Category Archives: yoga

Same Moon, Different Me

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Photo by Joanna Ohmori

I continue the slow, tedious journey toward recovery, one painful step at a time. And I mean that literally; the chemo left me with nerve damage in my legs which causes pain in my joints and muscles. That may improve in time; it may not. As expected, the treatment sapped me of much of my strength and energy. What I didn’t realize is how long it would take to recover, or even start recovering. Only now am I beginning to regain some of my yoga self, my balance, my poise. Just yesterday, I managed to transition from one legged dog to low lunge without thumping my foot down. It was a major victory and cause for much celebration.

My senses are still unreliable. My favorite white wine still tastes like rotting cabbages but there is hope. Last night, a drop of shower water landed on my lip and when I licked it off, it filled my mouth with rapture. An ordinary salad sent me into paroxysms of delight last week. Yesterday’s curry was the stuff of legends.

All of my hair has returned except for the part of my left armpit where I was nuked. The stuff on my head is about an inch and a half long, curly, a blend of colors. A friend looked at it and said, “You look…expensive.” I am considering keeping it this short. I like the way people look at me now.

As the Year from Hell slunk out the door, we resisted the urge to kick it’s narrow butt down the hall and slam the door with a resounding bang. Instead, we cultivate peace, calm and gratitude. The very wise Deepak Chopra said an essential element for lasting happiness is a reflective, quiet, alert mind. Peace in the mind opens the heart to intuition; your life is in a state of flow because your mind is quiet. This is the essence of mindfulness, a sort of Vinyasa for the soul.

In that state of mind, we went to Hawaii. We looked at some properties. We were deeply disappointed. The first house we saw was dark and damp. There was a riding mower rusting in the garden alongside a chipped bathtub. The neighborhood smelled of defeat. The second house had tacky paneling, filthy shag carpet and stunk of cigarettes. Then a flash of intuition led us to meet Beer Belly Man, who introduced us to Realtor Ron, who led us to this.

Me at new house

Our new home. Our little piece of paradise.

People keep saying we deserve this after all we went through last year. I know they mean well, but I don’t think merit has anything to do with it. What about all the other people who had cancer last year and didn’t get a house in Hawaii? What about the people who didn’t survive? Did they deserve that? For that matter, did I deserve to get cancer in the first place? Did the other people in my life, and in the world, who are coping with disease and tragedy and grief and all that is evil, heartbreaking, unfair and unnecessary deserve that?

These are not questions that have answers and I will waste no more time looking for them. Life is not logical; life is not fair. Life just is. And I am grateful to have it.

In a few months, I will bid farewell to the invasive sounds of my neighborhood, the screaming kids and motorcycles and trucks and helicopters and always, the incessant, relentless, ear-shattering, soul-crushing power tools. In place of all of that, I will listen to the sounds of exotic insects, palm fronds brushing together, lemon trees blossoming in the garden and above all, coqui frogs.  Few things have ever sounded so sweet to my ears. And I’ve heard a lot of stuff.

I have read that many people find coqui frogs invasive and annoying. I have also read that one of the many reasons for NOT moving to Hawaii is that I will always be an outsider, invasive, annoying. Shoot. I’ve been existing pretty happily as an invasive, annoying outsider for more than 30 years. The big difference is I will be an outsider who isn’t illiterate. And I will be a literate outsider who is living out her days doing yoga here:

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I could live another three decades. Or my cancer could return and I’ll be gone within years or even months. Or I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, or choke to death on a chunk of pineapple today. So deserved or not, this is the place for me to find peace, peace in my heart, my mind, my spirit, peace to accept my forever changed body and soul, peace to move on and make the best of whatever adventures may lie ahead.

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Moving Forward

I happened across the blog An Encore Voyage by a clever lady named Lynn, who seems to be sharing some spiritual space with me. She said:

Yoga sneaks up on you, and quietly changes the person you are, from the inside out.

She’s right. Yoga enhances your strength, balance, flexibility (in every sense), self-acceptance and mindfulness. It also brings clarity and a sense of calm.

Throughout the endless series of nightmares last year presented, I only lost it once and that was only because they’d kept me in the hospital way too long and my surgeon was a sugar-coated bitch.

broken unicorn

When I got my diagnosis, I knew in my heart that it is what it is, no more and no less. In the early stages, I felt my own courage, bravery even, but eventually the treatment process became a matter of moving forward blindly, of not dwelling on anything, of waking up and going to sleep and breathing, always breathing, taking the time to stop and rest and then rest some more. More than anything else, what got me through it all was a sense of distance, as if all of this was really happening but not really happening to me. Yoga gave me that sense of perspective, the ability to accept being slightly off-center all the time.

I want to put it all behind me, but I don’t want to forget. I want to learn what I can from the experience. One thing I learned is that it is good to be grateful when good things happen, and it is all right to be sad when bad things happen. The nice thing, though, is that we can also be grateful when bad things don’t happen. Assuming there is some sort of balance in the movement of energy through the universe, and I do believe there is, that works out to more gratitude than sadness and that works for me.

For now, I seem to have won the battle. I am on the slow path to recovery, the little engine that could, moving into a new stage in my life that promises fun, adventure and a great deal of happiness. I think I’ve earned it.

Sun Salutation at Chuck's

Thanks

True calendar

I finished Adriene’s 30 day True series this morning. It was good, just the right speed for where I am in the recovery process, and the final sun salutation brought with it a sense of closure. As I breathed deeply into my rapidly recovering lungs, I glanced out the window at the men pouring concrete into the foundation of the new house going up next door and I gave thanks that I wasn’t them. My little space heater barely makes a dent in the frigid air so my breath fogged the window as my toes turned blue, but I gave thanks all the same. One does not wear socks when one does downward dog. Yoga must be approached with respect and I give it with gratitude and humility.

Last week I lost my Pasmo train pass, the day after I’d charged it with 5000yen. An hour later I got a call from a station employee saying they’d found it and I could come pick it up. Ah, Japan. I gave thanks.

On Monday I had a wicked scare at the hospital but the doctors went into overdrive and fixed the problem. Their bedside manners might leave something to be desired, but they know their stuff when it comes to medicine. I gave thanks, more than once.

Tokyu shoppers

Yesterday at the supermarket, an old lady was having a hard time with her shopping cart so I helped her with it. Not only did she not give thanks, she didn’t even look at me, just walked away with a “harumph”. Meh. Her problem, not mine, but I watched my brownie points swarm with confusion, not knowing quite what to do with themselves.

Tomorrow I board a plane for a long overdue vacation in Hawaii where I will be able to salute the sun properly, and she will cook some of the stiffness out of my joints and muscles. Then I will stuff myself with mangoes and listen to the sound of the surf and congratulate myself for surviving last year, all the while giving thanks.

I will continue to give thanks, for the sun in the sky and the air in my lungs and the blood in my veins and being able to walk and talk and see and sleep and eat and think and feel and love. Thanks.

Yutenji Buddha

Horsepower

For a long time, each new year has felt like a temporal follow-on from the previous one. What difference does a new year make? Turning the page on a calendar doesn’t mean anything. Time doesn’t care how we count it. Time just is. Time moves forward; nothing changes.

But this year is different. With a silent whoop I tossed last year’s calendar in the trash. For once, there is something to celebrate. Last year was harsh. After the initial shock and fear, there was a slow dawning of the enormity of what lay ahead. After a time, I was moving on autopilot, incapable of even thinking about the future.

Most of what I did last year was passive. I had surgery, slept in the narrow bed, I ate the horrid food (sometimes). I opened the door to the doctor’s office, week after sweaty summer week, and received my chemo treatments. I walked to the hospital day after crisp autumn day and lay still for radiation. It would have been so much easier to run away.

kids statue

I spent an entire year having things done to me. I was the horse hitched to the wagon, the bit between my teeth, the reins being pulled by drivers I couldn’t see. I plodded along the trail, hoping I would reach my destination even though it seemed that each step forward pushed it farther away.

I feel as if an earthquake has shaken all the merchandise off the shelves in my internal warehouse. I see a mountain of mess, hair clips and a Barbie doll and a rubber snake and Christmas wreaths and chocolate cookies and tarnished earrings and broken dishes and knotted shoelaces and a one-eyed Teddy bear, a scratched record, some snarled yarn, a battered shoe box, a single sock.

Some of these things can be dusted off and returned to the shelves. Some can be salvaged, a bit of glue, some polish, a button. Some are lost causes. The coming months will see me sorting through the flotsam of me and trying to make sense of it, putting the pieces back together where I can, figuring out what no longer serves.

To do that, I will eat well, sleep a lot, watch butterflies flit and smell the flowers. I will also do yoga.

adriene

This is Adriene. She just started TRUE: 30 Day Yoga Journey. It’s online. It’s free. It’s the foundation I need to start getting back on track, start reminding my muscles and my spirit of what they can do, what they need, where they are going. Adriene has a an easy nature and a wonderful smile and manages to bring me back to the mat, day after day. There are hundreds of yoga classes online and I have tried many of them, but I keep coming back to Adriene. She is part of my journey.

I have been doing yoga long enough to appreciate the Zen it represents, the thousands of years of practice and millions of practitioners who have put their lives, their bodies, their faith into its calm, gracious power to heal. I know the joy of a pose feeling right regardless of how it looks, the freedom of air moving through my lungs, the pulsing electricity of blood flying through my veins, the serenity of balance, the golden, fleeting, priceless gift of each moment that no longer exists once it passes and yet is eternal in my memory.

A friend said I am a fierce woman ready to take 2018 and squeeze every last drop of magic out of it. Amen, sistah. Someone left the barn door open and I’m ready to bolt.

In 2018, I will heal.

mystic me

‘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

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