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Yoga matters

The stereotype is that yoga is for skinny bendy white women. I’m not particularly bendy. Usually when I mention yoga to a new acquaintance, whoever I’m talking to tells me they’re not flexible. Neither am I! That’s why I need yoga. Yoga keeps my body working at its biomechanical best, and leaves me feeling serene and emotionally connected. I’ve started calling myself a yoga-vangelist because I often tell family and friends (and strangers in line at Starbucks) that yoga will fix whatever ache or pain they’re complaining about. No, I don’t think yoga will cure (or treat) cancer. I do believe that it can improve the emotional wellbeing of someone undergoing cancer treatment, and get the muscles and heart working in a low-impact way which may ease some of the side effects of chemotherapy. (A little cat-cow does wonders for chemo-induced constipation.) For me the subtle muscle movements that are required for alignment-based yoga achieve the same results as physical therapy.

I’ve been practicing yoga since 2009. I thought about doing yoga for a few years before I finally braved Free Yoga Week for a class called “Yoga for Runners and Athletes.” It sounded like exactly what I needed. I was struggling with running following an extreme case of ilio-tibial band friction syndrome the year before which resulted in 6 weeks on crutches, weeks of physical therapy, and an on-again off-again relationship with a no-running profile. (I was still in the Army.) The first class began with toes and feet and how to stand like a mountain, tadasana. We spent a lot of time in lunge. And plank. And did plank push-ups between down dog and cobra. It was much more of a workout than I expected. The mental part was an even bigger challenge: stay in the moment while you hold a lunge and your quads dissolve into muscle failure. Don’t let your mind wander or mentally check out. Breathe. That was a new experience for me. Thirteen weeks later I was able to run without pain! So I stopped doing yoga.

I didn’t return to the yoga studio until two years later when I was struggling with a torn supraspinatus muscle that continued to bug me two years after injury. The instructor gave me alternative moves for the toughest weight-bearing poses, but also insisted it wouldn’t get better until I worked the weakened muscle. Once again, consistent yoga practice allowed me to safely engage my damaged muscles and work my body back into union. My shoulder became stronger and more stable; it no longer felt like my arm would detach from my body. This time I stayed; I happily worked my way thru the next two semesters until I was sidelined by an unexpected pulmonary embolism (PE) and the cancer that caused it. During the whirlwind of hospital stays, imaging scans, surgeries, and 18 weeks of chemotherapy, I learned what yoga as a practice meant for me. I practiced yoga in my hospital bed and in my living room. I silently chanted the Anusara incantation to get through an MRI. I tried to breathe, which was not easy, post-PE.

I know now that even 10 minutes of focused breathing with or without asana will improve my mental wellbeing. I know cat-cow keeps the scar tissue around my abdominal incision moving so it doesn’t pinch. I try to remember that pain-free running is only possible when I maintain my hip-knee alignment with a regular practice of hip-opening poses, or at least spend some time in pigeon post- (or mid-) run. I still gather my should blades under me when I lie on my back, encouraging that stubborn supraspinatus to do its job. When a yoga instructor tells the class to “enjoy your breath,” I think “you have no idea.”

Because I feel very strongly about yoga (see yoga-vangelist), I thought I’d jump in on this blog contest. You can too!

Sponsored by MPH@GW Public Health

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