September 12, 2017

5 Things Yogis with Cancer taught me About Life.

*Authors note: This piece is dedicated to the incredible souls I had the pleasure of knowing and to their families who have been given the daunting task of loving and living without them. To their bravery, their vulnerability, their light which flooded me with the courage to write and share my gift with the world. I am eternally grateful. I am who I am in this moment because of their impact on my life.  


It had been two years since I took on the challenge of yoga teacher training.

For the first year—I sat on my newfound license to preach, I mean teach—terrified of standing in front of a room full of expectant students, all looking at me as if I was the next Buddha.

It’s wild how fear can hold such a tight grip on our minds and influence our daily actions. My fellow trainees were urging me to teach, saying I had something to say, and my voice needed to be heard. Yet, I stalled. It would take me six years, incredible epiphanies, and many humbling experiences to finally realize why I waited.

It wasn’t as simple as fear—there was so much more to it than that. It was a fear of being great.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are weak. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” ~ Marianne Williamson

The second year post-training, I began teaching, and my first class had nearly 30 students. It was sink or swim, and I swam. I conquered my fears of being seen and heard.

Although I’m still learning to transcend those fears, here are some insights I’ve learned working in a cancer clinic for four years, and how to apply them to your life for self-mastery:

Take up Space—a lot of it

You didn’t come here to play small, you came here to make an impact in your own unique way. Stop waiting for tomorrow, for love to find you, for the perfect storm of possibility to knock on your door—what you need is already within you, waiting to be received. Receptivity to our gifts is huge.

Each time I allowed fear to permeate my classes, a student would come up to me after class with a fear so true and so humbling, I was spiritually drawn to my knees. During my four years at the cancer center, I watched the disease strip away people’s physical presence. I lost six patients to cancer.

The visceral fear they experienced after receiving the news they were dying was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. It would steal my words, and leave me to do the only thing I knew how to do—stand with them in their sacred space of fear and let them know they were not alone.

I encouraged them to take up space for as long as they were here and share their story and insight gained over the course of their lifetime. This gave them the ability to see beyond their imminent death and into a far greater truth: their life mattered.

They were not dying—they were still living. In the time they had left, I implored them to be true to themselves in whatever way they could.

They were one-of-a-kind, just like we all are. Remember, something may have been said or done before, but not by you!

I realized every time I played small, hushed my truths, and said what I thought people wanted to hear, I was doing everyone, including myself, a disservice. These patients needed me in all my power because it draped them in courage too.

When I stood in front of them, heart open, voice roaring with authenticity and courage, they were moved physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They would often tell me it was as if I could read their minds. I explained I could, because we are all connected, and the thread we had created in that sacred space was so strong, our hearts knew each other.

There was no division. It wasn’t a secret power I had, but rather that I had tuned into the universal vibration we each emit. I stopped playing small in order to be of service to the world.

Stand in your power. It’s one of the most honorable things you can do—and it will change the course of your life. It affects countless others in ways you may never know.

There is Power in Vulnerability

Life has taught us that being vulnerable means we’re weak. This couldn’t be further from the truth. According to the Journal of Psychomatic Research, holding in our emotions has a negative impact on our health and is correlated with a higher risk of heart disease and various forms of cancer.

When we’re vulnerable, we exemplify strength and compassion, and others innately trust us. Vulnerability equates to courageousness and authenticity. It allows us to feel more connected to people, and connection has been shown to be a significant factor in mental health.

Vulnerability researcher, Brené Brown, asks us to stand in our worthiness rather than run away from it. She claims “Vulnerability is the birthplace of evolution, innovation, and change.” In other words, when we stand in our vulnerability and expose those parts of ourselves we’d rather not, we actually create a platform for significant change and invite others to do the same.

Working with the terminally ill, those going through treatment, and many recovering, allowed me to peek into the most vulnerable parts of a person’s life. I’ve had patients come to my class in wheelchairs, some too weak to stand, in tears from the pain, and yet others wearing colostomy bags, or catheters to drain bladders or other organs.

Now, this isn’t pretty. It’s raw, messy, and scary, too. But, they showed up for themselves and they did it unapologetically. They were asking to be seen for who they were beyond their illness, and yet also because of their illness.

“Here I am,” their presence exclaimed. “This is me, and I won’t cover up the scary or ugly to make you more comfortable. I am here to teach you that life is messy and pain is real. But, I won’t back down.”

Every single patient I knew who lost their battle, fought until the very end, standing fiercely in their vulnerability.

Recalling Happy Memories is Medicine for the Heart

This may seem simple, and obvious, but scientists have studied the human brain, and it isn’t pretty. Our brains have what is called a “negativity bias.” Essentially, we are predisposed to negative thoughts.

According to research done by forgiveness expert Fred Luskin, of Stanford University, we have approximately 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day. That’s 50,000 to 70,000 opportunities to change our realities, perceptions and happiness levels. However, we are hard-wired for negativity—about 90 percent of our thoughts are repeated every single day, and, a high percentage of those thoughts are generally negative.

Did you know your brain can be trained to self-regulate your thoughts?

We have the ability to change both the structure and function of our brains, according to researchers. The brain has this amazing quality called neuroplasticity, which means we are not prisoners of our minds. The brain adapts to changes quite gracefully, which means we can change our outlook any time we’ve had enough negativity or limiting thoughts. Change your thoughts, change your brain, and change everything. It’s all one thought away.

My patients who were able to use mindfulness to bring their mind back to happier thoughts, focusing on memories which made them laugh or smile, oftentimes recovered quicker from surgeries (both mentally and physically) and treatment, and reported overall higher satisfaction with their lives. Regardless of how much time they had left, their quality of life improved.

Each day is a perpetual Groundhog Day—with looping negative and repetitive thoughts—unless we choose differently. The good news is, we have the power to choose!

We are one thought away from happiness, joy, reckless abandon, and everything we want.

Try this exercise:

Focus on a negative thought for 30 seconds and notice how this affects your mood and physical state. Where do you feel the reaction occurring? Is it in your gut, your heart, your back?

Now, after 30 seconds, change your thought to a happy one. Again, reflect on the physical changes you feel. Negative thoughts may churn up yucky feelings in our guts like fear, or actual heartache, while positive thoughts help us feel lighter, both physically and mentally.

Our bodies react to the thoughts we allow. Don’t allow negative, toxic thoughts to create a wasteland in your brain. Clean up your mental space and watch your life transform.

How We Define Ourselves has a Big Impact on Our Happiness Quotient

“I have cancer,” so many patients told me, and I would listen intently as they explained how they found out, what treatments they were going through, and I would get quiet. “What if,” I would propose, “you were not this disease, and it was not you? What if this was just a small piece of the beautiful tapestry which is your life? What if you began defining yourself by what you loved instead?”

A curious, sometimes shocked look would come over their faces as they digested this thought. They had been told cancer was their reality, and treatments took up so much of their time, that they often forgot who they really were.

We started doing mindful writing exercises, and I would ask them “Who are you?” It’s a loaded question for sure, and for many it was daunting. They would answer: mothers, accountants, lawyers, wives, sisters. “Beyond that,” I would demand, “who are you at your core?” Blank faces stared back at me.

I encouraged them to create new labels, post-diagnosis, which enabled them to think beyond their limitations. Suddenly, new bursts of energy were summoned from depths buried beneath insecurities and fears.

A light in their eyes they hadn’t known in years would be set aflame, as they became re-acquainted with their true selves. This newfound joy would travel home with them and seep into their relationships with loved ones. Even if for a moment, they were allowed to be something other than sick.

We all deserve to be something other than our labels. Many labels tell us we are not good enough, we are limited, we are undeserving of happiness. But, we have the power to change the way we see ourselves, and thus the way others view us too. You are pure possibility in this moment and in every moment.

So, who are you? This world needs your magic.

Here is a powerful self-worth mantra: So hum, which means “I am that.” Let the Universe fill in the rest.

This Moment is Loaded with Pure Possibility and Magic which is Begging to Be Extracted

One summer, I studied with Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, and during the sessions, we spoke a lot about mindfulness and the power of living in the present moment.

The past and future are merely figments of our imagination, one has already happened, and the other hasn’t yet happened. Yet, we tend to dwell here in these spaces of “should have” and “maybe.” This causes a lot of unnecessary pain and drama. We become prisoners of our own minds—by way of repetition.

But, this moment, the one you’re in right now, and now, and now, holds all the magic and possibility. If we can learn to suspend ourselves in a perpetual state of possibility by continuously bringing ourselves into the present moment, we will achieve not just happiness, but fulfillment. We fill ourselves up, with no need to seek an external well to drink from.

For a person facing their own mortality, this moment is a gift, and they may not have the good fortune of looking forward to their next birthday or even tomorrow. But, in reality, nothing in life is a given. Our worlds can change in one moment, a phone call could bring us news that forever alters the direction of our lives—life is gained or lost in one breath. We owe it to ourselves to find a way to really live right now, not tomorrow or next year, but now.

Stop saying “I’ll be happy when,” and replace it with “I’m happy because…”

Do this every day for 30 days and see how much expansion this brings in for you. Gratitude practice changes our vibrations, those energies we emit, and thus allows space for everything we want to come in with ease.

Breathe it in, this life, this experience, this incredible mysteryand breathe out all your yesterdays.

You are so powerful, so beautiful, so amazing. You are a human being full of love and untapped potential. The world needs you in all your power, so won’t you please step up and let your light shine?


Author: Sarah Martin
Image: Sheila Sund/Flickr
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Emily Bartran




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