Going within – a simple yet powerful practice for finding presence in cancer recovery

Just another brilliant piece of eloquence from Eckhart Tolle. This quote struck me recently as I’ve been focusing more on mindfulness in my teaching, both in my community yoga classes and in the context of the Mindfulness in Cancer Recovery Program I’m co-facilitating with my friend and colleague Ginny Stasinski.

Several key practices in mindfulness involve using the body or the breath as a point of focused awareness (a doorway if you will), to help us drop into presence, instead of being off in the stratosphere of our swirling thoughts… or as we’ve been calling it, the thought tornado. You know the feeling, right? When you suddenly realize that you’ve been lost in some complicated story or series of worries, thoughts, or judgements that just take on a life of their own and sweep you away from yourself? You really have no idea how long you’ve been off in this daydream (or nightmare as it might be), and how all of this tension came to arise in your body (maybe in your shoulders, your jaw, your low back, or even as knots in your stomach). Sadly many people just exist like this all the time, never even really realizing that it isn’t our natural state of being. Or that it isn’t the healthiest way to walk around.

Those of us with cancer know this thought tornado, or maybe more aptly named – this fear tornado, all too well. It is so common, no matter where you are on the survivor continuum, even if you are many years from your cancer diagnosis. Our minds can fly off into an orbit of fear or other emotions for so many reasons. Sometimes it’s because we develop some new pain or symptom that we fear might be a sign of recurrence. Sometimes someone we know, or even a celebrity, has a recurrence of their cancer or passes away. Sometimes it’s the smell of a hospital environment, an insurance snafu, or any other little experience that reminds us of our cancer or cancer treatment.

But mindfulness can help us stay anchored and balanced, allowing all that mental noise to settle. Once we begin to be able to notice ourselves getting swept away, we can use our mindfulness tools to come back to ourselves, to our peaceful, calm, rational selves, “to that deeper sense of aliveness underneath the fluctuating emotions and underneath the thinking”. And the simple practice of tuning in and feeling the energy of our inner body is a fabulous tool. Whether you like to practice this while sitting in stillness, or you prefer to practice it while in some kind of mindful movement like yoga or walking, it is easy to do and it works wonders. The way Eckhart describes the tuning in, “feel it in your hands, your feet, your abdomen, your chest. Feel the life that you are”, it’s very much like the body scan that we practice in mindfulness (click HERE for a short sample body scan), or in savasana after the active part of a yoga practice. And the simplicity of the practice is part of its magic! Our bodies are always here, so at any time, we can just turn our awareness inward, and focus on that inner energy.

In yoga philosophy, this practice of turning our awareness inward is called pratyahara, and it is one of the 8 limbs of yoga, as described in the original written text by Patanjali. So it is clearly considered an important skill, and is an integral part of the true path of yoga. (If you want to read more about the 8 limbs, I did a series of blogs on all of them between September 2020 and December 2020, which you can find in the blog archive. HERE is the one on pratyahara).

So whether you call it body scan meditation, pratyahara, body awareness, or just going within, this simple practice of shifting our awareness inward can have profound benefits in helping us drop below the fluctuations of our minds, into our true center, where we are present, at ease, free from excessive worry, and most alive.

Keep practicing. Namaste.

Yoga and cancer: 2 unusual companion guides in my life’s learning

I’m so fascinated by the parallels I see all the time between the things I learn on my yoga mat and the things I learn through my cancer journey. There are so many things on this list, but a few that are prominent for me include patience, balance, equanimity, acceptance, and surrender. Both my yoga practice and my cancer experience have taught me deep lessons in these areas, which I think have really made me a happier, more joyful, more easy-going human. I think they’ve greatly helped me to “not sweat the small stuff”, to be more content in the present- whatever it holds, to be more compassionate with myself and others, and to find real joy in the simple pleasures of daily life instead of always striving for some more exciting or more perfect moment, or straining to try to control my environment and bend it to fit into my vision for how things should be. How interesting that two things as different as yoga and cancer could transmit similar types of wisdom and insight!

So this quote really struck me. Of course I totally agree that, as Ganga White says “Yoga is the art of transforming struggle into grace, challenge into growth, and fear into love”, and I love the beauty of this description. But then it occurred to me that this quote might just as easily read “Navigating a cancer journey is the art of transforming struggle into grace, challenge into growth, and fear into love”.

Don’t you think??

Yoga for Breast Cancer on Youtube!

Did you know we are now on Youtube? We have moved the majority of our content over to our Youtube channel for you to enjoy for FREE!

Click here to check it out:

YWL on Youtube

And please let me know if you have any requests, and I’ll do my best to get them to you. Would you like more full length practices? More short practices? More vigorous or less vigorous practices? More tutorials? Are there certain movements that remain challenging to you? Let me know. I would love to help!

Let yoga teach you to love and respect your body JUST AS IT IS

In yoga we often talk about connecting with our bodies or our breath, or even connecting body to breath, through mindful movement. In fact, as you probably know, the root of the word YOGA means to yoke, or unite, or tie together. Most humans walk around sortof disconnected from their bodies, stuck swirling off in the stratosphere of thought somewhere, just because we believe our thoughts (and the crazy tangents they lead down) are more important than what is going on right here and now. It’s no wonder, then, that we tend to be completely unaware of what is happening deep inside our bodies, and we don’t find out until symptoms arise that are severe enough to slap us across the face and out of our slumber. Having cancer can make this situation even more complex and challenging. Not only is it common to feel even deeper disconnect because we are angry that the cancer arose in the first place, or we feel in some way that our bodies betrayed us by growing this monster that threatens our very existence. But beyond that, cancer treatments, surgery, chemo, and radiation can all cause changes and scars and side effects that are new and different and make us feel even more like strangers in the strange land of our bodies.

But wait… there’s more! On a whole another level, in modern culture, most of us feel some degree of disconnect from our bodies because we reject, or dislike, or maybe even hate… some aspect of our bodies. Our butts are too big, or too small. Our skin is too light or too dark, we have too much cellulite or we are too bony or too muscular. Our hair is too straight or too curly, or maybe we have no hair at all at the moment. We have old injuries or joint problems that cause pain or limit our activity. We have scars that we feel are deforming, or we lack body parts that made us feel “normal”. We have weird teeth or “ugly” fingernails. I could go on all day about all of the crazy things we can dislike about our own beautiful majestic bodies. I won’t bemoan the root of all of this body-hatred, but suffice it to say that the media’s portrayal of fake-perfect airbrushed bodies along with corporations’ taking advantage of our feelings of inferiority to sell more products that they tell us will make us better or prettier or enough – are more than adequate to mind-f@ck most of us. And as you can imagine, this type of body-hatred, or this mindset of being “less than”, creates an unhealthy and unsettled environment in our bodies and our minds.

Here is the amazing news. And a word of caution. Yoga IS a mind-body intervention, and therefore an exercise in embodied awareness. Yoga can really, really help us reconnect with our bodies. But it only really works if we practice mindfully. And we remind ourselves to practice with love, respect, and reverence for our bodies. If we approach the practice as a celebration of our strength, beauty, and resilience. If, as we move mindfully, we really sense our bodies and find that perfect balance between effort and ease. We challenge ourselves at our healthy limits when we feel up to it, but we also slow down and soften when that is what is needed. We must be cautious not to approach the practice like a flogging, or a penance for eating that ice cream, or with the main goal of trying to get our bodies to look better. We must be cautious not to criticize or judge our bodes as we practice, thinking “well I used to be more flexible” or “I hate that I can’t do this posture very well because of x,y,z”, or “if my back was just more flexible, then…”. This creates a cloud of negativity, rejection, or even hostility that hangs over and permeates our relationship with our body, and can be counterproductive to our efforts.

In order to create the healthiest possible environment in our bodies and minds, the ideal environment for healing to occur, we must practice connecting to our bodies and to our breath with love and kindness. And also with some honesty. I mean, I DO have ugly fingernails 😉 (along with cellulite and scars and plenty of other things that have caused me grief over the years). But that is ok. Because what I am learning is that my body is worthy of love and reverence JUST AS IT IS. Fingernails, scars, cellulite, stiffness, and all! My body has carried me through tremendous periods of stress and illness in my life (not to mention almost 47 trips around the sun), and has done its very best to heal and protect me through it all. The scars and cellulite and other weirdnesses are just a part of the story. Yoga is teaching me to really feel my body and to listen to and embrace her inner wisdom. Instead of judging this magnificent body, I will choose to feel gratitude and respect for her. I will make my practice a celebration of my strength and resilience, an honoring of what I CAN do today. I will let go of any tendency to criticize myself, or to wish my body were in any way different than it is. And I believe THIS is where the real connection will arise. Where the true yoga will happen. Where the heaviness of all of that judgement and bitterness will be lifted, leaving space for peace and joy and wellness to flourish. And this is especially important in those times when your body is in the midst of some really heavy stuff and needs a healing environment even more than usual.

I’ve been focusing on this intention during my yoga practice the last few days, and I really like it:

May I love and respect my body JUST AS IT IS

May I see clearly my own strength, beauty, and resilience

May I awaken to the light of my own true self

Give it a try. And remember, this is a practice! None of us will be perfect, and those self-criticisms will probably still creep in and come and go. But if they come just a little less than last month, and then a little less, and a little less…. it will be worth it!

Namaste yogis. The light in me honors the light in you ✨✨✨

This post was inspired by a chapter in Kino MacGregor’s new book Act of Love. Check it out!

Find your glimmers to bring light to cancer recovery

Have you heard of “glimmers”? This is a term I just learned a few weeks ago, and have been reading about and thinking about ever since. As I understand it, the term was coined by Deb Dana, LCSW, a clinician, teacher, and expert in complex trauma. It comes from the Polyvagal Theory, as originally described by Dr Stephen Porges. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Everyone knows the term “triggers”, and it has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, and honestly I think is a bit overused, which takes away some from its true meaning in psychology. Triggers are events, experiences, or other stimuli that initiate a traumatic memory or response in the body or mind, via the nervous system. So triggers literally trigger our nervous system to fly into fight or flight mode (or even freeze/fawn, which I’ll mention later) in an attempt to protect us from some subconscious/imagined trauma or threat. Often, however, there is no real threat in the present, only the memory of some past threat. But our bodies and our minds can’t tell the difference, and respond with the same cascade of stress hormones and other reactions as it would if we were in the middle of that same threat all over again. Think, for example, of feeling a sensation of nausea just walking into and smelling the oncology clinic, even though you’ve been finished with chemo for months. Or feeling the sensation of fear or dread as you wait for results from follow up testing, just like you were taken back to your original diagnosis all over again. Or the sensation of tension arise in your jaw or shoulders or the pit of your stomach just seeing some emotionally abusive co-worker or family member come up on you caller ID. We’ve all felt it. And those who have been through a truly traumatic experience tend to feel these even more strongly. Sometimes they can be literally crippling. And as I’ve mentioned, having cancer is officially considered a traumatic experience by the medical/psychiatric community. It may not be the same as traumas like childhood abuse, natural disaster, or violent assault, but it is a trauma nonetheless, and can result in similar types of responses in the body.

The good news is that there are also stimuli that can initiate a response from the balancing side, the rest and digest, or social connection, part of our nervous system. These are the Glimmers. So these are sortof the opposite of triggers. These are experiences, events, or other stimuli that “trigger”-but in a good way- our nervous system to respond with a cascade of the feel good chemicals and reactions, that leave us feeling safe, connected, at ease, relaxed, comforted, connected, and nourished. Think of your glimmers, be they internal or external. They could be things like the warm sun on your skin, the comforting voice of a loved one, the sound of birds chirping in the morning, the feeling of your own breath gently rising and falling, the smell of warm cookies just out of the oven, the feeling of freedom when you float in the ocean, your favorite old music, or the feeling of connection you have with your best friend or your yoga community. These stimuli cue safety and ease, opening us up to experience peace and joy in our daily lives. And the really great news is, they are all around us, if we just learn to tune them in.

Let’s come back to Polyvagal theory just for a moment. It isn’t super important to understand this background, but it is interesting and may help shed some clarity on how to identify more glimmers. It highlights the safety and community aspect of this story, which is particularly important for trauma survivors. The traditional understanding of the autonomic nervous system, and the way I generally think about it, divides the system into 2 parts: the sympathetic, or “fight or flight”, and the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest”. These 2 sides of the nervous system act in concert to keep us balanced, with the sympathetic becoming activated in response to a stressor preparing our bodies to respond as needed, and then the parasympathetic engaging once the threat/stressor is neutralized to bring us back to balance and rest. Polyvagal theory posits that the parasympathetic side of the system can be further divided into 2 parts, the ventral vagal and the dorsal vagal branches. The ventral vagal branch is activated when we feel safety and social engagement, along with that traditional idea of rest and digest. So we are relaxed and at ease, but also feel safe and connected, and are able to be active and engaged without feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Some might call this the flow state. Activation of the dorsal vagal branch, on the other hand, which is considered a more primitive part of the system, results in the extreme opposite end of rest and digest, in which we suffer depression or dissociation, complete shutdown or immobilization, perhaps like a possum playing dead. This state is sometimes called freeze or fawn. So in Polyvagal theory, we can operate and move through these 3 main states: 1. Ventral vagal, our ideal state of joyful engagement, 2. the traditional fight or flight where we are stressed, anxious, irritated or angry, or 3. the dorsal vagal, where we completely collapse and can’t function adequately. Phew, that was more than a moment! 😉 I explain this theory because I think that the safety and social connection aspect of Polyvagal theory is an important key in recovering from traumatic experiences and in learning to heal our nervous systems and return to wellness and joyful living.

That brings me to the next piece of good news! Neuroplasticity is the phenomenon of the human brain and nervous system adapting and changing, both functionally and structurally, in response to our experiences and our actions. In short, sortof like a muscle, neurons that get used frequently develop stronger connections and become even more active. Sadly, this can work against us in trauma response, in that these triggered emotions and reactions can become stronger the longer they continue to be stimulated. HOWEVER, the glimmers can too! Soooo, the point of all of this is that focusing on our glimmers, on moments and memories and experiences that make us feel safe and joyful, at ease and connected, can actually help our nervous systems heal from our traumas. These glimmers cue safety and remind our nervous systems that things are ok now, that the threat is in the past, that it is ok to let down our guard, to enjoy that sunset, or that quiet cup of tea. These glimmers can help us build resilience so that when we are triggered and fall into fear or anxiety, we have some tools to more quickly pull ourselves back out. If we know what our glimmers are, we know what to do. We do some relaxing breathing, or listen to our favorite old music, or maybe we make a few of those cookies, get out in nature, or go for a swim. We call up a loved one and are soothed by the glimmer of their voice, or we go to a yoga class or a support group and feel at ease in the company of our friends. And every time we focus on a glimmer, we strengthen that part of our nervous system that feels safe and at ease. And we train our brains to see and feel the hundreds of glimmers that are available to us in every day.

Glimmer on, my beautiful friends.

Allowing each moment in breast cancer recovery

Don’t get me wrong, I love growth, and working on becoming a healthier, happier, more balanced human. BUT, I also think one of the most important things we can learn to do is just to stop. To let go of the need to always be grinding, and striving, and pushing for better, because that mindset carries with it the undertone that what we are in this moment is not good enough.
🪷 I think it is just as important to allow, to accept, and to love ourselves exactly as we are in this moment. To drop the unnecessary turmoil and tension that come with thinking we should be some other way, or that the next moment (or day, or week, or year) will be better than this one. And this is true, even -and maybe especially- in those moments when we are a hot freakin mess.
🪷 This is one of the gifts of mindfulness. To get comfortable being at ease, no matter what the moment brings. To give ourselves grace, to allow and accept the “full catastrophe” (as JKZ calls it in the title of his famous book) that is human existence. It’s messy, and crazy, and challenging… and beautiful. We just need to allow ourselves to stop and feel it all. 💕
🪷Wishing you all a nourishing and joyous weekend!

Yoga with Leona’s Yoga for Breast Cancer Retreat 2023 in Puerto Vallarta was beyond incredible!

There were so many beautiful moments that I can’t even begin to capture the magic in one post. But I will try to share a few snippets here to give you an idea. I hope you will be interested in joining us for the next one! Wanna practice yoga with me each morning in this gorgeous little spot overlooking the majestic Pacific ocean?

We practiced tuning in to our own bodies, connecting to our breath, and being truly present with whatever each moment brings with gentleness and gratitude for where we are today in our healing journeys.

We got to take in this gorgeous scenery while connecting over amazing meals, relaxing poolside, or chatting under the palapas on the beach. Many deep conversations were had as we supported each other, learned, and grew together.

We also had plenty of fun and laughs. We got out on the bay for a gorgeous catamaran tour, felt the breeze in our hair, the sun on our skin, and the sea all around us.

We had so many delicious meals together, and took our time to bask in the beauty of the sunsets.

I am beyond grateful for all of the beautiful humans that came together to make this retreat truly magical. Thank you all for sharing your hearts and your lights, for your kindness and presence in supporting one another, and for giving yourselves this beautiful gift of yoga. Keep practicing!

Namaste (I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you, which is of love, of light, of peace, and of truth. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are ONE.)

Lotus power again

Why do you practice yoga? 💕🧘🏽‍♀️💕 Me? How much time do you have? Lol. 😉

🪷 The biggest reason, though, is for the resilience it builds, in body and mind. For the way it trains me to be able to sit with some discomfort, in true acceptance of whatever each moment brings. And to not feel the need to run away, or disconnect, or deny the truth of the experience. To be able to truly be present, and at ease, in every moment, no matter how difficult.

🪷 Just like the lotus flower, that must grow through dark, muddy waters, gaining nourishment and strength along the way to blooming into its most beautiful expression, we too, are sure to encounter all sort of challenges, pains, and heartaches along our path. But if we can build resilience and remain calm and clear even in our darkest moments, a quiet confidence will arise, reassuring us that we are still growing, no matter how hard it may be to see it in that moment. And eventually the light will shine through, again illuminating our path. ✨

🪷 I’m forever grateful for the gift of this practice, and the way it has impacted my life. I’m going to keep practicing.

#yogaforbreastcancer #mindfulness #lotusflower #resilientAF

Wanna retreat with us??

OK yogis, our April 2023 yoga for breast cancer recovery retreat in Puerto Vallarta is coming up. I am over the moon excited about sharing this special time in this incredible venue. It is going to be epic! We have a really amazing group of beautiful thrivers already registered, and I am working on finalizing plans for all of the yoga, teaching, and adventures. I wanted to update you on some important upcoming dates and information:

January 6, 2023: This is the cut-off date for registration, and I have to have the final room list to the resort at that time! This is less than 5 weeks away, so let me know what questions I can answer to be sure you get registered in time.

February 23, 2023: The final payment of the full balance of your room will be due by this date, so plan accordingly. Some are making smaller payments over time to chip away at it, and I’m happy to accommodate this if you like.

Finally, now is a good time to check your passport and make sure it does not need to be renewed. Also a good time to start looking at flights. If you decide you want to add on extra days before or after the retreat, the resort is offering a special price for 3 days before and 3 days after, so let me know if you want more information about extending your trip!

Please let me know if I can answer any questions. Can’t wait to see you in paradise!

Flying in awareness

While flying back home after a recent trip and looking out the window of the airplane, I saw these gorgeous clouds floating over the image of the earth below, and felt this interesting separation. Up here in the sky, I felt a quiet stillness, protected by that thin lacelike layer of clouds, from the busy bustle of the earth below. Not that I couldn’t see the surface of the earth, with its little towns and highways, and all of the usual activity going on there. But it felt like those delicate and loosely dispersed clouds provided a subtle but real separation. And that got me thinking it was an interesting representation of the buffer that meditation provides us from the busyness of our thinking minds. I often use the image of sinking below the surface of the ocean, dropping below the choppy waves to find the stillness beneath. This is just kindof the opposite imagery; rising above the clouds to escape the busyness below. In either analogy, you get the idea. We can learn to be the calm, still, peaceful awareness behind the activity. And learning to inhabit that place can help us feel so much better when the big storms of life arise.

Mindfulness is the key to learning to take this step back, to shift our awareness, and to be able to calmly observe our thoughts and emotions rather than being swept away by them. And mindfulness comes in so many flavors; from mindful movement to breath or body awareness, from sitting meditation to walking meditation, and from formal to informal mindfulness practices, there is surely something that can work for everybody.

It has been said that “meditation isn’t about trying to change what is; it is about changing our relationship to what is”. And I think this fits perfectly with these images of either rising above or dropping below the fluctuations of the mind. There’s no need to stop the flow of thoughts or emotions, or try to control the world around us, if we can just, instead, shift the way we perceive those things in a way that brings us more presence, more peace, and more contentment.

By practicing focused non-judgemental awareness, even if it is just for a few minutes every day, we train our minds to be able to do this. We train our minds to be able to drop below the surface of the waves…. or to rise above the surface of the clouds, to find that place of stillness and clarity. That panoramic perspective, or that bird’s eye view, so to speak. So each time you spend 5 or 10 minutes practicing gently bringing your awareness back to your breath, or you practice really being mindful of your body’s movements in yoga, or you practice focusing on loving kindness, you strengthen that ability. So give it a try! And if you are a person (like me) who says “I can’t do sitting meditation, I’m just too restless or impatient”, then start with moving meditation. Begin to learn to focus on your breath and your body in moving meditation, and over some time, the restlessness will settle and sitting meditation will become more approachable. And remember, there is no right or wrong way to practice. Just practice!

Why not start now? Set your timer for 5 minutes, close your eyes, and just focus on the sensation of your breath moving in and out. You can focus on the belly or the chest rising and falling, or the air moving in and out at your nostrils, wherever the sensation of the breath is most vivid for you. Each time your mind wanders (and it will), gently bring it back to the breath. Even if you have to bring it back 5,000 times, just keep at it, gently and patiently coming back to the breath, without making it a problem or condemning yourself in some way for the lapse in attention. Just keep practicing noticing what is happening, and being gentle and loving with yourself. Each time you come back, you’ve strengthened your mind a little more. When the timer dings, you are done. Simple as that! Before you know it, not only will you find the meditation gets easier for you, but you may find that you start to crave the little respite, the quiet restful stillness. And then eventually you’ll find yourself flying free, calm, and unaffected by whatever storms or madness might be going on below.