Relaxing into our most vulnerable spaces to find freedom in breast cancer recovery

Y’all have heard me talk about how I find backbends particularly challenging. But at the same time, I find them tremendously freeing and opening, meaning after I practice a deep backbend, I feel like something that was previously stuck is becoming unstuck, and I feel this rush of relaxing energy buzzing around my body. In other words, I have a love-hate relationship with backbends. But the love part is growing stronger with time and practice. 

There are a lot of reasons why backbends can be challenging. For one thing, we never backbend in normal life. We are always bending forward, maybe now more than ever with our technology driven lifestyle. We bend forward looking at our phones, working at the computer, sitting on the couch watching netflix, not to mention while cooking, eating, reading a book, driving our cars, and tying our shoes. We very rarely bend backward. So the feeling is just foreign, which translates to scary and uncomfortable for many of us. Not only are our spines not used to it, but the soft tissues on the front side of our body aren’t used to it. The muscles of the abdominal wall and front of the pelvis/hips can be tight, and feel overstretched in backbends. And for us breast cancer survivors, we often have tremendous tightness on the front side of our chest and shoulders related to surgery and/or radiation, and this makes backbending even more challenging. We might also fear falling over backwards in a backbend, afraid that we are not as coordinated or in control of our bodies in these positions, so we can’t catch ourselves if we fall. 

So what do we do when we are scared or we feel uncomfortable? We tense up our muscles and we hold our breath, both of which make us even less flexible. Next time you try a backbend, see if you can notice muscles tensing up. Perhaps in your back, your glutes, your hips, or your shoulders. I know they do for me. I have to remind myself to get out of my own way. To breathe deeply. And to relax. When I am able to do that, I find so much flexibility that I didn’t know I had, and this is where I find that opening, that un-sticking, that freeing up of previously obstructed energy flow. And I think this is what Iyengar means, when he says “There must be relaxation in full extension”. If we are to get the full benefits of backbending postures, or spinal extensions as we call them in yoga, we must learn to relax, even in the midst of these uncomfortable and challenging positions.

Even more than the physical challenges associated with backbending (front body tightness, muscle tension, spinal stiffness), we can also be challenged by some mental or emotional roadblocks. The front side of our body is the sensitive side, the vulnerable side. And just as animals protect the front, or belly/throat-side, of their bodies in an attack or battle with another animal, we seem to instinctively know that we need to protect the front side of our bodies more than our back sides, which are more durable and resistant to injury, owing to our bony spine, ribs, and large back muscles. So when we bend backward, we can feel this profound vulnerability, as we open up our soft front side to the world. Even though we know nobody is going to jab a spear through our belly in the yoga studio, we still feel exposed and vulnerable, and this adds to the discomfort. Compound that with our self-consciousness about our breast cancer scars, our reluctance to show those to the world, and our fear that those areas might be weak or fragile, and backbends are just all kinds of difficult.

But this is what the practice of yoga is about. Not only will backbending practice release the tightness in our chest and shoulders, strengthen back muscles, improve posture, optimize bloodflow to the spine and surrounding tissues, and make us feel physically better. At the same time, we are training ourselves to do things that are challenging, and we are slowly learning to be able to do them with ease and grace, using the strength of our minds and our breath to carry us through. Learning to open, rather than retreat, in the face of vulnerability and fear. Learning to trust ourselves and tune in to our resilience, even in our most difficult moments. And it is here that we discover we are powerful beyond measure. That no challenge, be it breast cancer treatment or other serious life trauma, can close us down. Instead, we relax into the backbend, shining our hearts, our breasts (or scars as it may be), and our bellies out into the world, vulnerable, but confident in ourselves, and free.

Backbend on, yogis! You can do it, and you’ll thank yourself later.


Do you have anything weighing you down in your cancer recovery?

You wanna fly, you gotta give up the shit that weighs you down. Wow, I love this simple, direct, and real truth from Toni Morrison. Do you have any shit weighing you down? Sometimes it is even hard to see it, because we so accept, and even embrace, it as a part of who we are. Of course, all of our emotions and thought patterns and behavioral habits developed for a reason. We were trying to protect ourselves from something, or trying to adapt to or cope with a difficult situation. So all of these things have their role and their place and time in our lives. I’m not saying we should shun them or block them out or forcibly suppress them, pretending to be someone that we are not. Because honestly that doesn’t work very well either. But if we can recognize any unhealthy or unwanted shit that we are carrying, that is no longer serving us in any positive way, then we can recognize when we are ready to just let it go. As they say, awareness is the first step toward change. So we must first spend a little time looking honestly and deeply at ourselves. In yoga, this is called svadhyaya, or self-study. Within self-study, we must also remember compassion and non-judgement, being understanding with ourselves and why we developed whatever shit we developed. But then, with the light of awareness and a little loving kindness, we can decide if it is time to release it. And ahhhhhh, the freedom we feel when we are able to let go of that shit and fly!

What kind of things might be weighing us down? It could be different things for each of us, of course. Maybe anger at this cancer. Maybe fear of what may come. Sadness at the change in our bodies. Frustration at the loss of things we used to be able to do. Maybe disappointment in a loved one who was less than understanding or said the “wrong” things. Maybe a feeling of hopelessness that we will ever get back our strength and vitality. Maybe impatience at this slow healing. Maybe we have distanced ourselves from others to try to protect them, so we feel a little alone. Maybe we’ve got the why mes? Maybe we’re stuck in sick mode and afraid to let ourselves feel better. Maybe you have none of these? Maybe something else? All of these are perfectly normal and expected responses to the challenges of being diagnosed with cancer and all that follows. And we have every right to feel them. But we can also choose whether or not we want to stay there. Whether or not these are responses that are helpful to us feeling our best, and really re-learning how to enjoy our lives, in spite of our difficulties.

So once we are aware of all of the things we are feeling and how we are responding, and we have identified one or more that feel like they are weighing us down, then what? Not much actually. In the light of this awareness alone, in this space of mindfulness, where we notice the thing with understanding and non-judgement, that negative emotion or habit naturally loses its grip on us and begins to diffuse on its own. We begin to notice when it arises instead of letting ourselves get swept away in it. And then, a spaciousness arises where we have the clarity and the opportunity to choose an alternate response. One that feels better to us. One that is more in line with where we want to be. We may not yet be ready to give up all of our shit. Sometimes we need to just sit with it a while before it serves its purpose. But with awareness and self-study, you’ll know when you are ready to let it go. And there we find our freedom. Our healing. And our recovery. May we all give up that shit and fly!

Namaste friends

Btw this posture is called flying pigeon. It requires open hips, some arm strength, core strength, and a bit of practice. It is challenging, but also fun and empowering! Let me know if you want to try to start working on some fun arm balances. I’d be happy to help!

Find your calm in the eye of the cancer storm

Anybody else love Neil Young as much as I do? He is my all time favorite musician. The Grateful Dead are a very close second. I was listening recently, and this song, “Like a hurricane” came on. I have always loved this one, but it took on a new meaning when I started thinking about it, rather than as a lovely tribute from one individual to another, but instead as addressing each and every one of us. Because truly, we all DO have a calm place inside of us, the eye of the storm so to speak, no matter what kind of hurricane, typhoon, or other shit show might be going on around us. Sometimes it is really difficult to see, feel, or know that this calm eye still exists, especially when the storms of our lives get really intense or complicated. But we must remember that it is always there, always available to us, this refuge from the storm, this place of peaceful stillness. And then we can train ourselves to easily enter in.

Cancer can be a particularly difficult storm to navigate, with so many different waves of challenge coming at us from all directions. From the shock of the diagnosis, to the fear of the unknown, to the physical challenge of all of the treatment, to the mental and emotional upheaval, to worry about our families and our livelihoods, and the ever-present concern for our futures and more, being diagnosed with cancer truly is a freaking hurricane. But we don’t have to let ourselves get swept away. Importantly, we also don’t have to run away from this storm, forever trying to hide underneath something, getting as far away as we can, or just blocking it out. Nor do we need to exert tons of energy trying to fight against its relentless power. Instead, we can learn to find and tune in to our own calm center, even in the midst of the storm. Just like in the movies, where they drop cameras down into the eye of the violent twister and find a place of unbelievable stillness, we too can drop in. We can allow ourselves to just BE in the midst of our situation, without straining against it, without trying to stop the winds, and instead just settling in to our own tranquil center.

We can use so many tools to help us get there, like our breath, our meditation, and our yoga practices, which all train us to more easily drop in to this inner space, where we find peace, comfort, rest, and rejuvenation. And the great thing is that we can use these practices over and over again, as much as we need them. Because the truth is that these storms often flare up again, and we might again begin to get blown off track. This is completely normal and part of the experience, but as we gain more proficiency with our tools, it is easier and easier to catch ourselves and drop back in.

And it is from this place of calm stillness that we can find clarity, courage, strength, ease, and joy, regardless of what is going on outside or how difficult our challenges might be. So in this brilliantly poetic imagery from Neil Young, take a deep breath, look deeply at yourself, and see that you may be like a hurricane, but that there is always calm in your eye.

Namaste friends

ps Please don’t mind my dirty feet! It had been raining this day and the patio was all wet. You can see Vato looks a little dirty too, but he tried to scoot out of the picture! 😉