Yoga seems to be big in the cancer world. At least I didn’t know much about it until I started reading about surviving cancer. I knew that my Mom practiced yoga back when I was little, and she taught me to sit in the lotus position, but other than that it seemed to be just a lot of stretching. So although I read it was one way to protect against a cancer recurrence, the first mention wasn’t enough to make me consider it, nor were the second or the third. When it seemed to be turning up everywhere I finally, grudgingly added it to that list of things I might try someday.
There are a lot of things I do now that I never would have expected just two years ago. I’ve given up drinking milk and eating red meat. I use soy milk, and I’ve always got a cup of fresh green tea at hand. It was a shock to those who know me when I actually started eating broccoli.
Still, I avoided yoga for quite a while. When I pictured a yoga class, I saw images of an aging flower child chanting at the front of the room while Enya played in the background and incense burned. I didn’t think yoga could do anything for me that I couldn’t get from doing some stretching and taking some regular time to relax. Eventually, though, I had to try it, if only to prove that it had nothing to offer me.
I picked Detroit Yoga using the careful selection process that it offered a Groupon deal at just about the time I had finally decided I should give yoga a try. Surprisingly, this turned out to be a good way to pick a yoga school. There’s no music at Detroit Yoga and no chanting. There is a little incense but it turns out I kinda like that. The school has a seriousness to it that appealed to me right away. And Ashtanga yoga, the kind I practice most often, is serious too. In involves a series of postures, done in the same order each time, with new postures added on and current postures improved under the supervision of a highly qualified instructor. Classes consist of a roomful of people breathing slowly as they work to improve their practice. Talking by the instructor is quiet and infrequent. The learning comes from the doing.
It starts easily and much of it never does feel very hard. Inhale, step your foot to the side. Exhale, bend down to the side and touch the top of your foot. Take five slow breaths while holding that position. Many poses can be done by most people on the first day, if a little clumsily, and much of a yoga practice is spent doing those same things just a little better each time. But they aren’t all easy. For example, while standing, inhale and lift one leg, grabbing your big toe. Exhale, and straighten that leg at an unnatural height while still holding your toe. Now, while your body complains that this is ridiculous and you should put your leg down immediately, take five slow deep breaths. Keep breathing even while the muscles burn, while you start to tip over, keep breathing even if you start hopping comically on one leg trying not to fall down and trying not to injure your classmates. Then, after the fifth breath (in other words four breaths after your body said it was absolutely time to stop), stretch that leg out to the side and hold for another five breaths. Later you’ll let go of the go of the toe and let those tired muscles fight gravity on their own while you take five more slow deep breaths. Tomorrow doing the same thing will be just a little easier, so you’ll hold the leg just a little higher.
I practice four days in a typical week. To avoid having to change clothes after work, sometimes I wear my yoga shorts and shirt under my work clothes, making me feel like a mild-mannered programmer who is secretly Yoga Man, ready to spring into inaction at any time. Harrison and I have joked that Yoga Man is the world’s most useless super hero and we imagine scenarios in which people call on him to be rescued.
“Yoga Man,” they cry, “the building is on fire!”.
“Downward Facing Dog!” announces Yoga Man as he assumes that pose.
“Um, Yoga Man, I don’t see how that’s helping . . .”
“Warrior One!” shouts Yoga Man proudly as he changes to another pose.
“Yoga Man, there are kids stuck in the . . .”
“Warrior Two!” announces Yoga Man.
“Somebody call 911,” says the frustrated citizen in need.
Whoever calls Yoga Man eventually figures out that they’re going to need to put out their own fires and catch their own bank robbers. Yoga Man will be doing his poses and his careful breathing.
After practicing Ashtanga yoga a while, that breathing starts to sneak into other parts of your life. The software you’re writing crashes unexpectedly. Instead of getting angry or stressed, you inhale and cancel the error. Exhale, read the error message. Take slow deep breaths while you find the bug. The puppy pees on the floor. Inhale, pick up the paper towels. Exhale, bend over to clean it up. Take slow deep breaths while you clean. One of your children is trying to kill a sibling over the offense — literally — of looking at him the wrong way. Inhale, get between them. Exhale, redirect the offender. Breathe slowly while watching to make sure the homicide attempt is finished. Gradually, your blood pressure and emotions start to level out, and your relative stability has a slight soothing effect on the craziness of life around you.
So although none of the yoga classes are spent sitting around discussing body energies or chanting, I am learning a lot. I’m learning patience because it is taking me a long time to improve. I’m learning to let go of competitiveness, because I’m far from being the best student there. But mostly I’m learning to breathe and relax during those times that it feels most unnatural to do so. That may not be a cure for cancer, and it may not be a super-power, but it is powerful.
Maybe Yoga Man isn’t quite as useless as I thought at first. He may not run into a fire and drag people to safety, but he can stay calm and do things to help while others panic. I hope I can keep wearing my Yoga Man costume under my clothes for a good, long time, secretly prepared to be calm where there is unrest, to be there and breathe slowly and think clearly when tensions start to run high. I find I can change into Yoga Man at just about any time.
The hardest part may be finding a phone booth.