Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Yoga! Yoga! Yoga!

If I'm losing balance in a pose, I stretch higher and God reaches down to steady me.  It works every time, and not just in yoga.  ~Terri Guillemets

With cancer officially behind me, I am galloping ahead into recovery. Because my particular form of cancer was asymptomatic, the process focuses exclusively on healing my body from both the traumatic and invasive surgery, and the post surgical complications. I've missed yoga more than I can possibly express. Because I've been practicing yoga steadily for 12 years, and teaching for 6 years, having that support mechanism taken away from me was incredibly difficult. Not only was I anxious and in pain, but my usual 'go to' method for dealing with those problems was impossible! So, I'm especially thankful to be back into taking three classes per week. It's given me a way to regain strength in my body, my mind and my spirit.

I've been asked often enough in the past few weeks which poses (or "asanas") seem to be the most healing for me right now. I've put together a little list to give for my fellow yoginis, as well as for those interested in creating a practice. This list is by no means the limit of poses that I am practicing right now. These are only a few of the many that I'm working through during each class. Additionally, my teachers have been wonderful about helping me find what my body is asking for right now. I fully expect to continue to add to this grouping very soon. These just happen to be 'hitting the spot' literally, and metaphorically, at this time. Would I recommend another person to attempt these following major abdominal surgery? Not at all! I went into surgery in pretty good shape. Each person is different, and each procedure effects our bodies differently. So, please talk to your own physician before beginning yoga, or any other exercise program, following any surgical procedure.

Without further ado...here is the list:

Staff Pose (Dandasana) has proven to be the most difficult asana for me post surgery. While it appears to be incredibly simple, the amount of lower abdominal strength that it takes to keep me in proper alignment has been a challenge. I lost much of my involuntary abdominal muscles. What I didn't lose altogether was cut and sewn back together using artificial tissue. Therefore, it's been very difficult for me to sit up without slouching, slumping off to one side or to just give up. I breathe more heavily during this pose than any other one right now. But, I also find that it's helping me to reestablish those muscle, and nerve, connections.

Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) has had the opposite experience in my new 'post surgical' practice. I've found it to be incredibly affirming, exhilarating and inspiring. I've rediscovered strength I was afraid I'd lost forever. Each time I move into Down Dog, I'm reassured that I will overcome these physical obstacles. Additionally, the variations of this pose ("Walking the dog", Standing Split and Half Dog--dropping down to my forearms) have provided me with the ability to work from a place of strength. Down Dog strengthens many different muscle groups all at once. It also has helped me to open up my overly tight hamstrings that had begun to become painful, after all that lying about. I have felt exceptionally motivated to keep moving in my practice when I am in my Adho Mukha Svanasana series.

Sphinx pose has been enormously helpful, as have many of the back bend series asanas. When you lie in a hospital bed, or do a great deal of sitting, your spine compresses. I found that my back became quite painful...simply from doing nothing. Literally. Sphinx was the first back bend I attempted when returning to class. It was as if I had been sitting in the dark for weeks and someone turned on a beautifully shining light! Just opening up my shoulders alleviated nearly all of my back pain. Sphinx pose also was my starting point to move into more challenging back bends, such as Upward Facing Dog, Seal Pose, Locust Pose, Bow and Camel. Back bends, my yoga teacher once told me, are a way of healing the past. Often people who have unresolved issues in their hearts and minds have a very difficult time with them. I found that regularly practicing Sphinx has helped me let go of a lot of the drama the past few months created.

Child's pose (Balasana) was another one that seemed so simple before my surgery, and was such a challenge immediately afterwards. Because my abdomen remained so swollen, and so sore, for a long time, just getting into this position represented some difficulty for me. I began easing into Child's Pose by creating a V with my knees. Now that my flexibility is beginning to return, I'm working diligently to create space by working towards the traditional 'belly on knees'. When used with the 'arms over the shoulders' variation, I've also been able to stretch out tight deltoids. I focus my breath into my lower back, and am able to renew my energy there.

"Legs up the Wall" pose (Viparita karani) has been a salvation for me. I have a very difficult time letting go of my "Monkey Mind". It's as if my brain is constantly flitting from topic to topic, replaying conversations on a loop, creating to do lists and just not turning 'off'. Imagine a Spider Monkey jumping from branch to branch, tree to free. That's the way my brain works most of the time. Regular exercise is the best way for me to keep this bad habit at bay. When that's not possible, my mind runs out of things to think about and begins to worry anxiously and needlessly. Other restorative poses, such as Corpse Pose and Reclining Butterfly, are wonderful. But, they're not as effective in battling my evil Monkey Mind. Legs up the wall gives me a leg up (pun fully intended) in shutting my brain up for ten minutes so that it, too, can relax. Inversions have a spectacular way of taking the guesswork out of restoration. I can't help but sigh in repose.

Finally, if anything is going to get me back into shape, it's going to be Boat Pose(Navasana). I used to be able to hold this pose for ten minutes and carry on a conversation with a class of my own students, and not even think about the difficulty. Times have changed! This pose is now a struggle for me, but it's also one that I've found becomes easier each time I practice it. Beginning with my knees bent in half boat, I have slowly gained strength and am inching my way, slowly, back up to full boat. Am I chatting and laughing? Heck, no! I'm sweating, and would probably swear if if I could get away with it. But, I do find that Boat Pose is helping me to renew, restore and regrow muscle. It just isn't much fun yet.

This series of six poses is not all inclusive to what I'm doing now. But, I do try to include each one of these along with whatever else I'm doing each day. They're helping me me to bring balance back into my life through my yoga practice. I'm mindful to cut out all negative thinking (and this includes "I hate my body now!") because it really does set me back. Full descriptions of each one of these poses are available at Yoga Journal online. Have fun perusing the various asanas! You may just discover a few you'd like to try.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Love is in the air

“Love is something eternal; the aspect may change, but not the essence.” ~ Victor Hugo

I remember the early days of being in love...my heart beating faster just at the mere thought of my first crush...the way I'd draw hearts all over my school notebooks...the earnest way in which my Kindergarten boyfriend would always save me a seat on the bus, and then carry my Kimba the White Lion lunch box into the classroom, putting it into my cubby for me...the way notes would be passed in Junior High asking me if I liked a certain boy, and to check a box in response if my feelings were in the affirmative....the way my heart literally seemed to shatter into jagged, wretched pieces when it was broken the first time. Love, when you're young, means everything. Crowded, noisy rooms will feel empty when in the presence of your heart's desire. Time will seem to be speed up, and hours will fly around the clock, when you are with that person. You won't believe it's time to go home, until you see the street lamps come on, and know that your mother has dinner waiting on the table. The phone will ring, and your breath will catch in your throat, hoping that a particular boy is brave enough to get past your gatekeeper father in order to speak to you. It's an incredible thing, young love. It is mesmerizing, captivating, all encompassing and bewitching.

And yet, I wouldn't trade my 23 years old marriage for anything...not even to go back to those easy, lovely, dreamy days of stolen kisses and hypnotizing infatuation. There is something even more romantic about the choice to remain with one man for all of adult life. Having met during our college years, my husband and I were still young by today's standards, when we fell in love. Additionally, we never lived in the same city until six months after we were legally married. Our newlywed stage, which I consider to be the first five years of our married life together, consisted of learning how to occupy the same space for more than a few days. Our courtship consisted of a great many blissful weekends together. I had no idea what was in store for me when I actually had to share a house with a boy...forever. As an only child, and then a young lady who went to an all women's college, living with a guy who never went home was new to me. Even though my father was an incredible force in my life, my mom and I did outnumber him, and therefore, our house was kind of 'girl world'. Boy stuff---from the accouterments of Jeff's Army career to his shaving gear in the bathroom--were all new territory. There were entire years we drove each other crazy. We had no idea how to coexist when it came to building a life together. We realized how very little we had in common. However, we made the promise to each other to find that middle ground, and we've been doing so since 1987.

Here are some insights I've learned along the way...during this journey of love, marriage and building a shared partnership:

  • It's better to be kind than right. My friend, Leslie, taught me this one. This was a difficult piece for both Jeff and me to digest. We both have a highly developed sense of competitive spirit. We both are willing to defend our positions to the end. During those early years, everything from how a peanut butter and jelly sandwich SHOULD be made to which route to take on a trip, became fodder for arguments. What did I learn? 99% of the time, it's better to simply let an issue, that doesn't really matter,  go. Will the Earth stop spinning if I've got the correct answer to a trivia question, but mon mari is sure of his? No. Kindness doesn't mean being a doormat over the truly important matters. But, it can be a balm to heal a multitude of tiny cracks in a relationship's foundation.
  • Don't expect your partner to be everything to you. My husband loves the great outdoors. He adores hiking, camping, mountains and sports. I love cities. I gain energy from art museums, great theater, fascinating stores and energetic diversity. Jeff still plays hockey. I practice yoga. I would no more fit my husband into following my salivating, day dreaming forays into Barney's than he would expect me to sit in a freezing rink at 10 PM on a Sunday for a hockey game. We give each other space in which to pursue the activities and passions we don't share. We don't believe that you need to carry your partner with you in your back pocket everywhere you go. We do some things solo, understanding that our choice of endeavor is sheer torture for the other person. Then, we share our enthusiasm. Our favorite trip we've ever taken, just the two of us, was to the unbelievably gorgeous Equinox Resort in Manchester, Vermont. Jeff golfed. I took yoga classes and enjoyed the spa. We met later on in the day for scrumptious, fabulous dinners. We took hand holding walks through the beautiful grounds. We had the right mix of things we each enjoyed separately, and things we enjoyed together. It was heavenly.
  • Make an effort if something is very important to your partner. This may seem to contradict the advice I've given just above. However, making an effort is more about caring about someone else more than you care about your own feelings. Jeff has gone to Broadway with me, and made a huge effort to enjoy what I love about New York. I have actually gone to a Boston Bruins game, and cheered until my throat was sore. I was even a great sport when the drunk guy next to me began swearing like a sailor in front of our then 8 year old daughter. If something is special to the person you love, show an interest. Learn the position, and key players, in sports, ladies. Even if you don't like the game, it never hurts. Likewise, gentlemen? Brush up on a few artists and designers. You never know when a comment like "Really? That's a Michael Kors? It seems way too avant garde..." will make your woman beam with pride. I am not saying that I plan to take up ice hockey (though it would be great for a laugh!), but I do hope that I am kind enough to know which key Red Sox players have been traded.
  • Build a foundation together. This is one area that always surprises me...despite Jeff's and my utter lack of common ground when it comes to personal interests, we share the identical goals for the foundation of our relationship. We made choices, and we continue to make choices, that are for the 'common good' for us, and for our children. Sometimes this means compromise...finding that middle path. Other times, we are completely on the same page. There are dozens of metaphors about foundations crumbling because they were not built on firmly enough. So, discover what that ground is together...talk about what's important to you. Think about what you're willing to let go of, and what is a non-negotiable principle. Common goals, common beliefs and common intentions trump common interests every time.
  • Be appreciative. I can't stress this piece often enough. When the person you love does something nice for you, say thank you. Notice even the smallest efforts. Be thankful that somebody loves you enough to fill up your car with gas, to fold your laundry in the exact way you like or to watch a movie that's not that your taste. Just say thank you. And, say it again.
When it comes to love, there is no right or wrong. Whether it's a first love, being spied across a busy schoolyard, or the precious celebration of a 50th anniversary, it's all extraordinary. Love never goes away. It simply changes, morphing into something new and different with each new experience. If you have love in our life, cherish it. Treat it like the inestimable gift that it is. And remember always that love comes in many forms, in all shapes and sizes, and every piece of it is worthy.