After my surgeries, when I was too sore and stiff to move, a friend told me a story of her Tai Chi teacher who never missed a day of practice, even while hospitalized, because she would practice in her mind. So, I decided to try it with yoga. Unable to even think about stepping on the mat, I’d lie in bed at night and picture myself moving through my practice. I felt my body as it had been before surgery—strong and flexible. In my mind’s eye, I’d see my arms sweep overhead at the beginning of a sun salutation and my body bend forward gracefully as I touched the floor. Arms flexing, they supported me as I jumped back into a plank position. My back was supple, my chest expansive as I glided into upward-facing dog. In that way, I’d flow through my yoga practice. Imagining the feeling of my limbs working in concert with my trunk, my muscles engaged, my chest open. The best part was that after I’d had these yoga practices in my head as I drifted to sleep—body bruised, swollen, stiff, propped up with a half dozen pillows—I’d often dream of yoga. The line between visualization and dream blurred by handstands.
Since I won’t know the answer to the chemo question for another few days, I’ve decided to use this “treatment lull” to get reacquainted with my body. As I’ve said before, thirteen years of yoga has made me hyper-aware of my anatomy. For the most part, this is a good thing. It helps me deal with a spine that has more twists and turns than a season of Lost, and apparently it’s quite useful for finding cancerous lumps. Yet, oozing awareness out of every square inch of one’s real estate has its downsides, especially when it comes to physical pain and trauma. So, last month, for the first time in a long time, I consciously checked out of my body.
I know lots of people distance themselves from their bodies. I know some people live entire lives unacquainted with their physicality. And, yet, I was surprised at how easy it was to say sayonara. In many ways, it felt like preparing the house to leave for a long vacation. But instead of checking the locks on the windows and putting timers on the lights, I busied myself getting in shape. For me, that meant doing LOTS of power yoga because it makes me feel invincible—something I knew I’d need for the trip. Then, the night before my double mastectomy, I took stock of my internal milieu, tidied up one final time, locked the door, and walked away.
Lest you think this is turning into some Sybil-like memoir, don’t worry, I didn’t go far. I just went around the corner; far enough that I could keep an eye on things. And, of course, Mary stood guard. Having a trusted sentinel at the gate made the disembodiment feel doable and safe. And, so, I became an observer of the process.
Like a medical voyeur, I sat back and watched things like the nervous resident jabbing my vein with a needle and Mary telling the drunk-with-power nurse for the zillionth time why the pregnancy-test protocol was a waste of everyone’s time. More importantly, the distance imbued me with a sense of calm in those final nightmarish moments in the operating room–before the anesthesiologist does his thing–when you can’t help but see things you don’t want to see. In the end, all things better observed than endured.
Immediately before and after my surgeries, the distance from my body was a blessing; but, alas, one can’t stay on vacation forever and, last week, I decided it was time to return home. Luckily, re-entry was easy. I simply rolled my yoga mat out and crawled on. Yoga is my fail-safe way to plug directly back into my body. Indeed, the transition occurs so quickly I almost get whiplash. That first day, I painfully arranged my limbs into the only pose I could muster–child’s pose–and I cried. My tears weren’t because my body felt ill-fitting after my long absence but because the body I’d abandoned the month before welcomed me back with open arms, no questions asked.
Since that day, I’ve been kicking the tires and, frankly, I’m shocked at the condition of my chassis. When I walked away, everything was functioning pretty well. My muscles were tone, my back was flexible, things were grooving. Yes, of course, I’m realistic; I didn’t expect my body to feel untouched upon my return, but I didn’t expect it to feel like someone had ransacked the place. While I was on my sojourn the muscles of my back turned to concrete, my arm muscles went AWOL, and my shoulders drifted forward, like settlers circling the wagons to protect their fort.
I am not a wuss. I usually get things up and running on my own. But my body was in shambles. I didn’t know where to start, and I could sense that mutiny was only one false move away. It was time to call in reinforcements. I started with my Rolfer (for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Rolfing is a form of body work that releases connective tissue). To my relief, she put my shoulders back in their rightful place and reintroduced the front of my body to the back of my body—we agreed I’d obviously tried to back out of my body. A couple of days later a massage therapist began to demolish the concrete in my back. And this afternoon an osteopath gently steered several wayward vertebrae back into alignment. Yes, it takes a village.
And, of course, I’m gingerly returning to yoga. Restorative and Iyengar classes have taken the place of power yoga, and I’m rekindling my home practice. Yoga channels me straight into the undertow of my subconscious. Normally, I resist–seeing the value in staying grounded–but these days I indulge by allowing myself to sink down into the deep. Breath by breath. Pose by pose. I tentatively explore the perimeters of stiffness and occasionally bump into the barbwire of pain. But I keep inching into territory that is simultaneously foreign and familiar because I’m on a rescue mission. I’m looking for pieces of myself that survived the looting. Specifically, I’m looking for that feeling of invincibility; I know it’s around here somewhere.