3 Yogic Practices That Led Me to My New Self

August 10, 2016    BY Erin Michaela Sweeney

Toward the end of 2010, I felt something out of balance. As a practicing and teaching yogini attuned to my body, I sensed that all was not right. I was always fatigued. But I was juggling two jobs and a husband, and I was nursing a baby sans caffeine, so “tired” went with the territory. Once I developed persistent heart flutters and my second sinus infection, however, I decided to get a full workup from my primary care physician. He sent me to a couple of specialists for more testing.

A terminal cancer diagnosis arrived on February 10, 2011.

If you’ve not been touched by cancer, I’m guessing you know someone who has. In the United States, one in every two men and one in three women receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetimes. Fortunately, more cancer patients are now surviving longer than ever before, but that means many more people must find ways to deal with the aftermath of the disease and its treatments.

After many harrowing months, I received a lifesaving stem-cell transplant on my 40th birthday, July 21. Once the joy of still being alive had waned, I realized I had to put my shattered life back together.

Cancer patients focus all of their energy on enduring chemotherapy, radiation, or even the nerve-wracking wait-and-see approach (what one friend has called “medical limbo”). From experience, I can tell you it’s not easy to regain one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual grounding after the relentless trauma of cancer.

As a longtime yogini, I turned to yoga to find equilibrium after the trauma of cancer, and yogic practices led me to a new and more reflective self. To be sure, the practices that served me, as described below, are accessible and potentially beneficial to anyone (including yoga beginners).

As a longtime yogini, I turned to yoga to find equilibrium after the trauma of cancer.

Pranayama

After being given a second chance at life, I began as any infant would: by taking a breath. Here is my first post-cancer pranayama (breath work) practice, which I used to balance my mind and body:

  • While relaxing in bed in savasana (corpse pose), I noticed, without judging, my natural breathing pace. (Once I regained some strength, I was able to sit with my back against a wall, rather than lying in bed.)

  • I inhaled slowly for four counts (1…2…3…4…), and then exhaled slowly for four counts (4…3…2…1...).

  • Once I had the pattern in my mind, I closed my eyes and focused on counting up to 4 on each inhalation and counting down from 4 on each exhalation. If my mind wandered, I returned to the breath count with the next inhalation.

  • Once I felt balanced, I returned to my natural breathing pace and then gently opened my eyes.

I’ll confess that for the first six months or so, my pranayama practice often transitioned into a nap. But soon, pranayama was bringing peacefulness to my full days as a mommy, writer, editor, and yogini.

Asana

A year after my transplant, I restarted a yoga asana practice with what was truly a beginner’s mind. “Chemo-brain,” one of the myriad side effects of chemotherapy, meant I could not remember most of the shapes of yoga poses, much less the Sanskrit names for them. As a result, I brought the best perspective—that of a beginning student—to my asana practice. With each pose, I discovered new layers of understanding—not only of my changed body, but also of the means of approaching a pose without the burden of my previous perfectionist tendencies. I was content to attempt a handful of standing poses with the support of a wall, as in this sequence:

  • I stood in tadasana (mountain pose) with my back against the wall and steadied myself across the four corners of each foot for a minute or more.

  • I transferred weight to my left foot and turned my right leg out at the hip, bringing my right foot against my left inner thigh for vrksasana (tree pose). Pressing my palms on the wall, I balanced for five to ten breaths.

  • I extended my right foot to the floor, about four to five feet from the left, bending the right knee toward ninety degrees into virabhadrasana II (warrior 2 pose), with arms extended in a T and shoulders aligned above my hips.

  • Sometimes I attempted ardha chandrasana (half moon balance). Otherwise, I straightened my right leg, lengthened my torso toward the right, and guided my right hand to the floor, my shin, or a block, reaching my left hand toward the ceiling for utthita trikonasana (extended triangle pose).

  • On an inhalation, I reached my top arm back, pressed into my feet, and slowly came up, stepping again into tadasana.

  • I repeated these standing poses on the left side.

  • To rest my legs, I kneeled on my mat, thighs hugging toward each other, and sat between my feet in virasana (hero’s pose) for several minutes.

  • I finished the practice in savasana (corpse pose).

Tip: Vary your asana practice. If you find yourself stagnating in your yoga classes, try a new teacher, style, or studio. You, too, may then find yourself approaching yoga with a beginner’s mind.

Meditation

I returned to meditating in the summer of 2014 (first sporadically, and then almost daily). It had taken me about three years since doctors saved my life to feel comfortable enough in my own skin to clear my mind and meditate. Here is the two-minute meditation I used to renew my spirit:

  • I sat on the front, folded edge of a yoga blanket, with the blanket tilting my pelvis forward slightly. (Alternatively, I sat on the front of a chair, with my feet grounded on the floor.)

  • I set my timer for two minutes.

  • After rooting by pressing down into my seat and lifting up through my torso, I began to notice my natural breathing pace.

  • I turned on the timer, closed my eyes, and focused on my breath.

  • After concentrating on the coolness of the air as I inhaled and the warmth of my breath as I exhaled, I noted both the sound of my own breath and the sounds outside of me.

  • When my mind wandered, I acknowledged it without judgment and returned to focusing on the breath.

  • When the timer rang, I gently opened my eyes.

Once two minutes of meditation became manageable, I increased the time. This allowed me to go beyond focusing on my breath, becoming mindful of the spaces between my thoughts. Clearing my mind in this way helped me move past my anxiety over the possibility of the cancer returning, which had held me back from pursuing my dreams. Today, meditation keeps the cancer concerns on the back burner, allowing me to live my life to the fullest.

Today, meditation keeps the cancer concerns on the back burner, allowing me to live my life to the fullest.

As I mindfully reintegrated the yogic practices of pranayama, asana, and meditation into my daily life, I learned to once again accept and even relish each day. Now, five years since my lifesaving transplant, I am grounded in my new post-cancer life.

Erin Michaela Sweeney
Erin Michaela Sweeney is a writer, mommy, yogini, daughter, editor, sister, and napper extraordinaire who lives in Claremont, California. In August 2015, she published Every Breath Is a Gift: Reflections on My Leukemia Journey. Her next nonfiction project is tentatively titled Rest, Relax, and Renew: Beyond Your Cancer Identity. She also writes fiction and poetry. Erin connects with readers via her monthly newsletter (bit.ly/1Rtti2g), Facebook (Erin Michaela Sweeney), and Twitter... Read more>>