THE BLOG
10/14/2014 01:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Yoga and Breast Cancer: How My Yoga Practice Saved My Life

In Part One, How Yoga Saved My Life I shared with you what my yoga practice taught me through the five stages of divorce hell. What I learned not only rescued my emotional well being from the toilet, but it prepared me for the greatest physical, mental, and emotional challenge I've ever been through. Five months after my divorce was final and six weeks after I turned 40, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

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Yoga and Breast Cancer: How My Yoga Practice Saved My Life

In order to face breast cancer head on, I cleaned out the remaining negative skeletons and boogie monsters from the far reaches of my mind. I decided to face this disease the only way I knew how -- with gratitude and a deep appreciation for being alive. I didn't ask "Why me?" or piss and moan about how awful my life was. Instead, I asked "What else am I supposed to learn?"

No one could do my mental push-ups for me.

No one could undergo the surgery I needed.

No one could do my chemotherapy for me.

While I needed the steadfast strength of my friends, my family, and especially my father, it was the loving solitude of my yoga practice that I craved. Breathing into the powerful warrior poses I'd watch the questions as they entered my mind:

  • "Who am I when I no longer am who I was?"
  • "What am I supposed to be doing?"
  • "Am I on the right path?"
  • "What am I supposed to be learning right now?"

In between breaths, I'd listen for the answers. While the answers didn't come right away, I began to learn patience. I became more aware of my thoughts and how my thoughts affected my circumstances.

Yoga and Breast Cancer Surgery

Four days after my first surgery to remove a 3-inch cluster of non-invasive cancer cells, I laid uncomfortably on my yoga mat, belly down. Poses that were once simple, like cobra, bow, and airplane now presented a physical challenge that I couldn't just bulldoze my way through. Lifting my shoulders off the floor for the first phase of cobra pose, something I could easily do just a week before was an incredibly painful challenge. Laying face down on my yoga mat, I know I heard a laugh deep within my soul as I learned to be humbled by the power that resides in not doing. After my doctor called with the results of the first surgery, I realized that I'd be doing a lot of not doing on my yoga mat.

My doctor started with the bad news first. Pathology determined the cancer to be invasive and that it had spread to my lymph system. The good news, she told me, was that this was all treatable with surgery and chemotherapy. I would lose my breast and in return I'd most likely go on living for another 40 or so years.

Whew!

Nine days after having a mastectomy, I unfurled my yoga mat in the studio. Surprised well meaning friends asked me what I was doing back so soon after surgery. My inner yogini didn't question me for she understood why. She knew I needed to be there and move my body - to see what worked and what didn't work. The compassion of my inner yogini supported me, cradled me, and kept me safe. While I couldn't do downward facing dog, I could and did modify the pose and was the only one in class mastering the fine art of the one armed down dog.

Yoga, Chemotherapy, and Radiation

Through chemotherapy, my inner yogini quietly coaxed what little my body could give. She made me dig deep and helped me discover the place within myself where the Divine resides and where I am at peace. I battled with loneliness -- and cancer is a very lonely disease -- only to uncover that by accepting my loneliness I found a freedom and liberation that transformed my perspective on living my own life. Laying in savasana, or dead man's pose, my arms and legs stretched out in relaxation, I found that my someday is now and now is all I have.

During radiation therapy my inner yogini and I welcomed back my energy and strength. I put myself through the paces often doubling up on Monday nights and doing back to back classes. 180 minutes of yoga to which my friends thought I was nuts but my inner yogini knew I was catching up on some long over due work. Plank, side plank, chatterunga, up dog, down dog, back to plank. I'd repeat the series until I heard the white lotus blossoms whisper, "less is more."

Yoga and Dealing With Life's Little Curve Balls

Two months after I finished treatment and one year after I was diagnosed, the company I worked for laid off my entire group. The day after I lost my job I sat in a twist on my yoga mat trying to figure out how I was going to deal with one daughter in college, the other in high school, reconstructive surgery, health benefits, the mortgage, and still put food on the table. With surprising forcefulness I heard my inner yogini say, "Another silver lining."

I untwisted myself and felt an amazing release. After all I've been through I now saw that losing my job was an opportunity to change direction. Inspired by my favorite TS Elliot quote, "If you are unwilling to impose your own terms upon life, then you must be willing to accept what life offers you," I knew it was time to impose my own terms upon life.

I renegotiated a better severance package. I found a new position within days but took a six-week break from the insanity of corporate America. I went on vacation. I started writing again and with a clean bill of health from my doctors, I became a breast cancer survivor.

Oil and sweat from my feet and hands have left indelible marks on my blue sticky yoga mat. My toes have worn out spots -- all those lunges and warrior poses -- and my yoga mat is crumbling where I ground down with the balls of my feet. My yoga practice carried me through three major life altering events in less than three years: divorce, breast cancer and losing a job. I can count on my practice to be there, unfailing and supportive of the parts that are all of me.

The answers I seek through my yoga practice are open ended. I'm no longer plagued by the sense of loss of who I was because I haven't really lost who I was -- the old me is still with me as I create a new vision of who I am. I believe that the Universe is unfolding exactly as She should and I'm standing in the middle of my own unfolding.

Rooting down into my yoga mat, I stand in Goddess pose completely receptive to my own inner strength, courage, and wisdom.

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Peggy Nolan is a sacred bad-ass warrior, vanquisher of fear, slayer of doubt and she's determined to be authentically creative. She's a published author, yoga teacher, 2nd degree black belt, wife, mom, and GiGi. Peggy loves peanut butter, science fiction, beer, unicorns, dragonflies, the color purple, the beach, traveling, and naps. Peggy lives in her empty nest in Derry, NH with her husband, Richard.