Monday, November 5, 2018

Breast Cancer, Fear, and Yoga

by Dobrina Gospondinoff
Photo by Sarit Z Rogers
When you receive a diagnosis of breast cancer, everything seems to change in one blow and fear explodes like a bomb in your life. I speak from my personal experience, as I myself had breast cancer 10 years ago. What a challenging, deep, and transformative encounter. Fear becomes an uncomfortable companion that you have to deal with day and night. You may perceive it disguised as shame or disbelief or hiding behind your anger, anxiety, or depression. 

First of all, there is the enormous fear of the sickness itself and possible recurrences, even many years later. Cancer has been the one of the most feared illnesses in the past decades. We all know people who died from it and we all have heard many sad and frightening stories about it. Then there is the fear of mutilation and its consequences in our relationships, in our life, and in our often already so weak self-esteem. Last but not least, of course, we also face the fear of the treatments, and their strong and clearly visible side effects. What a tremendous struggle, we can really feel surrounded, threatened, and alone like a fat turkey on the eve of Thanksgiving! This is where Yoga, the Union, can really help.

There is a growing amount of research about how Yoga fosters cancer recovery by strengthening the immune system, reducing the inflammatory response and oxidative stress, and increasing GABA neurotransmitters and lastingly decreasing cortisol levels (both of which have a significant prognostic value for breast cancer). The results are really encouraging, both in the short and long term. As Yoga teachers, it is not bad to keep up to date with this research, as we can offer some scientific evidence to our students, helping them feel comfortable and practice with confidence and optimism. We also can provide specific practices to address certain side effects or conditions, including active or restorative asanas and vinyasas to prevent lymphedema, to help restore shoulder mobility after surgery, or to aid in recovery from extreme fatigue. 

However, while all this information and these practices are wonderful, I do wonder: If we practice Yoga with the focus on preventing, recovering, feeling better, don’t you think we are still practicing from a place of fear? In other words, don’t you think this focus is based on an underlying image of ourselves as sick and vulnerable beings and therefore reinforces this image? Of course, as human beings, we all are vulnerable and often sick (actually, with a hint of black humor, we may consider life itself as a chronic, fatal disease), but, as Yogis, I think we should never forget that, as Swami Satchidananda used to repeat:

“The light is within. It is already there. Take your time to see it.”

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras actually speaks about the journey from our fearful “poor me!” human identity to our luminous true nature, arising from the deep silence. And, as the poet Rumi beautifully said, “Silence is the language of God; all else is poor translation.”

So, all we need to do is calm down, stay still, and listen to the loving, silent space that shines deep within all of us, in any moment, in any condition. It only needs us to pay attention. It may seem difficult or far away, but it is actually much closer than our hands and feet! And—more good news!—we don’t have to struggle to build it; it arises naturally, whenever our mind becomes a little quieter. This is the attitude I recommend in my classes, as I really believe that it is this attitude—much more than choosing one specific practice over another—which can shift us away from our identity of fear and vulnerability. Let us calm down then; homeostasis, healing, transformation, and power are already here. When we connect with this state of consciousness, there is no more need to fight against fear. Fear may remain there, but now we can accept it as part of our human process and eventually surrender and rest.

When I teach, I guide my students to practice with the clear intention of re-connecting with this deep, silent space through the experience of calming the mind and by feeling the body, the energy, and the breath. For example, while standing in Tadasana, we can start our way home by feeling the steady grounding effect of gravity, then feeling the rhythm and temperature of our breath flow, and then maybe playing around with pretending to be a mountain and feeling what a mountain feels (imagination and fun are two of my favorite tools!). Then, as soon as we begin experiencing any glint of wellness or pleasure, we pay attention to it, enjoy it, and smile in the posture! In a very natural way, we slipped through the five koshas to finally gently approach our true silent Self and simply live the experience. Nothing complicated, nothing too serious. 

Any moment of unity with our inner nature is a personal and unique experience. We don’t need to give it a name. I don’t think there is even a need to speak about our “divine nature,” if you feel a student may not be totally comfortable with these words. After all, the power is in the experience, not in its “poor translation”! My vision is to honor any student by meeting her where she is now, both in the language and in the kind of practices she may feel more comfortable with, in this moment.

Finally, I recommend guiding our attention to this luminous space again and again during our daily lives by using any personal little reminder trick our imagination may suggest. We may stick a few post-it notes around in our home or office or we may try to remember to do it any time we wash our hands or sit in the car. And then, we simply let ourselves slide inwards, in the way that is most natural for us. Some will take a sweet breath with a long exhalation, some will put a hand on their chest and close their eyes, and some may take advantage of any little pleasant moment to consciously enjoy and smile.

In this way, little by little, we become familiar with our invisible friend, we learn to savor it and value each spark of this experience as a treasure. As we slowly get used to living closer to this peaceful silent space, without realizing it, we are moving to the antipodes of the realm of fear. Now we may really start to overcome fear—not struggling and putting on a brave face, but simply forgetting it. As my beloved student P. said once, a few months before passing away, with her body full of all kinds of metastasis, “Last year, when I was sick….”

Dobrina Gospondinoff is an IAYT-certified yoga therapist living in the Canary Islands. She has been practicing Yoga for more than 15 years, but never really got the point until 2009, when she had to deal with an aggressive breast cancer. This difficult experience has been a gift in her life. From that moment on, she felt the deep desire to share Yoga with people dealing with cancer and chronic illness. In 2012 she graduated as a Sivananada Yoga teacher and in 2013 she completed the life-changing Yoga of the Heart course with Nischala Joy Devi. She then continued her education in Accessible Yoga with Jivana Heyman, Yoga for Amputees, Yoga for Cancer, Yoga for Stress and Anxiety, and Yin Yoga. Since January 2015, she has pioneered Yoga Therapy in the Canary Islands, giving weekly Yoga classes in the Nephrology Department of the Dr. Negrín Hospital and in the Gull Lasàge Center for Eating Disorders. She also gives individual Yoga Therapy sessions.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging

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