I started practicing yoga at a small, one room studio in Johnson City, New York in 2002. I was charmed by the word yoga, it contained mystery and magic and unanswered questions that beckoned my attention. I was back living with my mom undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, “The most curable kind of cancer” they said. “This will be easy” they said. They were full of shit. The cancer and chemotherapy reducing my once young and abled body to a still young but definitely not able shell of a human in record time. My life lacked movement. I desperately needed magic. Yoga called, I answered.
Central NY in November is frigid to say the least. Add in the windchill, which often takes the temperatures to well below zero degrees, and the shiny crystal baldness of my head, the weather was not my friend. The weather was not even my cousin four times removed on my father’s side. The weather could fuck off.
An all encompassing heat embraced me like a long lost lover as I entered the studio. The warm, musky air caressing and soothing my aching bones. The room smelled like labor and exertion. This was a place for the living.
I had no idea what I was in for, but I was IN. My naiveté served me well that day. I had walked into an Ashtanga Primary Series class. This was not Intro to Yoga. It was hard. My body moved in ways it had never moved before. My hamstrings lit up in Standing Forward Fold. My quads spoke in tongues in Fierce Pose. Each vertebrae of my spine sighed in Downward Facing Dog. My body began to wake. I couldn’t do the jump throughs and arm balances. I couldn’t even touch my toes, but I didn’t care. For every one thing I couldn’t do, there were ten things I could.
Cancer created conflict in my relationship to my body and my confidence. The drugs from chemotherapy were destroying all of the fast growing cells in my body, not just the malignant ones. My skin, my hair, my nails, the insides of my mouth, my insides period were under attack. Chemo is just a bigger, stronger, more bad-ass poison than cancer. I wasn’t strong, I was losing weight. I didn’t sleep well. My appetite and the nausea that followed eating varied depending on the strain of weed I was smoking. I lost faith in the physicality of my being. My teeth hurt. I was high all the time. Three days out of the week I was incapacitated from my treatment and the painkillers I needed to manage the effort it took to lay on the couch. I resented cancer. I resented my weak soft body. I resented the insomnia and pain. I resented daytime TV. I resented God.
Yoga showed me that I was more than cancer and pain. It helped me remember that I was a human being, not defined by disease. Yoga reminded me that I could still push myself physically and challenge my body. I just had to learn new ways to do it. Ashtanga was the way. It required an intense amount of effort and will on my part and I freaking loved it.
At that point in my life, everyone treated me like I was dying. More often than not I was met with pity and sorrow. My body was ill, not my being. My friends still came over. We played Yahtzee and laughed and watched Adam Sandler movies. I took great care to match my head scarfs to my flowy skirts and dangly earrings. I worked at a cute boutique in town, selling coffee and jewelry. I had a boyfriend and was in love. I was still me. I knew I would beat cancer. I’m a fighter. And it was terrifying. And painful. And the cure was wrecking me. When people looked at my they saw what I saw when I looked in the mirror, a very sick young woman, bald head, sunken cheeks, with dark circles under her eyes. Humans are not equipped with savvy emotional intelligence when it comes to these situations. It’s a hard thing to experience and even harder to know how to respond. People don’t know how to just “be” with each others in the midst of suffering. “Grown-ups” especially feel they have to do or say something. When a look in my eyes saying “I see you, this is not easy” would suffice. I got a lot of “if anyone can kick this, it’s you” or “you’ll pull through this, you’re young.” Both sentiments meant to be encouraging or compassionate, but both making me a victim. The eyes telling the story their words could not “You poor thing.”
Not Nikki, my bad-ass, granola eating, Subaru driving yoga teacher. Once Nikki and I listened to Ani Difranco when it was just the two of us in class. Her blind white German Shepherd finding us on our mats through the vibration of our movements on the polished hardwood floor. It was effortless fun. She said things like “balancing is more about the mind than the body” and then after a breath or two in Tree pose blurted out “Pumpkin Pie.” She showed up to teach the sequence and to remind us to breath. We did yoga. She was not particularly gentle or harsh. She was there to guide you. There was no fluff, no rainbows and pink clouds. It was breath, body, and Sanskrit. She didn’t pity me or ask me if I was ok or if I wanted a break. I needed that. I needed to be another face in a room full of bodies. I needed to be given the space to explore what I was capable of and not capable of. Most importantly I needed the space to be me without the context of cancer defining who I was.
I didn’t think it could get any better than sweating, moving and breathing. But then Nikki told the class to lay down on our mats. To let go of doing. To feel our skin melt off our bones, our bones melt into the earth. She turned off the lights and the music. And there was nothing to do, no one to be: savasana. For the first time in my life I surrendered completely. I let go of moving my body and breathing a certain way. I forgot about cancer, and insurance companies, and my sister’s increasingly scary excursions with drugs. I forgot about the constant arguing between my mom and her siblings, my great-grandmother’s declining health, even my desire for it all to just be over. I let go, and let go again, until there was nothing left to hold onto. There was no longer a me or a you. There was just the warmth of the womb like nothingness that cradled and soothed me. It was simultaneously everything and nothing. I was home. I was hooked and practiced as often as cancer and treatment would allow.
I didn’t drink at all during the thirty days of radiation and six months of chemotherapy. I was smart enough to know my body couldn’t handle another poison being added to the mix. But still enough of a child at twenty one to resume drinking and drugging the day after my treatments ended with the excitement of a kid in a candy store. My mom stopped me one night as I was leaving for another night of debauchery. My friends were parked outside, the Honda’s exhaust a stark stratus cloud against the cold night air. My sister had scaled the icy front steps and was hopping over a dirty grey snowbank to get in the backseat. An arctic wind crept through the cracked door, defining the invisible wall between us. She said ”Kimmy, you seem so much happier when you are doing The Yoga and focusing on that stuff.” A part of me was moved. There was a gentleness in the statement. A tone of tenderness that I rarely heard in my mother’s voice. Another part of me thought, “No shit mom.”, recognizing this as truth but not wanting to admit that the seeds of alcoholism had already been planted and I was watering them every night with 25 cent beers and Jager bombs at Uncle Tony’s on State St. I wasn’t ready to quit drinking. Or to entertain the idea that I had a problem. I had just been cured from cancer for fuck’s sake. It was time to celebrate, time to party.
It would take me over a decade of celebrating to know that I couldn’t drink like a normal person. But on that cold November day, walking into that tiny yoga studio, I took the first steps towards my recovery.