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Yoga and Healing – A Personal Journey

I woke up on my 38th birthday to the cool, green walls of a hospital room in Stamford, Connecticut. Just a week earlier, I was on holiday with my husband and 2-year-old son on Block Island. I stood, on my mobile phone, outside the town bookshop as my doctor explained that I needed to be back in Stamford immediately to meet with a surgeon. My mammogram and ultrasound were “suspicious.” Confused and alarmed, we headed home. He scheduled an appointment, and my surgeon met with me in his offices on his day off to review my films and schedule a biopsy.

The mammogram showed a right-side breast that looked like a snow globe – the calcifications were so numerous. I remember thinking that the technician had known my fate – my most intimate of life-changing information – a whole 3 days before I did! I had no family history. I had no idea that you could even get breast cancer so young.

I found the lump myself. I didn’t really do regular breast exams, but every once in a while – when I remembered – I would check for lumps. I had noticed something unusual and thought nothing of it until a few months later, in the same spot, the little unusual lumpy thing seemed to have grown in size. Alarmed, I called my doctor immediately.

I was diagnosed with stage II, estrogen positive, HER2-negative breast cancer. Being young and generally healthy, my team of surgeons, oncologists, and radiologists threw everything at me. A mastectomy with reconstruction, a 6-month chemotherapy cocktail of Taxol and Cytoxan, 4 weeks of radiation, followed by a 5-year dessert of hormonal therapy. I could not tolerate tamoxifen, so in order for me to switch to Femara, they put me into chemically induced menopause with Lupron. They countered the side effects of these drugs with Zoloft. I was physically knocked off my feet. But, like a warrior in battle, I got back up every single day to face my opponent – which just so happened to be my own body.

To say that I was angry at the cells and tissues and blood and veins of my breasts would be too simple. I felt cheated and deceived. My body was a Trojan horse hiding the enemy hidden deep inside. I could no longer trust and find shelter in the one most important home I knew – my own body. If I was to win the battle with this particular rival, I would have to bomb my own house and send troops into my own veins whose mission it was to destroy the good as well as the bad. I was exhausted, scared, and confused. And then, like any war-torn community, I would have to rebuild.

Where do we go when we need to rebuild? What are our thoughts when everything we thought we knew about our self and the world has shifted so dramatically that every time we look in the mirror we see the scars of our struggle? How do we feel safe when we have come so close to the edge on some dark night that we have nearly fallen off and we can’t seem to catch our breath? How do we begin to find our ground?

There is a Hindu deity named Akhilandeshwari. Akhilanda translates as “never not broken.” She is a fierce goddess who rides a crocodile that represents the fear that usually accompanies change. Fear spins us around, turns us upside down, inside out and right side up again. It blocks us from seeing with the truth. Akhilandeshwari represents the part of ourselves that is always just a little broken, in transition, never whole – and in riding her fear, is offered the opportunity to evolve, grow, learn, and maybe become new again. She breaks apart the idea of how we see our self in order that we can see our truth and embrace transformation. I can think of few things that can break you more dramatically than a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment and fewer things that can bring about such powerful opportunity for growth.

Yoga has always been a part of my life. My mother had a beautiful daily practice that I remember very clearly when I was a young girl growing up in the suburbs of NYC. That was the late 60s, and there were no yoga studios scattered like coffee shops throughout our town the way there are today. She followed her own heart into her yoga. She became my first teacher and role model. I dabbled with yoga on and off throughout the years. Classes were becoming more popular and accessible. But I was not very flexible and wanted immediate gratification from my efforts. I did, however, love the way it made my body feel and how it grounded me emotionally.

I arrived at my first post-surgery yoga class at a small local yoga studio to take a class with the owner – a beautiful woman who taught a gentle and compassionate form of hatha yoga. I was in the middle of chemotherapy. I wore a lavender bandana to cover my hairless scalp. This was the first time I had been in a public place wearing just a scarf and not my wig. In the yoga studio space I felt vulnerable, but somehow safe. I was weak and fatigued, easing gratefully into child’s pose whenever the opportunity offered itself. Something about the experience felt incredibly healing and nurturing. In the short space of time of the class I actually was able to feel compassion for my sad, battered body and soul. So, I kept going back to class. Then one day I actually was strong enough to lift myself up in to urdhva dhanurasana – half wheel pose. That is when I knew my body had the amazing capacity to heal itself and that maybe I had the amazing capacity to forgive it.

As I became stronger, so did my practice become more physically empowering. With each reach I found myself forgiving and healing my body, but more importantly I was forgiving the universe that had delivered this insane journey that I was traveling. Shifts began to occur. I realized that I could connect with something bigger than myself, and, in doing so, I was becoming less afraid. There was a way home. There was a way to rebuild the house that had been bombed. Day by day, moment by moment, piece by piece, breath by breath, I began to rebuild. My yoga practice was giving me the skills and the compassion to do so. Like Akhilandeshwari, I had been broken physically and emotionally, and this breaking had opened me up to my deepest fears in order that I might evolve beyond them.

A few years later I saw the opportunity to deepen my practice and my knowledge of yoga in a yoga teacher training program. I did not think that I wanted to teach – I just wanted to learn more about this beautiful, healing way of integrating the soul and the body with my unique life experience. I came to the program with rounded shoulders – protective of my trauma and my scars. I was still on medication, weak, lacked flexibility, and still held onto a lot of fear; but every minute, every challenge and success deepened my understanding of my own body and the lessons it had to bring me. What did it matter if my breasts were made of saline sacs if I could learn to gently open the heart behind them?

We give away the things that mean the most to us and only the things that we give away truly belong to us. My yoga practice was one of the greatest gifts I could have received from my breast cancer, and it is because of this that I am so passionate about being able to share its healing beauty with other people. It has been 10 years, and now I live in Geneva, Switzerland with my husband and two children. I teach several yoga classes a week to expats living here. Several of my students are cancer survivors or are currently in the middle of the most challenging part of their treatment. Others have their own unique traumas and challenges that are just as important to their journey. I know that my life experiences and ability to forgive and find healing make me a more compassionate and intuitive teacher.

Sometimes the things we least expect are our greatest teachers. If we can stop labeling and judging we can be more open to accepting and growing. At the Omega Institute this summer, I bought myself a card: “Be gentle with yourself – you are growing.” And that, after all, is what life is ultimately about – the capacity that we as humans possess for self knowledge and growth through our experiences and the patience to accept that life will unfold in ways in which we often have no control. We have to let go and trust that it is all as it should be. Sometimes we have no choice but to surrender to change.

Michelle Didner is a certified yoga instructor. After graduating from Boston College with a BA in literature she initially pursued a career in the fashion industry. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 38, she found personal healing, empowerment, and compassion in the practice of yoga. Four years later, she attained her Yoga Alliance certification (RYT-200) at Saraswati’s Yoga Joint in Connecticut, and she has recently completed The Yoga Anatomy Principles course with the Breathing Project in NYC. Michelle teaches classes that are breath centered with attention to physical alignment, inspired by philosophy and poetry. She is now pursuing certification as a health coach with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York City. Currently she lives in Geneva, Switzerland with her husband and 2 children.

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