Loving ourselves and our bodies through cancer and aging

You all know I’m a classic rock lover. The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, and bands like these are my jam. But I do listen to pop music on the radio when I’m tooling around town. And I’ve been obsessing on this song from Lizzo lately, called About Damn Time. What first hooked me was this lyric “I’m not the girl I was or used to be….. Bitch, I might be better”, but since then I love it on a lot of levels. Check it out if you haven’t heard it (and if u are ok w a little of the b-word πŸ˜‰ ).

So the reason it hooked me is I’ve been thinking alot about embracing our changes, respecting and loving – even revering – how our bodies morph and change over time. Instead of dreading and hating these changes and feeling this negative energy, sadness, or animosity toward our own selves, why don’t we recognize all of these changes as 1) completely natural and 2) signs that we have lived rich and full lives and overcome so many obstacles?! Why can’t we see that in fact – bitch, we might be better! From our scars to our laugh lines, to stretch marks and weird fat rolls (like the ones on my side in this pic), to cellulite and sun spots, and even including our emotional quirks and habits, all of these changes are simply our bodies’ way of responding – responding to our life, to the challenges we’ve faced, to the friends we’ve made, to the adventures we’ve met, to the threats we’ve overcome, to the fun we’ve had, and even to the not-so-fun moments that have really kept us human. I’ve been thinking of my body (and mind I suppose) as a beautiful tapestry of all of my life’s experiences up to this point. Because really, our bodies are on our side! They’re just trying to protect us, right? To keep everything together despite whatver life throws our way. They don’t make those changes just to mess with us and piss us off. Our bodies and our minds respond in the best way they know how to keep us healthy and safe. So instead of being mad and disgusted at my radiation-scarred breast, I try to send some love there, to thank my skin and tissues for healing me from that damn radiation. I wink to those crow’s feet that bring back memories of so many great laughs, and those sun spots that remind me of so many fun days outside. Even to those weird fat deposits (when did that get there?! LOL) that remind me of some fabulous meals or margaritas that I have shared with my loved ones. And I’m truly grateful. I’m grateful for my body. She’s carried me through quite a lot of madness over the years and I’m still here! Thanks to all of her hard work, I’m here to enjoy another day, another yoga practice, another walk in town, another margarita w my hubs, another whatever life brings me next!

If any of this resonates with you, or these are themes you are working on in your own life, check out Ram Dass’ book Still Here. I just finished it and actually lent my copy to a close friend because I loved it so much and I thought it would help her too. It inspired much of my recent introspection and re-orienting of my feelings about aging and changing, and seeing those changes as positive and sources of joy and gratitude, rather than sadness, defeat, and decay. Ram Dass’ wisdom and inspiration are vast and profound. Check out an excerpt from the book here: https://www.ramdass.org/still-here/.

So let’s love ourselves and our bodies, just as we are. Echoing back to Lizzo, It’s about damn time!


Determination in backbending

Here is a little progress log of me working on my back flexibility over the last several months. It is funny that I happen to be wearing the same outfit in each pic! I guess it is my favorite these days. The angles of the pix are somewhat different, but you can see my head getting ever closer to my foot! And my knee closer to the wall meaning more hip flexor openness. The eventual goal is to be able to catch that foot with my hands, to make that shape for example in dancer pose (natarajasana) or in one legged king pigeon (eka pada rajakapotasana) or in full camel (called paripurna ustrasana or kapotasana). As I always say, arriving at the goal is less important than what we learn along the way, but it is fun to see the progress. What am I learning along the way? A little about the specific areas of the body that I need to work on and a little about the quality of the effort that works best to see that progress unfold.

As you may recall me lamenting, back flexibility is one of my biggest physical challenges in yoga. I’m pretty strong and my legs are flexible, but my back? Not so much! πŸ˜‰ I found this new stretch about 6 months ago and decided to try it, hoping to continue to tap into some flexibility in my spine, especially in the upper back/shoulders and in the low back/hips. It is sort of a modification of King Arthur’s pose against a wall. The upper back/shoulder tightness has been a longstanding challenge, but was made quite a bit worse by my breast cancer treatment, so it is something I really try to focus on. Recall that the scarring we develop on the front side of our chest as a result of breast cancer surgery and/or radiation causes a contraction of the front side of our chest/shoulders, which makes extending the spine (aka backbending) more challenging. So if you have a stiff upper back or a forward hunching of your shoulders, this may be part of the reason. But this is even more reason why we need to really keep after it. If we don’t continually stretch and open that front side, the tightness and contraction in those areas of scarring can worsen. For this area, getting the arms up and over the head is important (see middle and right images). I have also really been loving puppy dog pose for opening this same area recently (Click here to see puppy dog https://youtu.be/tsD3QRU-UsU).

The other area that this new stretch works on is the hip flexors. You don’t initially think that the hip flexors are that involved in backbending, but in fact they are! Just imagine the front-body tightness I discussed in the upper torso, and translate that to the front side of the lower abdomen and pelvis. Overly tight hip flexors cause contraction of the front side of that area, thus also limiting backbending. The hip flexors are a group of several different muscles that flex (or bring the thigh forward/up) the hip joint. They include the large muscles on the front of your thigh, but also a lesser-known group of muscles called the iliopsoas that originate deep inside the abdomen/pelvis and then cross the hip joint and insert onto the femur (thigh bone). The iliopsoas is very commonly tight, especially in those of us who spend a lot of time sitting for our jobs, and is an infamous culprit in chronic back pain. I think it was a big source of my back pain years ago. So learning to strengthen AND stretch the iliopsoas, along with the other hip flexors can really help us feel better. And get us closer to those fun backbends we want to be able to do.

Working on our challenging areas requires patience, commitment, and determination, but it is important to remember to keep an element of gentleness and compassion for yourself at all times. Recall tapas, from the niyamas of yoga philosophy, which teaches us self-discipline, to keep up that inner fire that drives us to keep putting in the effort. But recall also, that tapas isn’t meant to be a penance or self-flagellation. This is why I love this quote from Pema Chodron, whose wisdom continues to guide me: “Determination means to use every challenge you meet as an opportunity to open your heart and soften, determined not to withdraw”. I love this idea of the juxtaposition of the commitment and effort with this element of softness and open-heartedness. As opposed to a sort of gripping or forceful effort. And this is especially true when working on backbending, where gripping and forcing get you nowhere and in fact probably hinder your progress! Probably many of our challenges in life are just like backbending. Scary, uncomfortable, slow to see change, frustrating if you allow them to be….. but also surprisingly accessible if we just approach them gently, thoughtfully, and keep up that persistent effort. And WOW once we begin to crack them open, they feel sooo delicious, and even tiny bits of progress are rewarding and empowering.

So if you have a stiff back like I do, whether from the upper back, the lower back and hips, or wherever, give this posture a try. As with everything in yoga, start low, go slow, and listen to your body. And as with all backbends, focus on lengthening and extending the spine, stretching up and out of your hips as you bend back. Don’t dump into and compress the low back. Work at it slowly, patiently, but with softness and an open heart, determined not to withdraw.