I started practicing yoga soon after I had surgery to treat ovarian cancer. The surgery was my only treatment, as my kind of cancer wouldn’t respond to chemo or radiation. The cancer had fully engulfed my left ovary, which they removed, and my right ovary remained, although my surgeon said they scraped cancerous growths off its surface.
“We can’t promise anything,” was the answer I got when I asked about my fertility status. Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a mom, in this passive way of knowing – I didn’t have to think about it, I just knew. Well, nothing made me realize just how badly I wanted to be a mom until there was a distinct possibility that I couldn’t.
That was 11 years ago; I was 20 years old.
Now, at age 31, I am happily pregnant with my first child, and I am counting my blessings. My husband and I started trying to get pregnant with the anticipation that it may take a while, or it may not work at all, and we were extremely lucky. I honestly can’t believe it.
For me, yoga and cancer and parenthood are inextricably linked. Yoga was how I healed my body and my mind after surgery, it’s been a main tool for my self-care over the past 11 years, and it’s how I am preparing my body to bring a screaming infant into this world.
Over the years, yoga has become an important part of my life – I try to do yoga at least once a week, every week. Cancer and pregnancy aside, as a mental health therapist, I need the quiet break yoga carves out in order to keep doing my job well. On the weeks where I find myself breaking down and crying in the bathroom by the time Friday rolls around, usually two things have happened: I’ve had some really tough sessions with clients, and, for whatever reason, I missed yoga class.
When I first tried yoga, I could barely do any of the poses. Without the use of my abdominal muscles post-surgery, I had trouble just getting up from the floor without help. It took a lot of time for me to stop focusing on what I couldn’t do, and instead focus on what my body was still capable of doing. Slowly, though, over time I got stronger. I could do more poses, I could do increasingly difficult poses, and I could do them more properly. Seeing and feeling those physical changes was incredibly satisfying and made me feel powerful. I proved to myself that I wasn’t broken and that I could exercise some level of mastery using my body.
The thing about yoga that has helped me even more than the physical stuff has been the effect it’s had on my mental state. For me, yoga has largely been about being able to practice mindfulness. It’s about being able to bring awareness to my body, and being able to quiet my mind. It’s been my stress relief, a way to help restore (and sometimes only marginally retain) my sanity.
Both experiences of having cancer and being pregnant forced me to be more mindful of my body. Such rapid change and stress to the body demand attention in uncomfortable/painful and loving/productive ways and everything in between. Yoga is part of the way that I deliberately hone that body awareness that bubbles to the surface when my body is going through a transformation, and it results in a better relationship between my mind and my body. Through yoga, and through each pose, I listen to what my body is telling me. Am I in pain? Are my arms extended fully? Could I bend deeper into this pose?
Because so much of my awareness is on my body and doing the poses correctly, my mind is forced to focus, and it stops racing through different topics of the day. I tend to suffer from symptoms of anxiety – racing thoughts, worrying, fast heartbeat, tense muscles, bowel issues, skin sensitivity – and when I focus on the here-and-now, my breath, and what my body is doing during yoga, these issues all but melt away. I find that if I am truly focusing on those things, then there is no room to be worried. In order for me to be worried, I’d have to be out of the moment, and during yoga I am the moment.
It’s been an interesting experience continuing my yoga practice into pregnancy. Before, I’ve only ever experienced an increase in ability, and over the past several months I’ve had to adjust in what feels like the opposite direction. At first it was discouraging that my body, with its growing belly and newly out-of-whack sense of balance, could no longer do poses I had long since mastered, but I am having to remind myself that of course I will have a different level of ability while pregnant. It’s not bad, it’s normal and it’s temporary. Plus, the shift to a prenatal yoga practice has been helping with my aches and pains, and it’s going to help me push this sucker out with more efficiency when the time comes.
I am reminded as I sink into child’s pose and feel my baby kick me squarely in the abdomen: my goal is to carry all the aforementioned skills with me into parenthood – I’ve been told I’m going to need them.
Do you use mindfulness to handle your mental health? Or another physical activity? Tell us in the comments.