It’s noon on Wednesday at the yoga studio. Twelve of us are inside dancing to a hiphop beat and poetry about liberation while alive.
Melinda has short gray hair growing back in after chemo. A blue and white sleeve that looks like a tattoo squeezes her arm to reduce swelling from lymphedema. She sways and jumps, comfortable in her own skin.
Lydia rotates vigorously left to right, favoring her right knee. Before we began, she shared she has an MRI this afternoon. She shakes off tension and fear.
Sarah barely moves. The youngest in the group, her treatment is long over, but fatigue and emotional recovery continue. Wavy red hair sways from side to side as she bends and slowly swoops.
Andi is newest to yoga class. Her bemused expression seems to say “I can’t believe I’m dancing around like this – wait until I tell my friends how strange and funny it was.”
When she introduced herself, she said she was here to change her patterns.
Each of us in the room resonates with a desire to feel free, spacious, and connected to a deeper pulse of life through our breathing and dancing. More than most, we know how fast time goes.
At the end of my own treatment for cancer, my energy was low, my brain scrambled from chemo, and I had a beautiful 18 month old baby.
Liberation from old patterns comes in phases for me. During my experience with cancer, first came terror, then overwhelm, and finally surrender to the unknown.
I’d had to learn to accept help, given no other choice. I was overwhelmed in the early months of treatment and new motherhood by the conflicting needs to nurture my baby and simultaneously address my own body’s crisis.
In yoga class, people often share what they are surrendering: to do lists, expectations and responsibility for other people, old anger, harsh self judgment, shame, old identity, worry about the future.
They are surrendering attachment to who they used to be so they can grow in to who they are now. Marked by both suffering and sacred moments of awareness.
When you truly let go, there is space for something new and spontaneous to happen. Yoga helps with this: the new movement, breath, and mantra all create a temporary interruption of your automatic patterns. New experiences are introduced that feel nurturing to the body and mind.
Moments of joy and contentment can erupt. Chronic pain or tension is infused with new sensations of relaxation and circulation, even well being.
Very slowly, I recovered my brain and began to work again. But the more I recovered, the more I saw every single old pattern that had disappeared, return! First was the pull to feel competent in the outer world. I had an intense drive to feel useful and in control, and to make up for lost “productive” time.
I found myself again ignoring the signals of my body in service to the desires of my mind. Now, I know our culture values this – and I thought it was a good and adaptive thing to be able to do. Move forward in life.
But there has to be an integration and respect for the container of our life experience – which is this body. You would think that as a longtime yogi I would have already gotten this.
This time around, my body won’t permit me to stay in the old patterns for long. I tried to lift too much in a hurry to get to a meeting and my rib cracked. If I don’t make time for swimming, my arm swells painfully from lymphedema. I get the chance to learn over and over to turn towards my own vulnerability and make room for what my body needs instead of constantly rejecting it.
Later, Andi came up to me and in a voice full of wonder at her own courage said: “If you’d told me I would stand up and dance in a group of people I didn’t know, with no inhibitions, the same week I had chemo, I’d never have believed you.”
Interrupting old patterns is an ongoing process, not fixed and stationary. It’s dynamic and fluid. Just like our dance.