In 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer a few months short of my 40th birthday.
Fast forward to 2020. I’m three years cancer-free – but I was laid off for the first time in my life in the early stages of a global pandemic. I’m going on month four of unemployment with no real sense of when the job market will pick up again.
You might say the last four years have been difficult. But, thanks to everything I learned from yoga, I’m not just surviving – I’m thriving.
Yoga taught me there will always be external circumstances we cannot control. But we can control how we show up for the fight, one day at a time, and live our best lives in the process.
Hoping that my secret sauce for resilience can help others navigate through adversity, here are the top four things I learned from yoga that helped me crush cancer and crisis.
Let’s get this one out of way: There are things you can control, but for the most part, much of what lies in the future is simply beyond our control. You can’t determine how the cancer responds to radiation, you can’t predict what crazy turn the novel Coronavirus will take next week, and you can’t even pretend to know what your wacky uncle will say at your wedding. There are simply things in this world that are too big, too divine, too unknown, and our job is NOT to figure them out. Yoga taught me our job is to stay present in the moment by taking care of ourselves and our loved ones, and being the best version of ourselves when we show up for battle.
Whether it’s an annoying situation at work or an unimaginable crisis, we as humans like to pretend that, if we think about something hard enough or long enough, we can make it go away or crack the code. But more often, the answer is to stop thinking, be still, and start paying attention. “Leave your junk at the door, you are welcoming to pick it back up again on your way out,” as several of my yoga teachers like to say. Be present in the “what is” and not drowning yourself in “what ifs.” As you work on this practice of mindfulness, it gets easier and easier to immediately know what’s important and what’s not, to be able to cut out the millions of stressful and unnecessary things we create in our own lives every day. The first step is to stop and listen and then surrender to reality, even though we may certainly not like what’s happening, so you are able to respond instead of react.
2. Invest in Self Care
As we learned from the airlines, it’s imperative to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. Self care is all the things you already know – sleep, diet, exercise, pampering, and (in moderation) whatever coping mechanism you are temporarily using to get through a global pandemic. But it is much deeper than that. Yoga taught me how to really listen to my body. To know if today is a 20,000-step-day or a Netflix marathon day. And then give myself permission to honor my body and where it is at today. To always be asking, “What helps me feel better/best physically, emotionally, and spiritually? And if something doesn’t, why on Earth would I even consider doing it?” To focus on the people, activities and thoughts that give me joy and health and strength — and avoiding anything and anyone that drains me. This was such a helpful tool during cancer, and I continue to employ it regularly today.
By investing in self care, you will be able to show up for your loved ones, family, boss, community, kids, pets, neighborhood, extended family. It is such a crucial thing that so many of us forget. As we emerge from the current pandemic, I hope we will all be able to spend more time taking care of ourselves so we can do a better job of taking care of the world.
3. Grace, a.k.a. Give Yourself (and Others) a Break
This lesson has been among the hardest for me to learn, over and over again. But so many yoga teachers over the years have helped me learn to (slowly) let go of perfectionism.
During the last days of radiation treatment, I was incredibly upset that my physical health was so unpredictable and I was missing important events and meetings I had been anticipating. My dear friend said, “You are beating CANCER. Getting out of bed is an accomplishment. Celebrate the small wins and let go of the rest.”
Even now, as I’m experiencing unemployment and quarantine and supporting friends and loved ones, I have had several days where I cannot resist the urge to beat myself up. It took a call with my current therapist to remind me I’ve set ridiculous, unachievable expectations for myself and others.
So know it’s okay to fall down. It’s okay to have a bad day or look goofy in a yoga pose or walk instead of run today. Feel the feelings, acknowledge the muck. But don’t get stuck. Always make a plan or try again tomorrow. And extend the same grace to others around you who may also be acting like an ass because they are experiencing the most excruciating crisis of their lives. I swear, this world would be a lot happier place if we were nicer to each other and ourselves.
4. Exude Gratitude
I blogged a lot during my cancer journey, and I always tried to reflect on the people, gifts, and circumstances that helped lift me up while I was going through what should have been the worst year of my life. Not just because I meant it, but also because yoga taught me that practicing gratitude helps rewire your brain to achieve a state of contentment. And a happy, healthy brain helps you heal.
Even now, as I am quarantined in my city apartment with no job and limited opportunities for recreation, finding the sparks of gratitude is keeping me sane. I could be angry, mad, frustrated that more was not done to stop the spread of COVID. I could be stir-crazy and frustrated. But I have my health. I have resources. I have the privilege to be able to stay home, physically distance, and protect myself and others from spreading the virus. So instead of swirling around in my head with toxic thoughts about what isn’t, I’m listening to my heart as it celebrates what is. It’s been so fun to teach yoga and volunteer my professional services for all of those businesses and organizations that have helped me over the years (including Yoga Pose).
Do I know what tomorrow will bring? No, of course not. But I am grateful to know that I’ve got today.