Wherever you are on your journey with cancer, you can safely practice the sequences in chapters
Grace and Breath. These sequences cultivate
mental and physical relaxation, and are the starting point for the rest of your yoga practice.
When I was new to yoga, I focused on the joyous physicality of the practice. My intent was to build
the strength, flexibility and stamina needed to achieve certain poses and to keep up in advanced
classes. While satisfying and empowering, ultimately this way of practicing yoga lacked heart and
meaning for me. These days, I still revel in the physical practice, but I also honor and express my
heartfelt truths and desires, my true self, on my yoga mat. Practicing yoga now feels holy and filled
How you define the source of grace is entirely personal. Over the years, I have taught yoga to people
of many diverse faiths, to people who define themselves as non-religious spiritual seekers, and to
atheists. The non-denominational practices of yoga are available to people of all wisdom traditions,
whether you understand the source of grace to be God, the Divine, Mother Mary, Mother Nature, Buddha
Nature, Shiva and Shakti, the best of the human spirit, or the power of love.
Here is my personal experience of opening to grace in my yoga practice. I begin by sitting quietly
and comfortably for five minutes or so, with eyes closed, and settle into the spacious, steady
breathing detailed in the chapter Breath. I don't try to push
thoughts away, nor do I try to "think positively." Rather, my mind begins to quiet through the
process of resting my awareness on each breath and watching its effect on my body. Focusing on my body
and breath during yoga feels, to me, like being completely engrossed in an exciting project or a
gripping book. Because my own little world becomes so interesting, I'm only tangentially aware of
sounds around me and other people in the room.
As I sit quietly, I take note of how I truly feel, both physically and emotionally. While the truth is
not always pretty, I try not to ignore or deny my feelings. For instance, I may begin my yoga practice
alternately concerned about a friend's health, angry about an argument I just had, and thinking about
an upcoming deadline. Rather than pushing those thoughts away or judging myself for them, I try to be
a compassionate witness for whatever is true. Especially when times are hard, I try to be as kind to
myself as I am to my sweet toddler when he bumps his head and cries.
Then I move into a slow, steady flow of yoga poses, such as the sequences detailed in chapters
Strength and Courage. I pay attention to my alignment, observe my
breath – and occasionally think about how mad I am and also that I need to pick up milk and
bananas. While the constant chatter of my thoughts, of worries and plans and memories, may still be
there, it's as if the volume keeps going down on that part of my mind. Gradually, most of my awareness
becomes quiet and expansive. Beneath the chatter of my thoughts lie deeper truths. From that place of
truthfulness, I then make a dedication for my practice.
What often happens is that a dedication just bubbles up, usually toward the beginning of my practice
as I am sitting quietly or warming up in the first few poses. For me, this unveiling comes as a result
of bringing my awareness into the present moment, which I do by resting my attention on how the
sensations of my breath and body change in response to each slow inhale and exhale.
For instance, if what bubbles up is sadness and fear for my friend who is ill, then I dedicate my
practice to her. I visualize her face, or imagine holding her hands in mine. I might imagine moving
strongly for her at a time when she cannot. I might envision surrounding her with love, like wrapping
a soft quilt around her shoulders. I might embody peaceful images, as if I could move as easily as a
fish in calm waters, or stand as tranquil and still as a mountain. Sometimes words or phrases float
through my mind, like "mercy," or "this too shall pass" or "peace be with you."
If what bubbles up are strong feelings of anger, I may choose to dedicate my practice to cultivating
inner strength and courage. I might channel that fiery energy into stoking up my practice. I may move
energetically, challenge myself by holding poses for a few breaths longer than usual, and visualize
myself as a warrior standing tall and proud. Conversely, I may choose to dedicate my practice to
clarity, slowing down my movements so that I have time to thoughtfully explore each pose and to
listen for inner wisdom.
Even on very bad days, often what bubbles up is gratitude – or a deep yearning to dwell in
gratitude – and I dedicate my practice accordingly. When I take my arms out to the side in a
pose, I might imagine that I'm opening my arms wide into an embrace. When I come into a spinal twist,
I may visualize turning toward my loved ones. While practicing, I might suddenly realize that I owe
my husband an apology, or that I have multi-tasked so efficiently that I haven't truly connected with
my little boy that day. Images come to me, like of my son hippity-hopping around our home, singing
little songs to himself, or the wonderful smell of my husband's neck, or how lovely this pose feels.
Sometimes I feel great joy well up inside me, like my heart could burst with gladness.
During hard times when there's no joy or gladness to be found, even experiencing glimmers of peace or
hope during my yoga practice have helped to sustain me.
There are rich results to dedicating my practice. Even after more than a decade of doing yoga, I am
always surprised when, focusing on my breath and the details of whatever pose I am in, I receive a
flash of understanding, or an extraordinary inspiration, or a jaw-dropping realization. Also, my
intentions for my practice spill over into the rest of my day. Seemingly without effort or thought,
I act in ways congruent with my intentions. I find the strength to do hard things. I gain perspective,
so that small problems don't bother me as much. I feel happy. I have more patience. Or, I become
extremely impatient with situations that I've realized drain me and that I need to end with integrity.
Practicing yoga with intention helps me to act with clarity, truthfulness, and kindness in my daily
life. I attribute the results of my yoga practice as gifts of grace.
Certainly not every practice is life-changing for me. Most of the time after yoga I just feel
pleasantly refreshed. But over time, yoga has been both transformational and an oasis of peace as I
have opened myself to grace.
And so, as you practice the breathing and yoga poses in this book, I invite you to open yourself to
grace. I invite you to bring all of your emotions and thoughts to your yoga practice, even if what
you feel is overwhelming fear, or rage at your cancer, or grief that you have lost your hair or a part
of your body. Fully experiencing what is true for you in the moment will give rise to your heartfelt
dedication for your practice, so that your yoga practice embodies and reflects your heart's fierce