One-on-one yoga practice

by Sarah E. McDonald

Rory (age 5) and me doing yoga together on the big island of Hawaii.
Watch Sarah read this excerpt from her book

My friend Tripti has a special room in her home for her yoga practice. It is a serene room where once you close the door, all sounds from her home disappear. You cannot hear her Bernese Mountain Dog, Otis, bounding up and down the stairs or playing with his stuffed toys. You cannot hear her husband, Todd, tapping away at the computer or running a conference call or trying to find the words to tell my husband who has come with me how sorry he is that I have cancer and ask how he can help.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Tripti’s practice room is the small shrine she keeps with a statue of the Hindu deity Ganesh. Tripti will tell me that “Ganesh is known to place obstacles in front of us so that we may overcome them, and learn and grow as people.” But I don’t know this yet. There is also a bookcase filled with books on yoga and meditation. And there are mats and pillows and foam blocks stacked against the wall to support anyone in this serene room who wishes to practice their yoga.

Given that my prior yoga practice was limited, Tripti began this first session gently. We focus first on breathing. We breathe in and we breathe out. We breathe over five counts. We breathe for a long time. I try to match my breathing to hers. And I try to focus on her voice only. Not the voice in my head that is chanting the “I have cancer, I have cancer, I have cancer” mantra, but instead this soothing voice of my friend who is willing me to breathe. 

She shows me how to do “child’s pose.” Down on all fours—now put your feet together and allow your knees to push out and create a triangle with your legs. Now lower your butt to your feet and bring your hands together and extend your arms forward. Allow your forehead to touch the ground. Sink into the pose. Breathe. Breathe. Good. Hold the pose. Breathe through the pose. Breathe. Good.

What Tripti doesn’t know is that I had been doing this pose all week without knowing it was child’s pose. It is the pose my body has intuitively taken—a kind of modified fetal position—as the waves of sobs passed through me and I mentally tried to get my head around the fact that I have incurable cancer. Incurable. Cancer.

From child’s pose, Tripti has me transition into a seated position with my legs in front of me, now forming a gentle square as the bottoms of my feet touch and my knees become the sharp opposing points of the square. At first I am just able to keep that position with my hands draped lightly on my sharp knees. I breathe, we breathe. Seconds and minutes go by. Tripti tells me to be concerned only with what is right here in front of me. What is right now. I try to focus on getting this one thing right.

We deepen this pose by bending over our bodies, our legs, our gentle squares with sharp knees. I am a pretzel of limbs. I am a clam that is closed tight. I am a child hiding a secret. I am a woman terrified that she has cancer who is just trying to breathe through the appointments, breathe through the tests, breathe through the treatments, breathe through this pose.

I note that my heart has slowed and I have lost track of time. I have lost so much this week: my health, my perceived immortality, my innocence, my dignity. When my world came to a screeching halt with my diagnosis, somehow, inconceivably, it continued for everyone else. Everyone else is going about their lives and naively believing they have time enough to waste while I wonder if I will still be breathing in and out a year from now. 

We end this first yoga practice together sitting with our legs crossed and our hands pressed together in prayer close to our hearts. Tripti says some beautiful words about time taken in practice being a gift to one’s self and about being a light in the world, and then ends with “namaste.” In Hindi, this word means “I bow to the divine in you.” I’ve always suspected many people who say “namaste” do so without truly understanding what it means. Tripti means the phrase sincerely and we bow to the divine in one another. Once we have finished our practice she looks directly in my eyes and asks how I am doing. At the surface she is asking how the yoga practice was for me, but I know what she is really asking is what is going on in my head and in my heart.  

Even when you have spent countless evenings/weekends/years sharing your lives across decades, somehow there are subjects that are still taboo between close friends. Dying and Death are two of them. 

“This is a safe space, Sarah. You can say whatever you need to say.”

“I know,” I said. I could feel all the things I needed to say lining up in my throat—pushing and shoving one another to be the first one out of my mouth. I wanted to shove them back down. I wanted to gulp them into my stomach where it was too far for them to climb back up and out and be seen for the ugly, small thoughts they were. I wanted to tamp them down so they couldn’t trigger the tidal wave of emotions threatening to breach my levee of control. I feared once they were said, my thoughts, my fears, my new reality couldn’t be unsaid. It/they/this would be true.

Of course we all die. Of course, we all die. I just didn’t want it to be true for me. Not now. Maybe not ever.

I lose my battle with my ugly, small thoughts and they come pouring out of me in no coherent order. I lay them in front of her like I am laying out photos of myself naked. I am ashamed and yet once I start, I cannot stop. I am saying aloud all of the thoughts that have left me prone in my bedroom for the last week. I find myself climbing into that prone position as I whisper my darkest fears to her.  

“I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to say or do any of this. I don’t know how to die at 44. I don’t know if this is the last year of my life and if it is, what does this year look like? I know I have a high threshold for pain, but I don’t know how much dying is going to hurt. Can I handle it? Beyond the physical pain, I’m not sure I can handle the emotional pain. Right now I’m so stressed out that I’m not convinced I won’t die of a heart attack before the cancer can have a chance to kill me. I’m honestly losing my mind. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. And all I keep thinking is: I have cancer. If I have to die now—this year—is there a way that I can die gracefully, not embarrass myself? If I have to die, I desperately want to die well, without hysteria and loss of dignity. And I just don’t know if I can do that because I’m just so scared. I’m so scared.”

My voice was shaking. My whole body was shaking. I don’t know that I have ever been more vulnerable with another human being.  

I don’t think Tripti tried to tell me that everything was going to be okay, or that it would be different from what I was describing. She listened and she cried with me. And she promised to be with me regardless of the outcome. She promised that we would take everything one step at a time. She would be the captain of Team Two. She would help me breathe.