In December 2012, my mum was diagnosed with lymphoma. Within a year, she was gone. She went through six months of hellish treatments and brutal infections. Then, confined to bed for the last four months, her physical body faded away. I had the gift of being with her for those last few months. With the love and support of my family in London, and my husband and friends in Michigan, I was able to stay in London, to keep vigil for Mum.
And I had my yoga practice to help me through.
In the first months of her illness, I used to tell myself, “This is the greatest challenge for your practice.”
And then I realized I had it all wrong. It was not about struggle. It was about surrender. The story I told myself shifted to, “This is the blessing of your practice.”
At the time, I was living in Mum’s house. She was in a nursing home and was never going to come back to her own home. I found it very comforting to be in her home of more than 30 years. My practice space was her living room. I would roll out my mat in the middle of the room, beside the fireplace. Mum’s nick- knacks, books, and photos lined the mantelpiece, the bookshelves, and the chest of drawers. A display of life and memories – connecting me to her.
I practiced on my mat mid-morning. My way of coping overnight was far from yogic, so I wasn’t really in a fit state to get up early to practice. In the evenings, I always ate a lot – all the English food that I loved, including lots of puddings. Then I watched TV most of the night – the British shows that entertained me and filled my brain with images that didn’t disturb me. I usually fell asleep in the early hours of the morning.
I knew this wasn’t a healthy way of getting through the night, but I fell into the habit and didn’t even try to break it. Every day when I was with Mum, I shared my eating and TV watching experiences with her. Before she became ill, she relished her food, and loved watching telly. By then, she could barely eat, but she wanted to hear about all the yummy things I had eaten. In her room in the nursing home, she never had the TV on, and was in silence when she was alone, but she listened to me recount all the details of what I had watched the night before. These were the everyday things that we could talk about – keeping the ordinary things going and a sense of normalcy in place.
And so, I came to my mat at about 10 am. I usually followed a short version of the ashtanga primary series – at a reduced speed. Ashtanga is actually a rigorous, flowing practice. I took it very easy. I followed the sequence of standing poses and most of the seated poses, but I reduced the amount of flow, and it was definitely slow flow. Some days I thought, “I really should step this up and do more physical work,” but that kind of practice didn’t feel accessible at the time. But I moved and breathed mindfully, and this was what mattered.
I found that the standing poses grounded me and helped me to stay in the moment. I knew that time was precious. And I had to be present for Mum. I had to be calm for her even though I could feel panic simmering under the surface of my being. The routine of practice was soothing and laid the groundwork for when I was away from the mat.
I always began by standing at the top of my mat, coming to tadasana (mountain pose). Noticing the little details of the pose. Feet together. Second toe in line with the knee, center of the thigh. Pressing down all four corners of the feet. Rooting down into the earth. Strong, solid foundation.
“I can do this. I can be here for Mum. I can be calm. I can stay in the moment with her.”
Then lifting the energy up the legs, up the torso, up the spine, uplifting the crown.
“I can be light in the moment. Everything else falls away. We can be together. We can just be.”
Relax the shoulders. Allow tension to fall away. Shoulder blades release down the back. Stand tall. Stand strong.
“I can get through this. I will not collapse. I have the strength I need.”
And then, bring the hands to Namaste (prayer) at the heart center. And chant. Feel the vibration in my body, in my head, in my brain.
I think tadasana was the most important pose for me then. It can seem so simple, so basic, just a pose you pass through on the way to the next. But this is the pose that helps me find my ground, brings attention to my posture, and sets the foundation for practice.
The other pose that was most helpful then was uttitha hasta padangustasana (extended hand to big toe pose). The pose reminded me that I could find balance and that I was strong. Even though my sequence was short, I always gave this one a try.
Stand on one leg and lift and extend the other leg out in front, taking a clasp on the big toe on that same side as the lifted leg. Ground the standing leg strongly. Bring the other hand to the hip of the standing leg. Connect with the core to bring strength and stability to the pose. And softly fix the gaze to help with balance.
My view was out of the window of Mum’s living room, looking out into the street. A familiar view of a suburban London road, lined with semi-detached houses. The view she had looked out onto for so many years. As I breathed five full breaths in the pose, I tried to connect with my strength and courage, just as mum was doing in her final days.
Some days, I was very wobbly and keeled over. So I would try again. Maybe I only touched the pose for a breath, but I knew it was there. Other days, I was surprised how strong and steady I felt. A pose is never the same. Every time we come into a pose, it is a different experience. But the approach to the pose is the same. The pieces of the pose are the same. The routine remains reassuring. We have to let go of the outcome – sometimes things fall into place and sometimes, not so much.
When it was time for seated poses, I struggled to make myself keep going. Once I was seated, I rather wanted to fold into balasana (child’s pose) and stay there. Twists were nauseating after all the comfort eating of the night before. But I would go through some seated poses even though I was grumbling along the way.
The asanas, the physical practice, helped to calm my system and clear space inside. Once I had come through my asana practice, it was time to sit. I discovered that a little cushion from Mum’s sofa was the perfect size to sit on, on my mat. Another comfort. And so I sat cross-legged, closed my eyes, brought my hands to rest on my knees, and brought my focus to my breath.
Yoga breathing practices are called pranayama. Prana means life force. Yama means restraint or control. So we practice control over the breath. Breath control helps us to deal with our mood states.
Without the practice I had developed before this crisis in my life, I know I wouldn’t have been able to hold myself together. I had learned that I have some control over the effects of my moods. It’s not that I don’t feel anxious or depressed any more. I do feel and experience these states. But I have learned that these states do not have to be devastating. I can recognize them. I can sit with them. Instead of desperately trying to push them away, or panicking in the face of them, I can notice them and know that I will come through them and not be crushed by them.
And so I sat. And breathed. I took control over my breath as best I could. Inhale fully. Exhale slowly. Follow the breath. When the mind was tugging at me to notice painful feelings, I went back to the breath. Over and over again.
On the days that this practice went well, I could feel everything settle inside. A sense of everything on the outside falling away. I could turn deeper inside. I told myself it was safe to turn into myself. That I could cope with everything that I was feeling inside.
And I ended my practice by sending love to all those around me, and beyond. I had a mantra that connected me with Mum. It was a way to end my practice, and then I took it with me. I repeated it to myself countless times when away from my mat. While walking to the bus stop, while sitting on the bus, when I walked into the nursing home.
“I love you, Mum. I love you with all my heart. I send you love. I send you comfort. I send you peace.”
And then it was time to get off my mat. Time to live the experience.
Without my years of yoga practice, I know I would not have had the skills to cope.
My practice grounded me, calmed me, gave me strength, and kept me in the present moment. These were the blessings of my practice.
Join me in my workshop Sunday, Yoga for Mental Health.
1 p.m., Dec. 14, Just B Yoga, 106 Island Avenue.
Learn more HERE.