This journey of HNC (head and neck cancer, read: trauma) started nearly two years ago. At the time, I had let my yoga practice lapse a bit. I was busy kick boxing and planning to relocate overseas. No time for asanas and breathing, too busy.
Once settled into Saigon I went hunting for a local yoga studio (September 2018) – one that I could walk to rather than cab, because as we all know, if it’s not easy to do we won’t do it, and a lovely studio was found at 34 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 1, HCMC – Yoga Living. I walked in the drenching rain one Saturday afternoon to locate and check the facilities before I committed. It never happened. I never got there for a class, I never felt well enough to actually walk there, do a class and walk home. It was about then I was starting to really worry about what was going on with me. I loved Yoga and I just couldn’t drag myself to do it.
So it was, 6 months later when I found myself lying on my back in radiotherapy, clamped down by a mask on a bed whilst they radiated the bejesus out of my neck. Think of a rotisserie and you pretty much have what was going on. The “mask” holds you in place, it’s suffocating, scary and uncomfortable. There are some that never get over the mask. I was lucky, I closed my eyes and breathed my yogi breath, more often than not falling asleep if not for a nano second and it was over. They make the mask in advance of the radiation. Made specifically for you and there is no room for error, movement, a sneeze, a cough or to be sick. Every five days for 6 weeks, 35 rounds and they burn and they burn and they burn.
It only took 15 minutes and for the first few runs that time took forever, but as time went on I learnt to close my eyes, breathe deep and slow release. Letting all my yoga practice of lying still in an asana, not fidgeting, no movement and focus on a single thought of breath. Some days chemotherapy was in the morning followed immediately by radiotherapy and those days were tough. I would have a friend drive me home and then I would sleep. It was exhausting, only to get up the next day and do it again. Post radiotherapy I had an enormous dewlap under my chin, it was my hope that hot yoga, whenever I went back, would help me with its reduction.
We fast forward to March 2020 and I started very slowly stretching in the confines of my lounge room. COVID 19 had hit and lockdown was upon us. I had only just had my PEG (tube feeder) taken out ( it actually fell out of its own accord so I took it as a sign.) With the PEG you can’t swim, do hot yoga or as I found, many things involving exercise. I used to run with mine but it fell out a couple of times and I am pretty sure it was the running that was doing that, despite my best efforts of wrapping my stomach up with bandages.
October 2020 – I woke one morning and thought ‘I am going to yoga’ – I need the heat, I need the class and I need to get back into it. I have no idea where this sudden urge came from, it was literally two years since I’d stepped into a studio.
I found one of my old teachers Simon and booked his class. I had to purchase a class block of 10 but that’s a good thing. I could ease back into it at my pace. I was nervous and just a little afraid. Where was my body at? Could I handle the heat? The classes are streamed “live” now and as such the direction had changed in the studio, we no longer stared at ourselves in the mirror, but looked at a world map ( a new addition since I had attended). In the two years I had thrown out my old yoga mat as it had disintegrated and I was using a very old mat and towel once used by my two cats as a scratch pole! I was concerned about my strength but I need not have worried, my weight training, stretching and running had kept me in pretty good shape. A niggling right shoulder has curbed my “flow” a bit but I worked around it. It was bliss, I felt myself unravelling and the pain and tension I was holding on to in my joints, and so I breathed, breathed through it and found my nirvana again.
I used my yoga breathing extensively when I had to get through some very tough times. Depression, anxiety and just being emotionally overwhelmed. Now it is helping me with my speech and swallow. Certain asanas like Utthita Trikonasana or revolving triangle pose, have stretched internal fibroids, tongue and facial muscles. It’s early days but I feel as though these postures are helping me back to swallow and eating. I am stronger in the parts that were surgically removed or radiated. Yoga is helping and guiding me.
Yoga for me is a faith. One that you carry with you, you don’t need a lot of equipment and you don’t need a lot of space. Once you know the correct postural positions you can do it anywhere.
Two positions I can now master and have never been able to do in the 15-20 years I have been doing it, is tree pose and now, very nearly, bird of paradise (properly).
If it helps me swallow it will have been worth the years of dedicated practice. I encourage you to try, and if you fail, try again. It fixes heads, breath and in my case a swallow.