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Practice & Gratitude: Yoga Is My Ability To Bounce Back

photo by Marie Coons, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY

“Cancer steals your breath; yoga gives it back.” — Tari Prinster

Like many, a friend (Marie) took me to my first yoga class and I was instantly hooked. I was drawn to all aspects, that were similar to my visual art practice: strength, precision and the meditation of moving from one gesture to the next. Inspired by my teachers, the love of the practice ultimately made me want to teach. It is from this gift and ability to share this passion that has not only changed the direction of my life, but has subsequently saved it as well.

Yes, yoga is my reprieve, but it has just recently become a major tool in the post cancer rebuilding of my... self, independence, gratitude, connectedness and the physical strength that is returning to offer me a means for regaining the health, confidence and the autonomy that was stolen from me by my diagnosis a year ago in January of 2016, and later in March post surgery. Though I did not have it for very long, I did have IT long enough to learn that CANCER SUCKS, and the after effects offer grand perspective and compromises long after. Perpetually in that space, I am clear on the fact that yoga has made a huge difference in my ability to move through the domino effect of sucking and uncertainty that cancer, and cancer treatments provide.

After my bi-lateral mastectomy, I was told that I couldn’t expect to have my yoga practice back until after completion of the surgical steps in my breast reconstruction. This was not expected to be until early spring of the following year. (WTF?! – Seriously?) However, once healed from the first phase of reconstruction which culminated in the final expansion of my tissue expanders, I began a light yoga practice with Yoga for Cancer classes. Moving in ways specifically directed at the compromises resulting from cancer treatments helped me to improve my range of motion, build strength and stamina, as well as to regain my breath and to once again breathe properly. I soon began to approach my practice with a new sense of respect, understanding, caution, experimentation and wonder. I was more present by truly thinking my way into and out of poses with a different sensibility quite unlike before. Within 2 months, to the amazement of my doctors, myself and my teachers, I was able to resume my strong yoga practice, and I began to feel that was possible in my cancer free body.

Yoga teachers including myself will tell you that yoga is not at all about being able to do one pose or another, but about showing up to do what you can with integrity and grace. And though that is absolutely true, (I will speak for myself here) —that is not the way I approached my practice of ANYTHING. By nature, nurture and pure genetics, I’m an over achiever and though having developed a New York City Type A spin on all of my s##t, thankfully having been born in Minnesota to relatively calm parents, has ingrained some mellowness into my mix as well.

We all get attached to things — I love a rigorous yoga practice that involves interesting transitions. I nerd out on the fact that it is in these transitions where the references and highlights of the proportions that are set up in our bodies can be realized. The human body is a big puzzle system with parts that fit and move in incredible ways that also allows us to do stuff! I also like to be challenged and have things to work towards like mastering arm balances, some that I can do, some that I may one day be able to do and those that are not ever so likely. It’s fun, it’s play, some ego and completely unimportant. What is important though, is the fact that yoga works. And understanding that though not every yoga class and certainly not every yoga teacher is good for every person —yoga is good, meditation is key and acceptance is imperative.

Yoga as a spiritual practice, can be dialed up or down. For me, the spiritual aspects of yoga have always made sense and resonated with me. For me it is a connection to ancient civilizations who worshiped through yoga or not, the natural elements and systems. As such, I feel connected to my African, Native American and human ancestors as I revel in the simple and ancient ideals of moving (and sitting) to celebrate the sun, moon, earth, fire, water and air. Yoga’s Sun salutations do just that. I enjoy celebrating and giving thanks for the sun and moon that guide all the creatures that exist underneath. The air and the fire that forge life and its cycles that even in this modern age, are at the earth’s core much like it was many centuries ago. I love how that connects me to the people of the past. It is tradition, lineage and practice.

Now if you think I’m a crazy hippie-dippy yoga nut, (quasi guilty)— and that all sounded too much like some hokie yoga voo-doo to you, forget all of what I just said and consider this: Yoga is scientific and proven to be beneficial for health. Yoga gets us to move our bodies and focuses us on our breathing. Look, it’s really simple: When I am stressed out, I don’t breathe. Because I don’t breathe, there is less oxygen going to my brain, which often results in a headache = Bad. When we train ourselves to breathe more fully, our internal organs also get more oxygen and more exercise as they begin to function better = Good. Naturally, when something makes you feel good, that is something that you want to do more of. That is a change in attitude, or spirit. And when that something is actually beneficial to your body, all will function more efficiently and (usually) feel better. Now that is a bit over simplified but that is basically how yoga works. As I became more relaxed and focused, I felt better, got smarter in my body, became stronger and wanted to do more of that!

“Yoga with a trained teacher works to strengthen all major body systems, especially the immune system. Stronger muscles and bones result along with increased flexibility. We begin to see how the mind works and learn how to use the breath and meditation to control anxiety and depression, thus improving concentration and allowing us to be productive at whatever we choose to do. Yoga is a tested discipline, centuries old, that encourages and rewards self-control. And most people learn yoga in the community of others, which also brings benefits to health and well-being. What other system of exercise offers so much?” (Tari Prinster, Yoga For Cancer)

Everyone's cancer is different, but having been active prior to diagnosis, then returning to movement soon after each of my surgeries did wonders for my being able to bounce back physically, mentally and emotionally. From the start of my cancer treatment, both meditation and light physical practice made me feel better, which motivated me to move, and enhanced my healing. Building on top of that, the stronger I became, the more I was motivated to move even more — I grew even stronger. As I did that, I became more aware of and focused on how my body was working and healing. When practicing yoga there is a cycle of transformation of the spirit, mood and attitude that spurs biological and scientific events towards healing.That has been my experience from which I have found immense benefit, and a sense of control over my own well being and joy that I am blessed to take into this new year.

To read more of Teri Richardson's work click here.

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