I’ve been going to yoga classes on and off, (mostly off), for decades, but it wasn’t until recently that I started going regularly. Because the cancer has come back in my lungs, focusing on the breath suddenly seems of paramount importance. Deep, relaxed breathing helped me get through three separate rounds of chemotherapy, five weeks of radiation, countless mammograms, ultrasounds, MRIs, CT scans, Neulasta injections, and blood tests. Beyond this, though, whenever I slow down enough to concentrate on my breathing—the mindful act of drawing air in and pushing it out—I’m reminded that I am alive, and as long as I am alive, things are going along fine. It sounds stupid, I know, and I worry that cancer is turning me into the kind of person I used to make fun of—some glib, platitude-dispensing Pollyanna in Spandex—but sometimes the simplest things are true, and the truest things sound stupid.
The truth is that for fifty-five years, I took my body for granted. No, that’s not quite accurate, I didn’t exactly take it for granted as much as I tried to ignore the fact that I had one. On the rare occasions that I exercised, reluctantly, and in the way of a small child submitting to a spoonful of castor oil, I would begrudge every accelerated heartbeat, every trickle of sweat—pedaling, jogging, jumping—all the while longing for repose. My body was mundane to me, a weighted container merely, inside of which I was imprisoned, held captive to uncouth daily imperatives, and unceasing possibilities for shame and pain.
My mind was the place in which I dwelled, where all the juice and action, the whirling and the fizzing, was happening. A Coney Island in my mind. I was like the King of the Moon, in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, longing to be free of the tyranny of the body. “No, let me go! I have tides to regulate! Comets to direct! I don’t have time for flatulence and orgasms!” It was in the imagination, I believed, that we were most vibrantly singular, in the intellect that we could achieve the highest expression of ourselves, only in the mind that we might throw off the commonplace and reach toward the sublime.
All this was intensified by the fact that, for years and years, I suffered acute panic attacks that severely limited my ability to go anywhere. I would be at the grocery store, my two-year-old happily ensconced in a cart full of food, only to get to the check-out line and be overcome with a wild terror, and have to grab up my daughter, abandon the cart, and drive home. Or, I would be in the middle of a perfectly pleasant conversation with someone at a party, and suddenly, I would transform into a trapped animal, prepared to gnaw off her own foot rather than stand there a single moment longer.
But, instead of blaming my mind, which was constantly blasting false reports of imminent danger—Watch out! There’s a saber-toothed tiger over there!—I chose to blame my body, which quaked and shook, sweated and fled, falling for it every time. Looking back, it does seem odd how I settled into my confinement: hating the prison that was my body, but not my mind, which was the jailer. I suppose it was a weird form of Stockholm Syndrome—better to identify with power, and not with victimhood.
Inevitably, of course, because I am a dreamy sort by nature, my mind, the jailer, also became my means of escape. I attribute my early apprenticeship as a writer to the fact that for so many years it was problematic for me to leave the house. Never a raging social butterfly, I would have certainly gone out more, met people, done things, if I had not been so crippled by anxiety. Instead, I ranged large in my imagination, while my real life remained severely circumscribed.
It seems strange to say that getting cancer brought me back into my body. Certainly strange to say it in gratitude. Nevertheless, I do say it. When I was first diagnosed, being the nerd that I am, I read all about my disease, about what my cells were supposed to be doing, and what they were doing instead. I know the prevailing metaphor for cancer treatment is war—battling, killing, invading, destroying—but I look at it differently. The cancer is a mutation of my own cells, therefore it is still me; it’s like an errant, misguided part of me that doesn’t realize it’s committing suicide. Instead of some foreign attacker, I see a Goth teenager with multiple piercings, Chinese character tattoos, and gauges in her ears, smoking a cigarette, and trying to hide her misery behind a knowing sneer. This is not far off from the teenager I was, minus the tattoos and gauges, and I feel a certain amount of affection for her. The metaphor that helps me is more crisis hotline than battle; the aim is to talk her down from the ledge, to listen to her grievances—“You were always reading! You should have played more tennis!”—and get her to recognize that self-destruction is not the way.
Fanciful, I know, but, in sickness, I realize what a miracle it was that my body functioned so efficiently for fifty-five years, and, maybe it’s too little, too late, but I am more thankful now for what my body can still do, despite multiple assaults of radiation and chemotherapy. (I do not, for a moment, underestimate what is happening to me; I know that the drugs and the disease will take their toll, and that, in an escalation of the normal aging process, my body will be able to do less and less.) But for now, I can still arch and stretch in cat-cow poses, can move in sun salutation, from mountain pose, through plank, cobra, and downward facing dog, and if I can’t do side plank—well, I never could do side plank—and I can always just hang out in child’s pose, breathing slowly and deeply, inhaling the rubber-y, feet smell of my yoga mat, and feeling grateful.
At the end of yoga class, the teacher has us close with an OM, an exhalation of sound, in unison, that begins with an AH, shifts to an OH, and ends with the buzzy hum of a closed-lipped M, held for a prolonged amount of time. OM is a sacred syllable and sound in yogic tradition, representing the essence of the entire universe; birth/life/death; waking/dreaming/dreamlessness; past, present, future; mind/body/spirit. It’s easy to make fun of, and people do, but there is something profound, for me, in joining my voice to others to produce this ancient, venerated noise. You feel it deep inside your chest, rattling around with the final M sound, but, at the same time, you can’t tell which voice is your own. An energetic vibration builds in the room, and it really is as though there is only one voice, one sound, and it is being broadcast through all of us. It makes me feel both more alive and less alone, also, less afraid of death, because the universal vibration connects and runs through everything, and it will continue in me, and beyond me.
Like I said, sometimes the simplest things are true, and the truest things sound stupid.