One of my favorite new-learned words derived from Sanskrit roots is: ahimsa. Simply described, first do no harm – to yourself and to others. It’s the foundational principle of non-violence or non-injury of the yoga practice.
Without realizing it, ahimsa was the beginning of my own practice. It all started in a very dark room – as dark as those days. The numbing noise of the AC that perhaps only I could hear. Everyone else was preoccupied with how they could help, while I witnessed it all from the adjustable bed. My sister’s loving hand on my belly showing me the three-part breathing technique, “start breathing with your belly …”
It was a surprise to me back then that we learn to breathe with our chest. Mindlessly, my lungs used to move up and down to shallow inhalations followed by mechanical exhalations. My younger mind was absorbed with school, parties, and friends. Focused on everything but my breathing, my health, nor my wellbeing.
To recondition my abdominal muscles, I had to concentrate. With a large mass in one lung I constantly felt out of oxygen, which repeatedly, made me gasp for air. It was as if I had to inhale with a hundred pounds sitting on my chest. I learned the value of air – something we all give for granted – in that hospital room. But it was only when I struggled getting the oxygen I needed, that I felt the need to learn something different. That new skill was the three-part breath, or as the yogis call it – dirgha pranayama.
My yoga practice started with the most basic of skills by re-learning how to breathe in the darkness of a chlorine-smelling hospital room.
A year after my remission I transitioned to psychophysical gymnastics, a precursor to yoga basics. That was a fancy name for warm-up exercises. My short dark brown hair contrasted with the silver strands of the other participants. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the impact of what I was doing: the repetitive sunrise classes, inhaling the blend of tropical breeze and coffee brews, the discipline of waking up at the same time. My ‘doing’ was conditioning my mind and body to, later in life, crave that morning sensation.
The outdoor concrete patio, surrounded by leafy trees and ripe fruit, was big enough for a small group of ten participant. Even though I felt like a misfit, I stuck to the program. The simplicity of making small and big circles with my arms, or raising my leg forward then letting it swing backwards like a pendulum, felt like I was just moving my skinny joints. Surely, I could have done that at home!
When I’d ask about yoga classes, the response I’d get from my instructor was that I was at the level I needed to be. Her answers were so calm and … infuriating! What was wrong with her? Did she not see that I was healed? Was it not evident that I was recovered? Yes, I was still all-bones, but I felt like I could push my body more. And no matter how many times I’d ask, the response was the same. She did not let me advance – like my dear ego wanted.
About six months later, I got promoted to yoga basics. I learned every single posture one at a time. It was so repetitive and slow that I’d often wonder why I was even attending. The practice felt like a waste of time. When the class started, my mind would often wander to what I was going to do after shavasana. I constantly replayed the past and imagined my future. It was evident to me that I was doing something wrong. Everyone else seemed to be so focused. And me? I just wasn’t. In hind sight, and to my surprise, I was doing it right, because I kept showing up.
As time passed by, I learned new and more complex postures like tree, dancer, plow, and other inversions. We had to hold the asanas for longer periods of time. I started to enjoy lion’s breath and fish pose. Classes were becoming more and more challenging. That was when my curiosity started to spark.
After months of practice, I took some vegetarian cooking classes with the same group of people. They were becoming close like a second family – my tribe. We also took tai-chi and qigong classes together and learned to feel the energy around our bodies. It was about that time when I learned how to drive a car just so I could take myself to classes and hang out with my friends. I was hooked.
My yogi bliss lasted until I started my third semester in college. During the early nineties, holistic life-styles were only for “hippies.” At school, I started to learn about the intricacies of business management, I was polishing my writing skills, and making new friends. There wasn’t much of a hipster culture at the University, nor in my town. Although irregularly, I kept going back to my yoga classes. There was something on the mat, that kept me coming back for more.
Since then, my practice has wavered in the sweet balance of life and work. At times when the scale has tilted towards work, I’ve increased focus on yoga, exercise, and healthy cooking to stabilize. I’ve learned it’s an art, a passion, and a life-style that only reaps its benefits when one is willing to put in the work and uncurl the sticky mat.
It all started with the breath. Without me realizing it, my instructors were following the foundational principle – first do no harm. With their guidance, my body slowly gained back the strength it had lost. They coached me through my impatience, perhaps because they knew, that slow stimulating movements were more supportive of my recovery. In a way, they protected me from my youthful impulse to want to push myself to achievement. Gently, they showed me how ‘not getting results’, in my case, would probably lead to a better outcome. My teachers modeled ahimsa for me, and they must have known that eventually, I’d understand. And I did.
Written in honor of every yoga teacher out there, my yoga teachers, and especially – my very first! You all know who you are …
M. Patricia Diaz
Please kindly consider contributing with the project to publish my memoir about my experience with teen age cancer. There are many people out there might benefit knowing that others have walked through similar paths. Thank you!