Whether we realize it or not, we hold emotional and physical tension in our bodies. We’ve all heard of someone pulling their back out or having neck pain while under stress. Maybe you’ve even experienced this first hand.
As for me, I thought I was doing good having made it through chemotherapy to help heal my physical body and seeing a therapist for the emotional and mental side. That is until I had an epiphany a few days into a 200 hour, 30-day intensive, yoga teacher training program this July.
After two major abdominal surgeries, I assumed my core was weak and I would struggle to get through six hours of yoga each day. In complete honesty, I had a weak core even before the surgeries. I’ll now confess I’ve always cheated when doing sit-ups, planks or any other abdominal exercise.
In the midst of a challenging hot Vinyasa yoga class, the teacher called out “boat pose” to the students. This is a posture where you to sit on your bottom and use your core to hold up your arms and legs. Normally, I would’ve just taken the opportunity to rest, but I decided to try and see what happened. I was excited and surprised because I was able to do it without much effort. A few days later, I did it again, this time holding for a bit longer. Determined not to let this pose beat me, I began shaking. My teacher came over and rested his hand on my leg and whispered, “It’s okay.” All of a sudden, without warning, I began crying uncontrollably. While this is not uncommon in yoga, it was surprising because it never happened to me before.
I had an epiphany and suddenly it all made sense. I realized I don’t avoid abdominal exercises because of the weakness in my core, but rather that is where I hold my tension and emotion, and as a result, I avoid this area to protect myself not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Even as a kid, I remember always watching TV or sleeping with a hand on my belly. After connecting these dots, it’s not a surprise that is where cancer manifested after years of avoiding this area and using it as a storage facility for stress and unresolved emotions. It was at that moment of uncontrollable sobbing when I released a lifetime of pent-up tension, stress and emotion, and boy, did it feel good. Overnight, boat pose went from my nemesis to the enemy I wanted to keep close. I’m on a mission to release this pent-up stress and will be doing boat pose everyday from this point forward.
As cancer survivors, we are constantly listening to what our bodies are telling us from a physical standpoint, but are we doing the same from an emotional, mental and spiritual aspect? Doctors aim to heal our physical bodies, and that’s what we hire them to do. We can aid in this process by doing the best we can to take care of ourselves by eating well, exercising and getting good sleep. However, we are responsible for healing our bodies mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Sure, there are professionals who can guide us through the process, but only we can do the tough poses.
After sharing this story with the group in yoga teacher training, my teacher said, “We store our issues in our tissues.” I encourage you to explore what your body is telling you about your emotions, mind and spirit. Where do you store your issues, tension, stress and emotion? And what are you doing to release it so it doesn’t turn into something worse? Here are a few of my favorite resources:
Yoga. The American Cancer Society and many other nonprofits offer free classes to cancer survivors. If you’d rather stay at home, check out the YouTube channel, Yoga with Adriene, where you’ll find hundreds of free videos for every experience level and amount of time.
Meditation. There are many studies supporting meditation and the positive effects it has on our physical bodies. The documentary The Connection walks through the science of meditation and shares several stories of those who have reaped the benefits after being unwell. I also recommend the Headspace app, which provides free guided,10-minute meditations.
Daily Exercise. We all know we should, but it’s easy to find an excuse. No matter where you are in life, chances are you can find a few minutes (preferably, 30 or more) to break a sweat. As the saying goes, “Just do it!”
Laugh. It’s great medicine. Watch funny movies and surround yourself with those who know how to make you laugh. When I was sick, I watched hours of Jimmy Fallon, Lip Sync Battles and cat videos on YouTube.
Cry. Don’t hold it in. Get it out. If you’re not comfortable doing it in front of people, do it alone. It’s incredible how much better you can feel after a good cry.
Feel free to share other ways for releasing tension in the body.