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Finding My Yoga

The frigid January night I kicked my ex-husband out, my yoga mat took a beating without complaint.  She absorbed the fire from my feet, the sweat from my body, and the tears from my heart.  She rooted me like a tree while the tornado of his deceit swirled around me.  Standing on my right leg with my left foot tucked inside my right thigh, I lifted my heart and my arms upward toward the sky.  I had learned how to breathe through four months of rage, anger, and emotional upheaval.  My yoga mat gently held me in child pose as night after night, I wept my pain away.  She bore witness to my discovery that the impermanence of ever after is no different than the impermanence of each breath.  Letting go of my nineteen year marriage and life as I knew it was not easy but I learned to uncling myself from the past and live my life forward.

In hero pose I let my yoga mat help teach me to be still in my anger.  Sitting with my right knee wrapped around my left knee and both feet flexed outwards, I rounded my spine as I bowed my forehead to my top knee.  I learned how to recognize my anger, accept it, to imagine holding it the palm of my hand and gently blowing it away with each exhalation.  At first my ex-husband was the object of my anger – a speck of dust that I’d visualize blowing away with my breath.  As I unpeeled my anger I learned who I was really angry with – my ‘self.’  I did everything I could to save a marriage irreparably damaged by my ex- husband’s double life and in doing so, I compromised myself, my daughters, my values, my principles and my own dreams and aspirations. 

Grappling with a profound sadness, I let my yoga mat convince me to take flight in eagle pose. Twisting my right arm over left with my palms touching each other while wrapping my left leg around my right leg, I could feel the return of my independence.  Balanced in this posture, I often imagined myself flying triumphantly out of Salvador Dali’s “Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.” I could see myself standing in the middle of the painting surveying the loss of time as it melted off the clock. I could see the shattered world I was afraid to leave.  I knew this fractured miserable world – and for years I had determined to keep my family together no matter what. 

Like the painting, my marriage had been torn apart by one too many emotional atomic bombs. In 1993 the first atomic bomb was a woman named Karen and in 2002 the second atomic bomb – the one that obliterated life as I knew it –  was a woman named Kimberley. 

When I discovered that “no matter what” came at the expense of my own self-respect, I decided that a leap off the canvas of devastation into the great unknown was the best option.  I learned that when I made decisions that were right for me they were also right for my daughters…even if they didn’t see it at the time.

Yoga helped teach me to be my ‘self’ without someone else defining who I was.  I mended fractured relationships with people in my family and friends who my ex didn’t like.  I made choices that were right for me, like selling the house my daughters and I lived in and buying something smaller and easier to manage.  Through my divorce yoga taught me to connect my body with my mind and my spirit.  In doing so, I found my internal spring of love, hope and gratitude from which my soul is immeasurably replenished and nurtured.  This discovery came not a moment too soon because five short months after my divorce was final and one year to the day after my ex -husband and I began our disentanglement, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

While I needed the steadfast strength of my friends, my family, and especially my father, it was the loving solitude of my yoga mat 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.  In order to face breast cancer I cleaned out the remaining negative skeletons from the far reaches of my mind and I decided to face this disease the only way I knew how – with gratitude and a deep appreciation for being alive.

Four days after my first surgery to remove a 3 inch cluster of non-invasive cancer cells, my yoga mat hugged me close as I lay uncomfortably 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 her laugh 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.

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 yoga mat 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 blue sticky mat 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. 

Through chemotherapy, my yoga mat hung onto me.  Quietly coaxing 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 yoga mat welcomed back my energy and strength.  I put her 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 yoga mat 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.” 

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 her 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.   She’s carried me through three major life altering events in less than three years: divorce, breast cancer and losing a job.  I can count on her 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 – she’s 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.

copyright 2005 by Peggy Nolan


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