Friday, February 21, 2014

Depression and the Mean Girl In My Head

Depression is such a liar. It can turn innocuous comments and twist them and turn them into offenses. It is like a fun house mirror that only reflects a wide, squatty body to counter a feeling of length and strength. The turn of a shoulder from a friend becomes a dismissive snub. Watching other people connect and enter focused conversation turns into a purposeful ostracizing. Depression is a mean junior high girl who hides in the deepest, darkest corner of your mind and criticizes every move you make to compensate for her own insecurities. She demeans you to the point of tears and ostracizes you to the lonely table of outcasts in the corner of the cafeteria.
I have spent the last two years wrestling with depression induced by hormone therapy I may be on for the rest of my life. Apparently estrogen was the key to calming the mean girl in my head. My cancer was fed by estrogen and within two months of starting on Tamoxifen, a drug that turns off the estrogen receptors that feed the breasts, I was shoved into a well of sadness. Actually sadness is too soft of a word. What I felt when I finally reached out and admitted I was not functioning was despair. A drowning despair that left me breathless. Gravity pulled at my feet with greater force and fear and fatigue reigned my life. Showering took more energy than I could muster most days. Tears came fast and hard without end. The mail, email and the phone became enemies that demanded more than I was able to give.
The mountain of mail and paperwork and list of phone calls and emails to return paralyzed me with fear. Leaving the house risked triggering a debilitating panic attack. Loud voices, animated conversations, crowded streets all swirled in a tornado of confusion that left my brain muddy and disheveled. All the strength and support I felt throughout chemotherapy and surgery vanished. Daily radiation treatments were the only reason I left the house. I was going through the motions of normalcy but each step I took was through molasses.
Depression whispered nasty lies into my ear - you are all alone, nobody cares about you, you should be stronger than this. Sleep escaped me. I tossed in a sweaty tangle of sheets as hot flashes burned inside me. I went to the office later and later and did less and less. I felt dull and uninterested in life, work, friends, family. Depression told me it was pointless to fight, I should just surrender.
I started seeing a psychiatrist and switched therapists after collapsing into uncontrollable tears of fatigue, fear and frustration at my weekly visit with my radiation oncologist. She responded with loving kindness and warmth and handled my emotional collapse as urgently as she would have a physical one. I started taking my first antidepressant. Some days I managed to push myself out the door to a weekly yoga class for breast cancer fighters and survivors where the guided breathing, the gentle but challenging practice and the room full of women who said "oh yes, I know that feeling, you can overcome it. You can shut that voice off with time." It gave me hope. But that hope was fleeting and getting to class involved a walk, the subway and Union Square pedestrian traffic. I started going twice a week, it was my group therapy.

Thursday, February 20, 2014



Today is the halfway point in my yoga teacher training and I can't help but feel a fire returning to my belly, twinges of sharpness sparking in my mind and a smoothing of the ragged edges of my spirit. The days swell large and full with air heavy with humidity and sunshine broadening the hibernating limbs into expansive openness. Joints are lubricated with continuous practice and the mind is active in an attempt to capture the feeling of this space so it can be packed up when I leave and carted home. 

The swelling of days is fluid like the waves of the ocean a constant undulation rising and falling like breath beneath the monkey calls, buzzing insects and caws of birds that ring with intensity to greet the sun and fall further into the background through the heat of the day only to hum and ring louder with the setting sun. 

The fullness of our intensive training schedule feeds layer upon layer of information swelling our minds with sanskrit, anatomy, asanas (postures), assists, history and philosophy of yoga which evoke deep questions of faith and spirit as our bodies are challenged to find the balance between effort and ease. Just as the ocean is undulating in the background, our breath is the soft marker of time within us. It grows stronger in the morning as our asana practice stretches and strengthens our bodies, we root within and connect to that breath, harnessing it to focus the mind and balance the body. The breath settles into the background with the ocean as we transition from student to teacher-in-training and our brains expand to accept more knowledge and our hands energize to help others into postures. Meals break up the day and time quickens at breaks so that eating, studying, showering, beach time and rest are taken in sips. 

Despite the fullness of days and heightened pace, I am not fatigued. Those frayed edges of myself are knitting back together. My mind is understanding and my body is strengthening. I arrived here with the goal of acceptance and I find that acceptance comes easier each day.

Friday, February 14, 2014


The last couple of days I have been a mix of struggle and beauty. I am finding it difficult to keep up with the physical pace, not simply the the morning practice but the long hours of the day. I am working so hard to be gentle with myself to allow breaks and to step away from the social aspect to get rest but I am feeling left behind in so many ways.

Bumping up against my personal physical limitations, whether it is a lack of strength in an asana pose or fatigue from the constant pace of our days is triggering a chain reaction of physical, mental and emotional break down. Sitting here at the half way point through the first short week of only 4 days I fear that I am slipping behind and I become overly self-conscious about falling too far behind.
In these short few days we have been reviewing the history of yoga, discussing the Yoga Sutras, which include memorizing Patanjali's eight limbs of classical yoga (Yamas [ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya & aparigraha], Niyamas [Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Sadhyaya & Ishvarapranidhana], Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi), the Nadis, Pranayaa and meditation. Plus there is the sequencing of sun salutations A & B (the Surya Namaskar) which must be memorized not just the sequencing and breath (which I feel fairly comfortable with) but all the sanskrit names for the postures. And after lunch today we jump into anatomy! We only have a two hour break mid-day including lunch and dinner eats up most of our post-class time in the evening after which I barely have enough energy to read before falling asleep by 9 pm.

I am fighting myself as I bump up against these limits of my mind and body and I either start criticizing my own ineptness and failure to keep up or I harden toward the instructors for setting such a rigorous pace. I feel resentful that I can't spend my breaks at the beach or stay up late talking with the others. I am currently pushing through but I will not be able to keep this pace if I am carrying all of this negativity. I feel isolated and alone in this challenge and bristle at the prospect of being a slower student. That is my ego. That is the harsh voice that has always motivated me to excel.
This morning one of the teacher's singled out my struggle with the sanskrit in class and instructed me to specifically study and memorize with others tomorrow on our day off. This was my plan already and it just hurt to feel singled out as the one lagging. My defenses flew up and I wanted to cry out how hard it is for me, not just the physical practice but the endurance of such long days.
If I step away from that injured self who is projecting harshness onto others, I can learn from this. Learn empathy for others who are slow to pick up what I may feel is easy. I can learn gratitude for my own strengths - that the sequencing of the sun salultations come readily even when the sanskrit escapes my memory or gets twisted on my tongue.
But oh does this hurt. I cannot help but long for my pre-chemo brain that was quick to memorize and my pre-cancer body that had the energy to push and push and push for hours and days on little sleep. What a blessing it was to have that energy and quick mind.
I have to continually remind myself that my intention for coming to an intensive yoga teacher training in the jungle of Costa Rica was not to finish as the BEST yoga teacher ever, nor was my intention on coming down here to push my body into physical positions beyond my reach. I came here to teach myself acceptance. To breathe peace into my heart and mind and learn to love myself as I am - not as I once was, not as where I would like to be, but right here and now. I realize this is not an overnight process and will have a lot of bumps along the way and I need to accept those bumps for what they are, small hiccups on the path. I just wish I wasn't the oldest and largest person here, the most tired and among the slowest memorizers. . . .
On a more positive note, this morning I managed to rise into an assisted straddle hand stand!! It felt amazing! It also gave me hope that going forward I will be able to continually improve my physical practice as well as the mental.

Last night we walked down to the beach for our first guided meditation. Over the last few months, after the repeated advice from various therapists, I have been trying to integrate a daily meditation practice into my life. So far it has not been very structured other than with my therapist and it is often only a few minutes. I am enjoying learning more tools to deepen my own meditation and learn how to guide others to that peaceful lightness of the mind. We walked down to the beach and sat on the sand below the rising, nearly full moon. Our beach is in the gulf so the sun was setting far beyond the jungle trees behind us and over the Pacific Ocean. The teacher talked us quietly through various pranayama breathing and with the sound of the crashing waves I felt my mind settle and become more gentle. My muscles relaxed and I was not as sore. Despite the hermit crabs carting their homes along the sand and flies that flitted around and sweat that trickled down my face, I felt less fidgety the further we sank into the meditation. Near the end we opened our eyes and I felt the gaze of the moon shining as if just for me reflecting in a long beacon of light across the water straight to me sitting cross legged on the sand. Our eyes locked and I felt acceptance of myself for myself in that moment.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Day 2: Finding Daily Routine

Day 2 Yoga Teacher Training
Today was a harder day for me. I woke up tired and I don't mean the sleepy kind of tired, I mean the fatigue kind of tired where my eyelids felt glued to my eyeballs and my muscles all go limp and my entire skeleton feels like a tremendous weight that is fighting the magnetic pull of gravity just to sit up. Before cancer I do not believe I ever experienced this type of fatigue where you have to move in slow motion when you move at all. In my typical post-cancer, mid-depression life this drooping malaise comes predictably when I have over exerted myself or pushed a little harder than before but it can also sneak up on me on a delayed timer after I have followed my pacing and taken breaks and incorporated rest to sink me deep into my bed for hours.
Fatigue will be one of my toughest opponents throughout this month of teacher training. Fatigue means I stay in bed a bit longer in the morning, take more child poses during asana practice and take a nap for most of the two hour mid-day break instead of trailing my fellow students to the beach. Fatigue means withdrawing from fascinating post-dinner conversations to settle down into bed earlier than I would like - meaning 8 pm rather than 9.
Our mornings start early as the jungle calls for the rising of the sun - monkeys howl a ferocious cry, birds sing their greetings and the sounds of other students rising into their morning routines to gather for pre-asana fruit, yogurt, coffee, juice or tea in the kitchen area, just below the open decking of room clusters separated in the evening by curtains drawn around double and triple bed rooms. The energy of the morning rises from the shift change of insects buzzing from the ground, smells of bread baking, garlic and onions simmering waft up the stairs as the sun sneaks its rays between the trees and through the open railings into the beds.
By 7 am we have gathered on the yoga deck a short walk across the property and over a bridge that likely spans a running river in the rainy season. Like the lodge the yoga deck is a planked decking of a gleaming wood with a railing separating it from the jungle it inhabits. We are led through our asana practice and finish sweaty and hungry to wander back to the kitchen for the real breakfast. The breakfast of rice and beans and homemade yogurt with fresh picked fruit. The breakfast with a surprise of perfectly cooked oatmeal sprinkled with aromatic cinnamon. The breakfast of a tortilla topped with an egg and mushrooms. A breakfast that fills and satisfies.
Immediately after breakfast (by 930) we return to the yoga deck for morning lecture until noon. Lunch is another abundance served at 1 pm with more rice and beans mixed with avocado, fresh salsas and we eat as if we haven't been fed twice already!
By 2 pm we are back on our mats for the longer lecture of the day until the sun deprives us of light and the spider monkeys have crept close enough to be a distraction swinging branch to branch just outside the studio even before the howlers have started their ferocious calling of dusk. By 5 we are as restless as the animals and are released back to our own time to shower, swim, write or rest before dinner at 630. Once again, I am surprised at my appetite and the freshness of the food.
Today's afternoon lecture on pranayama (the lengthening or directing of the breath) struck me deeply. As I have flailed about for help and support from doctors and therapists and various specialists on how to pull myself out of the depths of depression my hormone therapy has left me in, harnessing of the breath has been a consistent message and ultimately (with the right medications), has helped me cope with and soothe so many lingering side effects from chemotherapy and the various hormone and antidepressant medications I am taking. I am sure I will write more about this but for now I will just say that more than anything, pranayama is why I am here - to understand this practice and use it for my benefit so I might be qualified to share it with others.
But for now, the salsa music from the deck below me and the sounds of dinner approaching and my growling stomach, leave me to put that topic for another day.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I'm in Costa Rica, Day 1

Day 1 Yoga Teacher Training
The jungle is humming and thrumming with the life voices of birds, insects, frogs, monkeys and other unknown creatures as the sun slips away beyond the horizon obscured by thick trees and all manner of flora and fauna as the sky remains light and blue for a few moments longer punctuated by a half-risen, nearly full moon and the silhouette of a bat flitting by.
I am in Costa Rica, on the Oso peninsula between the gulf and the Pacific Ocean. I am here to practice acceptance of my new post-cancer body, mind and spirit as I study to become a yoga instructor.
Ever since the small plane I took from San Jose touched down in Puerto Jiminez I have felt the peace of a return and arrival. The winding, bumping taxi ride along a rutted, winding road to the lodge I will call home for three weeks felt familiar despite its newness. I reflected upon the energy, vigor and fear I experienced my first (and the last) time I was in Costa Rica ten years, almost to the day, in my past. How I spent my first day lost and bewildered with my lack of Spanish speaking skills and the cancellation of a flight that landed me on a local 6-hour bus ride that has left me with a great love for the people of this country. I recalled my time more recently in Panama, just down the Pacific coast line where I spent 6 challenging yet happy days living in a tent where the jungle meets the ocean on a strip of beach with a new friend who became a sister and 4 strangers who became friends. I smiled at the memory of that time Erin and I were in Guatemala and were stuck on a chicken bus for hours that left us bruised and cranky but filled with a memory to last all of our lives. I have been privileged to experience various jungles in my life in Central and South America so I was prepared for the open air layout of our lodge with single beds beneath mosquito netting with open walls to the jungle similar to the place Erin and I stayed in the Peruvian Amazon jungle.
I accepted the day without skipping ahead in my mind or dwelling on the oppressive feel of thick humidity in February. One by one I met my fellow students as each arrived at the lodge with a name followed by an embrace. I allowed myself to listen more than I spoke, to let others share themselves before I rushed to spell out my story. I went to bed happy with wet hair from a cold shower to prepare me for my first jungle sleep with a fan buzzing above my head.
I listened to the howler monkeys throwing their deep throaty call into the darkness at dawn and accepted that sleep was coming to a close even as I closed my eyes for another 30 minutes before rising. I cannot believe how lucky I am to be here.
At 7 am I joined my fellow students in the yoga deck a short path across the property to unfurl my mat for our first practice. I paced myself and surprised myself with my own stamina even as sweat dripped from the top of my head and down my nose and in streams off my arms and pooling in my shirt. I stepped away from poses when they were too much but challenged myself to hold on when I knew it was in me.
We were fed a delicious and hearty breakfast before applying sunscreen and swimming suits and a walk to the beach down the road. We sat in a circle around one of our teachers as she conducted a ceremony to open our studies. At the end of the ceremony we walked in pairs to another beach with still blue water. I walked into the ocean with the intention for myself of acceptance. I have spent the last two years battling the changes cancer and depression have wrought upon my body, my mind, my spirit and now I am shifting that focus to acceptance. I do not want to spend more time fighting and resisting the change.
I floated on my back in the salty sea and felt light and buoyant. I need to carry that buoyancy with me, that easiness is what I want to internalize. The gentleness. The mantra that came to me just a few short days ago before I flew south and was gliding through snow on a snowboard was "open heart and gentle mind". If I speak to myself as I would speak to a dear friend, I will be better equipped to accept who am I today rather than who I once was or who I would like to become.
The afternoon was spent discussing the yoga sutras and the religious and philosophical history of yoga as it evolved into a western practice. I appreciate the history and the challenge of considering the philosophies as I contemplate what type of yoga teacher I want to be.
The sky has completely darkened to black and the fireflies that flitted around me at dusk were replaced by mosquitos nipping at my feet. As this first day closes I keep reminding myself this is only day one, there are 20 more to come.
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