t feel up to exercising, and we must be patient with ourselves. However, there is quite a lot of literature on exercise actually improving cancer-related fatigue. It seems counterintuitive, but if you feel up to it at all, getting your body up and moving actually helps you regain your energy and initiate a new positive cycle. Even just a short gentle walk around your backyard or around the block might be enough to help you turn the corner and bring your vitality back after treatment.

As always, see what works for you and listen to your body. You may need to explore a few different types of exercise before you find something that you really love. Keep an open mind. Maybe something you used to love doesn’t feel right, but something new will. But I really encourage you to try to incorporate some time in nature when you can. Let the beauty of nature nourish you, and its brilliant energy will surely make you smile. It does for me!

Namaste friends