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How Breast Cancer Made Me a Yogini

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When I entered my first yoga class a few years ago, I never thought in my wildest dreams that one day I would aspire to be a yoga instructor. I distinctly remember my response to my first yoga class: nervous, uncomfortable, and worried I wouldn't be able to accomplish the complex moves. To my surprise, I was immediately calmed by the encouragement and compassion I received from the teacher, who, like me, is a breast cancer survivor.

My entire life I thought yoga was for smelly hippies, fitness buffs, and pretzel-like flexible people. Eww! Gross! I steered clear of those types and assumed I wasn't fit enough to give yoga a whirl myself. But today, I am proud to tell you I am well on my way to receiving my yoga teacher certification.

At the age of 27, I was diagnosed with an extremely rare, aggressive form of breast cancer called Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC). Immediately following my diagnosis, my life became a whirlwind of chemotherapy, radiation treatments, a mastectomy and reconstructive surgeries. As a result of my surgeries (and flying on airplanes) I developed a condition called Lymphedema that causes my hand and arm to swell. I desperately needed something to improve not just my body, but my mind and spirit too. My mom and my boss recommended I try yoga.

It wasn't until I stepped foot into my first Cancer Therapy Yoga class that something clicked. Here I was, able to reconnect with my body and focus my mind, surrounded by other beautiful breast cancer survivors. The class was fun, restorative, and gentle enough for beginners. I was in a safe place where I felt accepted, supported, and loved. From then on, I was hooked.

There are numerous studies to support the benefits of exercise and yoga for cancer patients, and I am proof of these. Yoga has helped me manage stress, improve my sleep and digestion, increase my range of motion, reduce pain, and most importantly, stay healthy (aka help avoid a recurrence of breast cancer).

As a firm believer in the power of yoga to fight breast cancer, I recommend the practice to the hundreds of breast cancer survivors I support in my role as survivor outreach advocate at Keep A Breast. Claire Petretti, my yoga for cancer recovery teacher, developed a video to help cancer patients recover from their surgeries and journeys. My appearance in the DVD is an example of my commitment to helping others access yoga even if they are not physically capable of leaving their homes.

During my transition from yoga newbie to yoga teacher, I have had a few key realizations:

1. I love dating my mat. I have a date with my yoga mat each day. My yoga mat would never ask me to "go Dutch" or take me for a "long walk on the beach." All my yoga mat wants to do is support me. Yoga is a personal practice, and I have the opportunity to do whatever work I need each day. This might mean mediation or deep breathing or forward bends or grounding poses. I am my own best teacher.

2. Yoga offers a sense of belonging and unity. Looking around at all of the other teacher trainees, I see a vast range of goals, strength, aspirations, and dreams. My personal goal is to work with breast cancer patients, but we all come to practice, learn, teach, and accept each other as we are. My experiences with breast cancer surgeries and classes are simply my unique contributions.

3. You can smile in yoga postures. Yoga is fun. After a few days of Yoga Vitality and Yoga Delight, or, as I adorningly call them, Tough Yoga classes, I realized how trying to keep up with everyone else caused tension. I decided to ease up. Pay attention to my breathing. Accept myself. I did not need to speed through, compete, or feel inadequate -- that would be counterproductive. I decided to smile instead. This may have turned into a full-blown laugh at times, but just smiling helped me loosen up. I ended up carrying this smile with me throughout the day, which happens to be a fun side effect.

4. We are perfect just the way we are. Each day, each person feels different. I love to be able to reconnect myself to my body. I have had four breast surgeries and surgery to remove my stomach tissue and muscle. My body has a pretty interesting story to tell. Some days it is shouting that narrative, other days whispering it to me. I need to tune in and turn up the volume. Connect with my body. Love my body. Love my boobies. Yoga allows this. Yoga is about easing suffering and accepting self.

5. Yoga on the mat is just as important as yoga off the mat. Since I started teacher training I have a greater awareness of those around me, and how connected we are. Goodness is our true nature, so why not be as good as I can? Speak with yoga lips and see with yoga eyes. We are all pretty awesome people. Yoga has helped me tune in to the important stuff among all the insignificant. I've caught myself thinking, "Is this gossipy?" and "Is this helpful?" more than ever before. I now try to leave the lightest footprint by purchasing only what I really need. I aspire to live my yoga each day.

Namaste,

Amanda Nixon

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