Learning to love our scars and asymmetries

Just when you thought you knew how weird I was…. there’s more! Did you know I have two different colored eyes? Specifically one of my eyes has 2 wedges of a different color in it, a condition called segmental heterochromia iridis. There are several different types of heterochromia (different colored eyes), and about 0.6% of the population are born with these conditions. There are also acquired types of heterochromia, like from trauma to the eyes (as in David Bowie, who is even weirder than I am). When I was a kid, I thought people with pale blue eyes or dark chocolate brown eyes, or pretty much any color other than what I had, were so much prettier. Now, finally, about 1 month shy of my 45th birthday, I finally realized my eyes are kinda cool.

Sadly, we tend to judge ourselves pretty harshly, and see the beauty in others far sooner than we ever see anything good in ourselves. We have to get better about this. Especially after cancer treatment, when surgery, chemo, radiation, and hormone blockade can leave us scarred and changed. Please click and read this beautiful excerpt from a talk by Ram Dass, about learning to judge ourselves less harshly. https://www.ramdass.org/judging-less-harshly/ I love his analogy of trees, and how different trees grow differently, because of lack of light, or other reasons, and how we don’t judge a tree because of this. We understand why it grew the way it did, and we allow it, and even appreciate that it was resilient and able to grow despite its conditions. Why can’t we be this way with ourselves? I’m beginning to be able to see my scars, not as ugly and asymmetric, but as signs of strength and resilience. I’m beginning to be able to appreciate them, even to have a deep respect for them and what they mean. They mean my body was able to withstand some pretty nasty stuff, and then it recovered and healed itself. It may not look the way it did before, but why would it? The human body is truly a magnificent marvel, and the fact that we can get through these toxic treatments and come out the other side is nothing short of a miracle. I’m trying to develop deep gratitude and love for my body, my scars and asymmetries and weird color abnormalities included.

The second part about the Ram Dass excerpt that I really love is the part about him putting his own picture on his puja table. For those who are unfamiliar, in several eastern traditions, one would normally have pictures of one’s guru or revered dieties on their puja table, and these would be used for prayers and devotional practices. So it is a little unusual to put your own picture there. But his reasoning is beautiful. We could all probably use a reminder to, as he says, open our hearts to ourselves and to understand the predicaments we are in. If we could be as loving and as understanding with ourselves as we are with others, as devoted to ourselves as we are to others, we would find ourselves so much happier and healthier. And we would also be more compassionate and loving with others. A positive feedback loop of love and understanding!

I invite you to take a look at yourself, and really see the glory and the miracle in your body and your spirit. Whatever weirdness you have, and whatever scars and changes you have acquired through cancer or other trials, you are a beautiful force of nature and you deserve your own love, respect, and understanding.

Weirdmaste (the weirdness in me honors the weirdness in you)

btw damn, my eyebrows are impressive, right?! Guess I wished a little too hard for them to grow back. Now I have way too much! I need a lawnmower for those things 😉

Tune in to your inner light and intuitive wisdom

Being diagnosed with cancer and traversing the frightening landscape of testing, waiting, chemo, surgery, radiation, more waiting (all of which are often darkened with the shadow of the unknown) can really knock the wind out of us. It can leave us feeling unsteady, unsure of ourselves, doubtful, fearful, weak, and alone. It might even feel like trying to walk in quicksand, unable to get solid footing or grasp onto anything stable, secure, or reliable. At these times, of course it is so important to have supportive people in our lives, such as family or partners who can offer a shoulder to cry on, and ear for listening, or a strong arm to lean on for stability. Also our sisters and brothers in the cancer journey can often lend some helpful advice from their own experiences. These are invaluable.

But my thought for the day has to do with the value of really tuning in and finding that light within ourselves that represents our own personal true north. The story goes that the Buddha, just before he died said to his disciples, “Be a light unto yourself”. Even though he had been their trusted teacher and spiritual leader, he encouraged them not to rely on the wisdom of others, but to learn to see it, each within himself. We can read a million books and listen to innumerable stories, but no one else’s experience is exactly the same as our own, and nobody else is in exactly the same place in their life when cancer hits as we are. Nobody else’s cancer is exactly the same as ours, nor is the complicated milieu of the rest of their body (immune system, hormones, metabolism, etc) or mind (emotions, mood, spiritual well-being, etc) exactly the same as our own. It is also sadly true that there may come a time when certain support systems are unavailable or they have their own issues and so can’t be such a help to us. So while it is important to have support from those around us, it is even more important to find the wisdom, clarity, peace, faith, and light that come from within us. We must find the light of our own spirit, no matter how dulled it might appear from the trauma of our experience, no matter how obscured it seems by our scars and the other changes in our bodies. Once we find that light and remember that it is always there, and will always be there, we can become comfortable with it, comforted by it. We can learn to trust our own light, our intuition, our true selves. And once we do, we’ll find our footing again, even in the quicksand, we’ll find a well of strength and adaptability that can handle any obstacle and figure out any challenge. That doubt and fear will give way and we will know that we are ok, even if the worst possible things are happening around us. Whenever hardship or grief arise, we’ll be able to tune in, to dig deep and channel our own inner resources for wisdom, strength, resilience, and peace.

The true practice of yoga, including all 8 limbs as originally described by Patanjali and as practiced by millions over the centuries, is the perfect training ground for developing this ability to tune in to our inner light. Yoga teaches us to cultivate attitudes and behaviors that are aligned with our highest selves, to practice breath awareness and breath control which work to settle the mind and the nervous system, to connect deeply with, understand, and appreciate our bodies in asana, to learn to center and focus the mind, and to really actualize that union of body, mind, and spirit. In all of these ways, yoga grounds us, helps us recognize the light in ourselves, fans the flames to keep that light strong, and keeps us connected to it, so that we don’t lose sight of it and lose our footing again. Or if we do, it won’t be for long, and we’ll be able to quickly right ourselves and regain that sense of peace and composure, confident that we can weather any storm. I know that this practice of yoga has done so for me, and that it has made an enormous difference in how I travel on this cancer journey. I hope that you will find the same.


Backbending so we don’t break, and other benefits of cultivating flexibility

I’m not a naturally flexible person, especially when it comes to my back. I have a naturally flat low back, meaning I lack the normal arch in the low back, or lumbar lordosis as it is called. My Mom has the same type of low back, so it is just how we are built. So backbending has always been one of the more challenging parts of my own yoga practice. Backbending is challenging for many of us, as it isn’t something that we do in our normal lives, unless you happen to be one of the rare Cirque du Soleil athletes, a gymnast, a dancer, or an otherwise rare backbendy type. And in fact, in modern life, we spend sooo much time bending forward (sitting in chairs, working at the computer, tying our shoes, looking at our phones, cooking and eating meals, cutting our toenails, etc, etc) that backbending is even more unusual than ever. But this may be exactly why it is so important that we practice it. Always bending forward results in lengthening and weaknening of the long strappy muscles of the back, which can result in chronic back pain and poor posture. And in fact, if we aren’t careful, we can even end up with serious conditions of fixed forward flexion of our spines and necks, such as the so-called dowager’s hump (forward curvature of the upper back/neck, resulting in a hump-like deformity of the spine) or compression fractures of the front side of the spine. Backbending practice can return our spines to a healthier, more balanced anatomy, strengthening those back muscles, which then hold our spines in better alignment and better posture, hopefully preventing those serious back problems from occurring. Perhaps because of my natural anatomy, I have had back pain and stiffness since my late 20’s. Yoga practice in general, and especially backbending practice, has helped this so much.

Sadly, like anything good in life, backbending practice isn’t easy, and it is something that takes a lot of patience, perseverance, and a good understanding of technique to be done effectively. As I mentioned, I’m not a naturally flexible person, but I am naturally strong, and so my tendency is to just muscle through when faced with any challenge. This doesn’t work in backbending. You can’t just push harder and get yourself safely into a deep backbend. In fact, one thing I have learned through backbending practice, is that pushing harder can often impede your progress, rather than help you move further into these postures. Backbending requires us to relax, rather than to grip, in the face of discomfort. It requires us to release the tension that our bodies naturally conjure up in an unfamiliar position, to face the fear of falling back, to overcome the anxiety around exposing our soft and fragile front bodies, and to trust ourselves. It requires us to relax and breathe, because the reflexive holding of our breath only causes more tightness and muscular rigidity, which isn’t conducive to bending. In other words, we must consciously overcome our bodies’ natural protective mechanisms, these fight or flight reactions of our nervous system to a scary and unfamiliar situation, be gentle with ourselves, and get out of our own way if we are to succeed in finding flexibility in backbending practice.

As an aside, a little knowledge of proper form in backbending is important too, in order to safely allow your spine to bend backwards. We must always remember to extend and lengthen the spine first, rather than dumping down and compressing the back side of the body.

As often occurs in yoga practice, in backbending we can observe how our bodies work and learn deeper truths about our minds and the way we function in the rest of our lives off the yoga mat. Just as I’m not a terribly flexible person in body, I have historically not been a terribly flexible person in mind either. As a child and young adult, I was quite stubborn and strong-willed, typically able to achieve what I wanted through sheer force of will. Apparently when I was a little under a year old, I used to hold my breath whenever I didn’t get my way, continuing with this show of my will until I eventually passed out from lack of oxygen. Now that is stubborn! I don’t think I suffered any serious brain injury 😉 My poor mother! Apparently the Dr told her not to worry, and that I would start breathing again as soon as I passed out, and would stop the behavior eventually, which I did. But I persisted in being quite stubborn.

And then along comes cancer. As I’ve said many times before, cancer taught me that I couldn’t just muscle through every challenge in life. That just being stubborn and strong wouldn’t cut it. I couldn’t just put my head down, grit my teeth, and mow it over. Cancer, like backbending, taught me that I must have patience, relax, breathe deeply, release my fear, overcome that reflexive tightening, and just trust that I would get through. Once I realized this, the feeling of freedom, of releasing all of that pressure and tension, was so liberating. I discovered that I didn’t have to be so strong and rigid all of the time. Bringing that element of grace, gentleness, and vulnerability to my underlying grit and determination was just the balance that I needed to find my flexibility and a sense of ease and peace within this shitty cancer battle. Interestingly, it has been the same with backbending. What were once some of my most dreaded postures now feel so amazing and freeing, opening and releasing areas of my body that have stored a lifetime of tension. So I thank both yoga and cancer for making me a more flexible person, which makes operating in the world so much easier and more joyful. I try not to let my stubbornness and rigidity get in the way of my happiness in life or on the mat.

I’m still not that good at backbending, but of course that isn’t what is important. What is important is that backbending feels so good, that when I practice backbending I don’t have back pain or stiffness, that I move more freely and easily throughout my day, and that I have more flexibility in my body and my mind. Get bendy and see if it helps you too, especially if you have stiffness from your breast cancer treatment!