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The Yoga of Surgery

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Last November, I underwent surgery for a total thyroidectomy. I had spent the better part of 2012 in various states of shock, fear, denial and anxiety as biopsy results and the fate of my thyroid were analyzed and negotiated by my doctors and me, much like the terms of a mortgage.

Having a background in fitness, nutrition, and holistic health, I was hopeful the nodule growing on my thyroid would go away on its own, and if not on its own, then with the aid of good eating, rest, exercise, and plenty of meditation and hands-on healing work.

Unfortunately, the nodule didn't go away, and the biopsy results didn't change. Surgery was imminent.

Two months prior, I attended a yoga class with a friend. After a short introduction, the teacher offered his reflection and intention for the day's class. He talked about letting go, letting go of our attachments to the stories we tell ourselves, and invited us to see life circumstances as events that simply happen -- not as events that happen to us.

In that moment, I realized how attached I was to the story I told myself that I would not need surgery simply because "I" did not want it, viewing surgery as a personal attack on "me."

As he lead us through each pose, inviting surrender and gratitude, I witnessed how the entire class executed the poses without question, without negotiation. We simply did what was asked of us, all the while remembering to breathe, returning to the simple and sacred rhythm of each inhale and exhale. I remember thinking, "This is funny. Why not live life like this, simply doing what presents itself without getting caught up in the commentary of whether I like it or not?"

With each breath and invitation to open our hearts more to gratitude, I realized yoga had everything to do with reminding us to breathe, to practice gratitude while doing the very things that our minds/egos do not want to or care to do.

I saw surgery as another yoga posture, and I understood that I would do the posture of surgery without question just like I followed the teacher's instruction to enter into savasana.

As I lay in savasana ("corpse pose" or "final repose"), I cried -- tears not of sorrow but of relief, like a kind of heart-soul sweat.

For a long time, I had wanted yoga to become more than just a studio exercise. I was interested in knowing how to apply it practically to life. The connection happened that day.

The shock of cancer and surgery indeed rocked my world. I realized so completely that life really was not on my terms. For someone who has a business encouraging people to make healthful choices and "create" life on their terms, this was humbling.

There had been no other time in my life where the call to create became more illuminated. But this time being creative wasn't about artwork; it meant being creative with how I dealt with myself internally. Truly, the when, why, what, how and where anything happens were not altogether up to me but whether I attached to any particular thing certainly was.

The class I attended just before surgery was the day after Thanksgiving. The instructor invited us to welcome each breath that came with every inhale, and with each exhale to thank each breath for visiting like we would a guest. It was this invitation that gave me the very tool I needed in order to enter into surgery with calm.

During pre-surgery, I laid in savasana. I remained in that state as I went into surgery saying a silent "Welcome" to each breath in, and "Thank you for visiting" with each breath out as my mantra. I woke two hours later incredibly clear, remembering the names of all the doctors and nurses.

For the entire stretch of hospital time laying on my back, I practiced savasana, filling up with the joy, grace and humility of life. In those first 24 post-operative hours, I realized I practice yoga to recall the breath while I am in the most challenging positions. After all, this was challenging -- that of laying in psychological wait for months and laying in physical stillness for surgery. I recalled all the times in class I opened up more to the heart and breath in Baddha Utthita Parsvakonasana, Bound Side Angle pose, a convoluted mix of twisting and twisted strength, grace, humility, and awkwardness, and I remembered, if I can breathe in that, which I can, I can breathe here, which I did.

I always knew yoga was about life outside of the studio, but until then it had been solely an intellectual understanding. Perhaps it will retreat back to that, but for now I remain opening up to life, to love, to graciousness, taking in the demands of surgery and the luxury of recovery with the exact same mindset I enter the studio. I am changed by the gift of yoga -- of breath -- and welcome love in the seemingly most difficult and opposing times.

Surgery would have happened whether I went willingly or begrudgingly, but the practice of yoga gave me the tools to enter into and come out of it with an unanticipated ease. Not that it was "easy" -- there was nothing easy about any of it -- but there was an ease about the day of surgery and the days after that I know had everything to do with yoga.

Yoga is indeed a life practice that is applicable outside of the studio. The studio is a microcosm of life; the two are inseparable. When the studio is not available and the external events and internal demands of life have us bent at the hips in Forward Fold or psychologically twisted in Bound Angle Pose, at any moment we can lay down in or imagine savasana, and rejuvenate, refill, and reconnect with the truth that we are more than what we do or what happens to us.

It isn't that we can always create and determine every detail of our lives, but we certainly are free to respond to life creatively.

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