Maybe you thought you had stress in your life. Then you or your loved one was diagnosed with ovarian cancer — or any type of cancer for that matter — and you realized how much you really wanted that “old stress” back.
There are times when I’d give anything to go back to what I thought was a “stressful” lifestyle and do and handle so many things differently. But there’s no going back, so now my number one job is figuring out how to de-stress and manage my time and life the best I can — while also taking optimal care of my body! This is where exercise and meditation come in. (Stay tuned for a post on meditation!)
I had been doing Pilates for 10 years when I was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer. For me, a side effect of treatment was losing the energy and physical ability to keep doing the Pilates that had been keeping me sane. On the days I felt good, I would try to just walk down the driveway or around the neighborhood to get out and get some fresh air and keep my body moving. I keep telling myself, “One day at a time. You can do this!”
Exactly one day after my year anniversary of learning I had cancer, I met Gracie Jane at a local workout center here in Mooresville, N.C. I knew the minute I saw her and the first time we spoke that she just had this light about her that is hard to explain.
Gracie is a gentle soul who just has a way of knowing how to make you feel relaxed and at ease when you are working out with her! She has taught me so much about the power of breathing, meditation, aligning my body thoughtfully and how reducing stress in my mind immediately helps reduce stress in my body, which in turn, strengthens my immune system. Right now, mindfulness seems to be a hot topic, and that’s exactly what Gracie has been teaching me through yoga.
Several studies report the positive effects yoga has had on women with chronic conditions and life-threatening diseases. My doctor may have saved my life on the operating table, but Gracie saved my sanity on the yoga mat. 🙂
Not everyone can get to a yoga class daily, and now that I’m back traveling with Martin, neither can I. So I asked Gracie to help me bring yoga to you, right here. Of course, she delivered. We will continue to share new poses for you to try at home, along with information about getting the most from each pose. But first, I’m excited to introduce you to Gracie!
Sherry: You’ve been teaching yoga since 2012. Who introduced you to yoga, and why do you love yoga?
Gracie: I was introduced to yoga by a teacher who became a dear friend at the Shrewsbury YMCA in Pennsylvania. I love the peace it brought into my life. The mental practices of yoga have taught me how to find the peace within myself no matter what situation I may be in.
Sherry: What’s the most common myth you hear about yoga? What do you want more people to understand?
Gracie: Yoga is not about being flexible! Sure, flexibility may come with the physical practice of yoga, but flexibility is neither a requirement to begin nor a goal to reach. Yoga is an internal practice. It’s about becoming aware of our tendencies – mental, emotional and physical – and learning that we have a choice on how to respond to life instead of simply reacting.
Sherry: What’s your goal in working with someone individually or in a class?
Gracie: My goal, no matter the setting, is peace, awareness and empowerment. Along with the asana practice, the physical practice of the poses, I always incorporate breath practices and meditation into my classes.
Sherry: Yoga has helped me so much – to find peace and to learn the importance of controlled breathing. But you’ve really watched me evolve since we began working together. How do you think it’s helped me?
Gracie: Most notably, because it’s external, is your posture and flexibility. Stress causes us to tense our muscles and shorten our breath without even thinking about it. You used to carry so much tension in your shoulders.
Also, what isn’t visible to others are your scars from surgery. Instead of standing straight and tall, you kind of curled forward, I believe unconsciously, to protect your incision area and from the built-up tension from stress.
Sherry: That’s so true, I’ve always hunched my shoulders but it got way worse after my surgery. My incision runs from my diaphragm to my pubic bone, so it took weeks after surgery before I could even stand upright properly. It was hard to know how far I could push my body in the months after surgery. I was so scared to hurt something, even though my doctor reassured me I could work out and not damage my body. Trusting yourself after a major surgery about what your body can or can’t do is a scary thing!
Gracie: That makes sense. We worked a lot on stretching and opening your heart and chest, strengthening the muscles in your back, and consciously relaxing your shoulders. You stand taller and look much more confident now. And your Downward Dog has improved tremendously!
Sherry: You’ve noticed physical differences. What do you think yoga has done for my emotional well-being?
Gracie: Well, you are the best one to answer this, but I believe you have found much more peace in your everyday life. In yoga, we work a lot on being present, not allowing our minds to wander to the future and get ahead of ourselves, not getting caught up in thinking, planning and “what if”-ing. Throughout our practice, we continuously draw the attention back to the body, the breath, the present.
Sherry: Absolutely! I’ve always had a really hard time not thinking about what I have to do next in my day or life. Just learning to “be present” in the moment has been huge for me! It’s really cool to have this newfound knowledge to pull from when I feel myself begin to stress or react to stress. It’s been life-changing.
Gracie: We’ve worked a lot on breathing practices. Consciously keeping the breath long, slow, steady and deep, especially when we notice ourselves becoming anxious or stressed.
Sherry: So, we have to incorporate a little fashion here. My favorite yoga clothes are Lululemon or Calia by Carrie Underwood. What are your favorite yoga pants?
Gracie: Kyodan! They fit my body perfectly and hold up very well.
Poses you can try at home:
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Tadasana – Mountain pose
This is the foundation of all other poses. Tadasana is where we learn and practice proper alignment. We use tadasana cues throughout our whole class. Can we keep both feet grounded just as well when we are in Warrior II? Can we keep the spine just as long when practicing Side Angle Pose? Can we keep the shoulders relaxed and jaw soft in Tree Pose? Tadasana is also where we return between standing poses to pause and observe how the preceding pose made us feel physically, mentally and emotionally.
- Begin by standing with your feet hip-distance apart. Shift your weight back and forth and side to side, and then come to center with the knees aligned under the hips, ankles under the knees and your weight evenly distributed in the feet.
- Root the feet into the ground.
- Engage the muscles in the thighs, and lift the kneecaps.
- Draw the navel toward the spine and turn the tailbone down toward the ground.
- Pull the front ribs in.
- Lengthen up through the spine as if being lifted up through the crown of the head.
- Externally rotate your arms, palms facing outwards.
- Widen your collarbones, yet relax the shoulders down.
- Relax your jaw and the muscles in your face.
- Notice how your body feels. As you inhale, lengthen your spine. As you exhale, draw your lower abdomen in and ground your energy down into the earth.
- Repeat 3-4 breaths.
Balasana – Child’s pose
Balasana, Child’s pose, (Sherry’s favorite pose!) is important because this is the place we come to if we do not wish to do the pose suggested by the teacher in a group class. We come here to honor our bodies, lengthen the breath and re-center. The pose is stress relieving and helps calm the brain. It gently stretches hips, thighs and back.
- To begin, take your hands and knees to the mat, aligning the knees under the hips.
- Take your big toes together, and rest the hips back to the heels.
- Try to take your forehead to the mat, resting the third eye on the floor.
- Stretch your arms out in front of you, or place them back by your heels.
- Breathe for 1-3 minutes.
Virabhadrasana 2 – Warrior 2 pose
Virabhadrasana 2, Warrior 2 pose, strengthens and stretches the legs and ankles. It stimulates abdominal organs, increases stamina, and relieves backaches.
- From Tadasana, turn sideways on your mat, and step your feet wide apart.
- Turn your right foot out to make it parallel to the long side of the mat. Left foot should be parallel to the short side of the mat.
- Bend your right knee and lift your arms up to shoulder height.
- Shoulders and hips face the wide side of the mat.
- As you inhale, straighten your right knee, and lift your arms over head.
- With an exhale, bend into your right knee, and return the arms to shoulder height.
- Repeat 3-5 times.
- As you inhale, lengthen up through the spine.
- As you exhale, draw your navel to your spine and ground down through your feet.
- On the last repetition, hold the pose and continue to breath smoothly and slowly through your nose.
- Turn your gaze to look out over the right fingertips.
- Notice it you are unconsciously tensing in your shoulders, jaw, or even forehead. Relax these areas, and turn your attention to moving the breath smoothly in and out of the body.
- After several breaths, come back to Tadasana and notice how you feel.
- Repeat on the other side.
Yoga Journal is a wonderful resource for additional tips on these poses, but every body is made differently and there is not really a “proper” way to do the pose. It’s not really about the external look of the pose as much as it is the internal experience of doing the pose. Are we taking ourselves just to our edge, slowly expanding our practice? Other days, are we taking it easy and honoring our bodies? As yogis, we are continuously evolving our practice as we learn more about ourselves and our bodies.
Sherry, you are such an inspiration. Before we went to the April Texas race, I bought four of your shirts for we girls to wear. Continued good health to you!
Thank you Joan!!! xoxo – Sherry
Sherry , just reading your story and you are such inspiration to me and all others with this stupid cancer. I feel the same as you about fitness. You can’t lay there and say poor me. You have to get up and be positive. There’s some days i would love just stay in bed all day and talk to nobody or see nobody. But I don’t. I had the same surgery as you, but still going through chemotherapy just a little bit longer.
Thank you for sharing your story
Joanne from Canada BC
Hi Joanne! I’m sorry you have this crappy cancer too 🙁 But yes getting up everyday and living life is so important! I had SO many days where I felt awful but I made myself shower, get dressed, put a wig on and go outside! Even if I just walked to the end of the driveway and back, I did something!!! Yoga and mediation helped me a lot!! I wish you well and will be praying for you!! xoxo – Sherry