Category Archives: yoga

‘Snot Good

For reasons that escape me, there is a statue of Florence Nightingale in the lobby of Tokyo Medical Center, where I get my daily dose of radiation.

Nightengale at the hospital

I asked her what she’s doing there, but she’s mute on the subject.
Nyar, nyar, nyar.

I still haven’t made my peace with having a disease that doesn’t make me nearly as sick as the treatment to get rid of it, but if I don’t do the treatment, the disease will kill me for sure. Cancer contradictions are varied and frustrating. Death Star tends to overstate his case, but after all he is focused solely on boobs, all day every day. The radiologist at the hospital shrugged and said, “It’s just breast cancer. It’s perfectly manageable.” I guess from his perspective, it is. He must have seen things I can not, don’t want to, imagine.

All the same, it’s still cancer, and the treatment is no picnic. After a year of  it, I’m pretty worn down. On top of that, or maybe because of it, I have a cold. It takes two weeks to get over a cold, says my mother, or with medication, it takes 14 days. (She is very wise.) I read somewhere that despite enormous progress in modern medicine, nothing can be done about viruses except control the symptoms and let Mother Nature steer the ship.

But now I am wondering how long it takes to get over a cold after two major surgeries, six months of chemotherapy, twelve rounds of radiation (with more to come), endless pain killers, steroids, radioactive isotopes, some really doubtful hospital cuisine and way too many doughnuts. I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, here’s a piece of wisdom I discovered this morning: Do not attempt a yoga headstand when you’ve got a cold. Gravity and phlegm do not get along. You will find yourself in the fast lane bound for Dizzytown.

On a lighter note, Mt. Fuji put in a rare appearance today. I find it very important to find something, at least one thing, to be grateful for each and every day. Yesterday it was the 1/16th of an inch of hair that has appeared on my head. Today is is Mt. Fuji, which is much more significant in the grander scope of things, but relatively insignificant from where I’m sitting. You can have the mountain; I’ll take the hair.

Carrot Tower Fuji

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Yoga!

yoga calendars

I finished chemotherapy almost five weeks ago. As of Monday, it was time to start radiation therapy. To do that, I first had to have another CT scan to make sure my organs are where they’re supposed to be, I guess. At this point, I don’t ask. I just do what I’m told with a soft “baa” under my breath. (“Baa” is the sound a unicorn makes when it’s pretending to be a sheep.)

Next, I had to have my chest marked so the technicians would know exactly where to aim their ray gun. That seemed like a sensible plan. From the extensive knowledge I had gleaned from TV hospital dramas, I thought they would put a couple of inconspicuous dots on my chest. They used to tattoo them, but now they use indelible marker, the kind you use to write your name in your underpants when you go to summer camp.

After they had finished with a bunch of poking and prodding and measuring and picture taking of various sorts, three technicians came at me armed with markers. I couldn’t see what they were doing since my arms were above my head in banzai pose and I wasn’t supposed to move anyway, but they went at it for quite a while. When they were done and I looked in a mirror, I did not discover a tasteful dot or two that could be mistaken for Mae West style beauty marks. Instead, I found what looked like a map of Arizona. My surgery scar pretty much follows the Grand Canyon and the the Hopi and Navajo nations are nestled in my armpit, where they are welcome. Despite daily stretching and yoga, I still can’t feel anything there anyway.

I have followed a very unfocused but dedicated yoga practice for about a year and a half, even more dedicatedly since I started chemo, partly to structure my days and partly because there wasn’t much else I could do. But instead of Vinyasa or Ashtanga, both of which I love but take a fair amount of power, I’ve had to keep to Hatha, Yin and restorative, which are slow and gentle and keep me centered and sane even if they don’t help much with muscle strength.lacquer box

 

I have a lovely lacquered box filled with colored pens and pencils and a variety of stickers and a pair of granny glasses which I use when I write my activities on my yoga calendars. If anybody were to ask me, “Where were you on October 4th?” I could honestly say, “I did a 38 minute Hatha yoga class followed by a ten minute anxiety relief meditation and then went to my final chemo session.” And if asked, “Do you remember any of that?” I could honestly say, “No, not really.” Chemo brain fog has its benefits.

Despite what my regular doctor said about metastasis and pneumonia, and I have since nicknamed him Death Star, the radiologist said that my lungs are now clear and any shortness of breath I’ve still got is because I haven’t been able to exercise properly for so long. He was very supportive of yoga. I had told dozens of doctors and nurses that I do yoga and really believe in its benefits, but I mostly got blank stares, sometimes even condescending sneers. Death Star scoffed at me, saying, “Yoga is easy.” I just raised an eyebrow and said, gently, “There are lots of different kinds of yoga.”

For the first time in a long time, I’m starting to feel better. The evil chemo monster, kicking and screaming, is finally being dragged off center stage. Fears of some sort of horrid mutiny inside my lungs appear to have been unfounded. Radiation, so far at least, is quick and easy and unlikely to make me grow horns or start speaking in tongues. And I have permission to get back, gently at least, to doing some real muscle work. And that pretty much brings us full circle. I first noticed the lump about a year ago, just when I had started working on doing a yoga headstand. And now I’m back to working on the headstand. If you don’t believe me, proof is in the peacock.peacock butt

 

Do I feel vindicated? You betcha. Does it matter? Not a whit. The fact that I am starting to feel better matters more than anything else.

Things Change

Rebecca Quirk unicorn

Late last fall, I wrote about the faceless old lady who had vanished into the dust along with her house. The site is now a parking lot and she is gone without a trace.

Late last fall, I finally managed to do a yoga headstand on my own. I was rather pleased with myself.

A couple of days after that, I found a lump in my breast.

Fast forward six months. Countless doctor and hospital appointments and two major surgeries later, I am now a person living with cancer. My body and life are changed forever.

Other than knee surgery 25 years ago, I’d never had much to do with the medical world beyond being grateful not to need it. So this whole process has been a series of shocks. It sometimes feels like the doctors and nurses have a storage room full of old, mismatched boots and each time I go for an appointment they judiciously pick one, dust if off, and then lob it at my head. I don’t want to go into all of it here; the details are out there on websites and blogs written by cooler heads than mine. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot to learn, a lot to absorb, and between overwhelming shocks there is endless waiting, endless questions the doctors and nurses can’t answer, endless gnawing fear that must be mastered because I just can’t live that way. I remind myself daily that it is what it is; it will not go away and must be coped with.

I used to schedule my haircut appointments on Wednesday mornings, because that’s when the salon wasn’t busy. They’d give me a nice, long head massage when they washed my hair, then a hand massage, sometimes two people at once, while my favorite cutter did my hair. It was heavenly. But the salon changed owners and my favorite cutter got transferred to a spiffy salon in a spiffy neighborhood which is just a tad too spiff for me.

Wednesday mornings are now designated chemotherapy time at the doctor’s office. The people who work there are all terribly kind and understanding. There is genuine compassion in their eyes; they know I don’t want to be there. But even so it’s hard to walk through the door. The urge to turn and flee is strong. Instead of massaging my head and hands, they’re going to pump poison into my body. And I’m going to let them and try to be graceful about it. As a very wise friend said early on, “It’s your boob or your life. Pick one.” Seems an obvious choice.

Something I have learned is that you don’t really “treat” cancer. You don’t even fight it, really. You either cut it out or you kill it. It comes down to a primal animal instinct: kill or be killed. It’s as simple as that.

And so I step forward into the unknowable, shoulders squared and head held high. If I need to take a moment to sit down and rest, I know I have my family and my friends and my tribe and the Goddess and the unicorns, and they’re all on my side. You couldn’t ask for fiercer allies than that.

Lisa Edmonds unicorn

Murder Is Bad

murder-meme1Peas and Cougars is one of my favorite blogs and the woman who writes it, Rae, pointed out that I would be a bad person and bad things would happen to me if I didn’t share this meme. Just to be safe, I decided it deserved a whole blog post. Allow me to explain.

It’s true that English, especially American English, greedily gobbles up words from other languages, generally mangling the original pronunciation in the process. Excellent examples include kimono, karate and karaoke. I learned the latter here, so the first time I heard it in the States, I had no idea what the person was talking about.

American friend: The place has carry-okie on Thursdays.

Me: Oh, is that some kind of ethnic food?

The other day, we were recording some English lessons for sixth graders and part of one lesson was, ‘I want to be…’ We had ‘I want to be a doctor.’ ‘I want to be a farmer.’ ‘I want to be a patissier.’ The narrator pronounced that last word American style with a hard R at the end. I told the client the correct pronunciation, pointing out that since it was not an English word, we should probably use the proper French pronunciation. Better yet, we could use the perfectly good English equivalent, ‘baker’.

Client: Oh, no. We can’t change the word and we have to use the American pronunciation.

Me: But it’s not an English word. There isn’t an ‘American’ pronunciation. If you say that word to the average American, they won’t know what you’re talking about.

Client: That’s OK. Japanese understand it.

Me: (Carp face.) Uh…OK.

There was a time when such an exchange would send me into a murderous rage, causing my head to explode and raining sticky bits of brain onto the client and anyone else unfortunate enough to be sitting nearby.

But that didn’t happen. I shrugged. I sighed. I let it go.

Meditation Cat says…

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Yoga is good. Meditation is good. Not murdering anyone is very good.

A Grand Day Out

I was backpacking in Europe when I got a postcard from my lovely and gracious friend, Leisa. “Come to Japan!” she said. “People are throwing money around. I can get you a job at the school where I’m teaching.”

Her timing couldn’t have been better. It was 1986. I was running out of money. The Japanese bubble economy was soaring headlong into the ether. The crash and burn followed in 1987 but at least I got to experience a year of the bubble. It was pretty awesome, and I don’t use that word lightly.

All of that was nearly 30 years ago, and now Leisa’s lovely and gracious daughter Maya is spending a week with us. We’re having a fine time, too.

One of the things she wanted to see was the Big Buddha at Kamakura, and Kelly just happened to be doing a beach yoga class and picnic there yesterday so we went.

As we sat in meditation pose at the beginning of class, the sun was on our eyelids. I drew the salt scented breeze deep into my lungs as I synched my 15 month tobacco free breath to the rhythm of the surf. Feelings of happiness, gratitude and peace kitten-licked my heart like the gentle waves lapping at the sand.

And things just went uphill from there. We started our picnic, and found ourselves being stalked by soaring, swooping gangs of crows and kites, one of which dove headfirst at Maya and snatched a rice ball right out of her hand; his feathered wing brushed my arm as it streaked past. He surprised all of us so much that we forgave both the petty thievery and the lack of proper manners. We even thanked him later because his selfishness meant we were still hungry and so had to force ourselves to eat some Turkish ice cream, which Maya had never had.

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Just before we left the beach, we were looking for a shell to bring home and Maya picked up what we thought was a lump of coral covered with sticky sand. But under the sand, we were delighted to find this little piece of exquisitry.

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We will never know how or why he came to be on a public beach in Kamakura, nor why he found his way to us, but at least for me, there is something magical in the feel of his sun-warmed body against the palm of my hand. His expression seems to say, “I’ve been waiting for you. Where have you been?”

Having been primed with yoga and sunshine, it seemed that kismet could go hard on us if we didn’t pay our respects to the Big Buddha. He was the reason we went in the first place and he is, after all, very big. He looks serene enough, but one cannot know what’s in his hollow heart. A single stomp from one of his ginormous brass feet could produce a very convincing Monty Pythonesque splat, so it’s probably best not to mess with him.

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It took us five trains and a bus to get back home, mostly because I kept changing my mind about how to do that. When we finally got there, we were wilted. We had salt on our sun burned skin and sand between our toes, but Maya got to cross one thing off her list and I got to add a couple she hadn’t thought of. Overall we were pretty well satisfied and very pleased that we’d made the effort to go.

hot Jane Austin

What beef?

It was another beautiful, breezy spring day today so Kelly and I did yoga in the park. At the end of the practice, she commented on how much I’ve improved in the past few months. (Cue Meditation Cat purr.)

Some of my Bali buddies had said that I was “shredding” the yoga. Apparently this is contemporary slang for doing something well. I said as much to Kelly and got a blank stare. She’s been living abroad for the past three years and knows as much about American pop culture as I do.

where's the beef“Yeah,” I said. “I also missed the whole ‘Where’s the beef?’ thing.”

Another blank stare.

“Oh! That’s right. It was 1984. You must have missed that, too.”

She was born in 1990.

Sigh.

Lombok Magic

On Lombok island, we stayed at a boutique resort hotel called the Puri Mas. Run by a somewhat crazed Belgian, a former ballroom dance champion, it is made up of small bungalows that follow a winding path down a hill from reception past an open air restaurant to the ocean, where the surf seems to be up around the clock. I didn’t get a garden nor ocean view, but I did have…

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…a private, partially open air meditation space, which was…not unattractive.

Just up the road a piece from the hotel was its spa, where this guy…

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…pointed me toward this room…

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…where I had my first nekkid full body oil massage.

I lay down on the table. The massage guy touched my right shoulder and whispered, “Wow.” I whispered back, “Yeah.” And he said, “OK, its time for some Lombok magic.”

“Well, all right,” I thought. “I’ve heard variations on that before. We’ll see.”

And then he did. Hocus pocus. Abracadabra. Voila.

I don’t know how he did it. All I can say is he poked and prodded and climbed around on the table and on me until he gently tucked a misplaced muscle back into place. When he was done, I floated off the table and sat on the porch eating slices of papaya and listening to birdsong and feeling bemused. All I could think was, “Well, If that doesn’t beat all.”

Massage guy also recommended a special Lombok chicken dish, which I tried, of course, since he clearly had direct lines of communication with some greater good. There was an outdoor cafe just down the beach from the hotel, the kind where the roof is made of woven leaves and the floor is sand and the tables and chairs are pieces of bamboo lashed together.

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Perfectly complimented by a cool bottle of Bintang, it was grilled chicken breast in a spicy sauce similar to Indian butter chicken but made with coconut milk. I have forgotten what it’s called, so If anyone can tell me, or better yet find me a recipe, I will write an ode to the greatness that is you.

I know it will never taste as good in my Tokyo kitchen as it did when I ate it with sand between my toes and a touch of tropical sun on my nose and the lingering touch of Lombok magic on my skin. I learned this from the almighty Mai Tai, which is a delicate kiss from Adonis on a beach in Thailand but a sticky groping by a clumsy teenager in a bar in Roppongi, but I want to try to make it anyway.

I will try almost anything.

lotus poseYoga in the hotel ballroom: surreality at its best.

Sideman

I arrived at Denpasar just after midnight, tired but relaxed, knowing that someone would be there to pick me up. I went through the magic doors and there was a long line of little brown men holding pieces of paper with people’s names on them. Mine was not among them. I checked up and down the line a couple of times to make sure. The only contact information I had was the phone number of the hotel but I had no phone and no local currency. So I stopped walking and thought, “Well, this is a pickle.” But then friendly taxi man came over and asked where I was going. “Sideman, and someone is going to pick me up.” He said, “No, no. It’s much too late. They’re not coming.” I insisted that they would and got out my itinerary. Nice man that he was, he called the hotel, who said the driver would be right there. Turns out he had been driving all day and had fallen asleep in the van. No harm done, and I’m glad to know that I don’t panic easily.

After all of that, we rolled into the hotel around 3:00am and I was fairly bleary by then, but was greeted by a woman named Ayu who took my hand in both of hers and a wave of warmth and sincerity shot up my arm and directly into my heart. “Follow me,” she said. “I’ll show you to your room.” And this is where we went.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAAyu slipped off her sandals and padded across the terrace.
She pushed open a pair of ornately carved wooden doors and I saw this.

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And this.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThe tiles were cool on my tired feet and there were flowers everywhere. I couldn’t find my towel for the longest time because it was disguised as a snail.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA The understated beauty, the simple elegance, the sense of fun all reached out to me. It’s hard to describe the way Bali fills up your senses. It’s not just the scents of lotus and jasmine flowers but also the constant burning of incense with an undertone of steamed rice. I see ranges of greens rising above the rice paddies, highlighted with bright flowers in tropical hues, and all the while there is the sound of running water.

In the morning, I sit on the terrace and soak up the atmosphere. The moss on the gently swaying trunks of coconut palms and papaya trees winks in the early morning sunshine under a clear blue sky adorned with the faintest brush strokes of wispy clouds. All around is an orchestra of crickets, birdsong, rooster crows, gekko chirps and flowing water, always the sound of flowing water. Just outside my room, a staircase of terraced rice paddies brimming with water and life makes its way down the slope. It begins to rain, the drops adding syncopation to the orchestra of sound, the concentric rings they make forming popcorn patterns on the surface of the water, always changing, each unique.

Despite the drought on other parts of the island, at that altitude the ever flowing water seeks lower climes, meandering from the heights through rice paddies, the myriad swimming pools and carved stone fountains, always flowing, always seeking, somehow seeming to know its destination.

The earth is sodden, so the many buildings that make up the hotel complex are connected by rutted stone and concrete walkways. One quickly learns to carry a flashlight and walk gingerly, especially in the dark. On the first night, I stumble on the way to dinner, scrape my elbow and bash my knee. The knee is all right, jut bruised, but for the rest of the trip I can’t put my weight on it. One of the women in my group notices me icing it down and asks what happened.

“I fell, that first night,” I said. “Didn’t you notice me doing very strange yoga?”

“Yes, I noticed,” she said. “I just thought you were doing really advanced poses.”

There is something almost mystical about doing yoga in those surroundings. I work my way into a pose then look up. The inrush of sights, sounds and scents fills me with both joy and a profound longing, as if I could somehow know everything that can be known, see the ageless connections among all living things and find peace, a peace that reaches from the bottoms of my feet through the top of my head and out into the infinite universe.

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