Spring into your power

Happy Spring yogis! Yesterday was the spring equinox, or the first day of spring, when the length of the light matches the length of the dark, for those of us in the northern hemisphere. I celebrated the day, and the coming season of increasing light, with 108 sun salutations. 108 sun salutations are practiced by many yogis for different reasons, including marking the change of seasons, celebrating important dates or occasions, re-connecting to our practice, cleansing, detoxifying, optimizing energy flow in the body, and so many others. Here is a short vid of the last set of my 108 (you can tell it was the end and I was pooped by how hard I am breathing πŸ˜‰ ).

What is up with the number 108? Well this number is considered sacred and significant in many different traditions from Ayurveda to astronomy, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others. And for those of you sports fans, I also learned from my teacher that 108 is the number of stitches on a baseball! As you know, sun salutations are combinations or sequences of movements in yoga practice that are meant to build heat in the body, and to create a moving meditation as we repeat these movements in concert with our breath. Sun salutations can be vigorous, and 108 is a big number, so practicing this can be challenging to body and mind. But the benefits of the practice can be so profound. Here are a few of the reasons I like to do it.

One simple one is to celebrate the change of seasons, and specifically for Spring, to welcome the increasing light and clarity as winter passes. Creating the habit of practicing 108 at the change of seasons just helps remind us to take a little time to recognize the changes, and what they might mean for us in our lives.

Many of you know, I love sun salutations for their moving meditative qualities. When I practice sun sals, I truly get lost in the harmonization of my body with my breath as I transition from one shape to the next. It is almost impossible not to be truly present in this place, as my thinking mind quiets to stillness.

Another important reason I like to practice 108 with some regularity is that is provides an opportunity for me to consciously recommit to my yoga practice. Like anyone, I occasionally find a little stagnation in my practice or lose motivation, and 108 always stokes that inner fire right back up and reminds me why I get on my mat, renewing my dedication and love for yoga.

Perhaps the most important reason I keep coming back to this practice of 108 sun salutations is the way in which it brings me face to face with the strength and resilience of my body and my mind. When I practice 108, I feel healthy, confident, and empowered, despite the scars, asymmetries, and limitations that my cancer treatment left behind. I was a little reluctant to share this video, as it so obviously shows my wonky chest, with one breast implant high and prominent due to fibrosis from radiation, and the other riding lower and highlighting the breast animation deformity (movement effect from the pectoralis muscle). While overall I am very grateful just to be alive and healthy, and I feel fortunate to have even been able to have bilateral breast reconstruction after my cancer treatment…. there is certainly still a part of me that feels “ugly” and “damaged” when I see myself in certain images or videos. However, when I watched this particular video clip after recovering from my practice and savasana, instead of those negative emotions, I felt love and compassion for myself. I felt full acceptance and even an embracing of all of my physical scars and imperfections, as well as my sometimes busy and judging mind, my self-doubt, my fears, all of it…. in other words I was able to welcome the whole catastrophe that is me (a reference to Jon Kabat Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, a guide to mindfulness).

And THIS is the magic of yoga. As one famous yoga teacher Rachel Brathen so eloquently said, “The yoga pose is not the goal. Becoming flexible or standing on your head is not the goal. The goal is to create space where you were once stuck. To unveil layers of protection you’ve built around your heart. To appreciate your body and become aware of the mind and the noise it creates. To make peace with who you are. The goal is to love…. well, you”.

So for all of these reasons, today on the second day of Spring, I am devoted to continuing this yoga journey of growth and transformation, to continue to nourish and strengthen my body, heart, mind, and spirit.

My wish for you is that you find whatever practices or habits leave you similarly empowered and motivated to love and care for yourself as you recover from cancer and the effects of its treatment. It doesn’t have to be yoga or 108 sun salutations. It could be walking or painting, cycling or swimming, gardening or singing. But find what works for you. You owe it to yourself and you have the power.


THIS is yoga too

Most yoga photos show big, dramatic, or graceful poses, often with pretty nature backgrounds or even sometimes contrasting with busy urban settings. I love yoga photography, and full transparency, I love those pix of the big, beautiful, challenging postures. They are gorgeous and inspiring. But I think it is imperative that we remember that the real work of yoga, and the real benefits of yoga, don’t come from these snapshots in time, nor from the mastery of fancy postures. The real magic of yoga comes from the deeper work. From the quiet, contemplative, and introspective moments on our mat. In those moments that don’t look so impressive on the outside, where we are connecting, not just to our bodies, but to an even deeper place of stillness, of inner peace, of bliss.

Don’t get me wrong, a strong, vigorous, energetic yoga practice is so healing and empowering, as it deepens our connection to our body and reminds us of how truly powerful we are. This is especially true for those of us healing from a cancer experience. I LOVE this aspect of my vigorous vinyasa practice, and am so grateful for it. But to me, the even more profound benefits of yoga are found in those quiet moments, deeper than the physical body. That inner peace and bliss can be found in a simple easy seated pose like the one in the photo, OR inside of a big, vigorous pose. Enjoy them all. Embrace those big poses and revel in your strength, but take care not to get distracted and lose sight of the simple, quiet ones as well. Just stay connected to that inner stillness throughout, and you will get the most out of this truly transformative practice.

Namaste yogis

Photo cred to my beautiful and talented friend, Emily Cesca Photography

The power of finding contentment in uncomfortable places

Have you ever done the splits (aka hanumanasana) on a piece of driftwood? Yeah, so it wasn’t the best idea, nor the most comfortable place I’ve ever practiced this pose. But it was a pretty scene along my hike, so I went ahead. And it actually turns out to be nicely symbolic of the idea behind this awesome quote from Walt Whitman. “Happiness, not in another place, but this place…. not for another hour, but this hour”. To me, this quote echoes of santosha, one of my favorite of the niyamas from yoga philosophy, which help guide us in developing healthy attitudes and thought patterns to support us both on and off of our yoga mats. Santosha means contentment, and the idea is that we must strive to find some level of contentment in all circumstances, irrespective of how uncomfortable or difficult those circumstances might be. Yoga teaches us to practice finding ease and contentment in the most uncomfortable positions, like this one, hanumanasana, or some other crowd favorites like utkatasana (sometimes called chair pose) or navasana (boat pose).

As with most things in yoga asana practice, the practice of santosha on the mat is a little microcosm preparing us for santosha off the mat, in real life. Finding contentment in the midst of physical struggle (like screaming hamstrings or quivering quadriceps) trains us to more easily be able to find contentment when challenging situations arise off of the mat. And I think this is why santosha speaks to me so much. As cancer survivors, we have many uncomfortable or challenging moments, like the physical challenge of healing from surgery or radiation, coping with long term effects of those treatments, waiting patiently for chemo side effects to subside, the PTSD- like fear of going in for follow up testing, and even the tragic loss of one of our warrior brothers or sisters. While there is obviously no magic trick that will make all of these challenging moments go away, nor make navigating them easy peasy, a little practice in santosha can make them less painful and more manageable, thus opening up some space for more enjoyable emotions to arise.

Just as we learn to do on our mat while the teacher is counting breaths so slowly that it seems like we’ll just die here in boat pose, we relax our minds (maybe even smile a little at how damn slow her breathing is!), tune in to our own breath, and bear with it. And so often, we find out that we can stick with it longer than we thought! We discover that we have those same tools at our disposal when life throws us a really challenging situation. We can relax our minds, tune in to our breath, and hang in there, happily encountering that deep well of calm strength that we didn’t know was there. Obviously some life challenges are profound and completely overwhelming, making even the calmest, coolest spirits get flustered. That is life and it is ok. But perhaps those are the times that this practice is most important. So that, instead of falling completely and irreversibly to pieces, we eventually… no matter how long it takes…. come back to our breath, drop in to that calm peaceful mind, and again find our strength and determination to move forward. In this way, yoga empowers us, creating resilience, an inner confidence, and a knowing that, whatever arises, we can breathe through it. It’s really kindof a superpower. When we learn to tap in to this resilience and this ability to find contentment despite outer circumstances, our suffering shrinks and our joy and happiness grow.

So whatever challenge you might be going through today, instead of allowing yourself to stew in it and suffer, see if you can’t take a deep breath, smile to yourself and practice finding that little sliver of happiness…. in this place…. in this hour. You have the power. Keep practicing and see it grow even stronger.