February 22, 2013

Do you know the story of the golfer who was a prisoner of war? Click here for it. The short story is this: a golfer spent 6-7 years in captivity during the Vietnam War. To escape the realities of his situation, every day he visualized a round of golf (his favorite sport). He visualized every piece of it. The feel of the clubs, every shot, the smell of the grass. For however long it took him to visualize that each day… he did it. When he was finally released… one of the first things he did was go play golf. He knocked 20 strokes off his best ever game. And he never picked up a club in captivity.

I love that story because (whether it is true or not doesn’t even matter to me) it demonstrates the power of the mind. As Karen Smyers once said “The longest distance you will ever have to travel is the distance from ear to ear.”

One of the swim coaches I worked with in high school was the first to teach me about the power of the mind. Weekly we would take us into the gym and we would lay down on mats. He would lead us through visualization techniques. Nothing fancy… just picturing swimming as we lay there. Later on he would instruct us to visualize our races. He would hold a stopwatch and he would start us. We were to raise our hand at the end of our event. “Raise your hand when you feel your hand touch the wall.”

You can’t imagine how close I came to the times I actually swam as my best times. It was unreal.

This weekend is the Dharma Rama, an annual retreat for Teens Living With Cancer. It was here two years ago that the concept of TLC Fit was born. At that time I was asked to do an hour on fitness. A kind person donated tubing and for an hour I led them through simple exercises. The tubing was perfect because it is something they can have in the hospital, at home, anywhere.

One of the teens asked me a question about one of the movements, she had a rod in her leg, thanks to osetosarcoma. I asked her what her doctor had recommended. She looked at her friends and they began to laugh. “Our doctor told us to go get healthy.”

It was then that I realized that there was no care or support for these kids post treatment, to help them claim their fitness again. Yes, Livestrong has a very good post chemo fitness program, but it begins at age 18. We spend a year developing the TLC Fit program and became an actual study with the University of Rochester.

And next month we start round two…. again as a study with the University of Rochester Medical Center.

This weekend I am teaching a yoga segment at the retreat. And we ran into some complications. 3 of the teens are physically unable to participate in yoga…. at all. One has just completed an intense… and intense isn’t even a strong enough word to describe it…. round of chemotherapy. He’s too weak. Another has had so many complications due to her treatment and cancer, so many surgeries…. that even raising her hands above her head is risky. She’s not even 17 yet. The third is another who has been through such intense and horrifying treatment that she was even told by a physical therapist…. I don’t know what to do for you.

Not only are they surviving cancer…. let’s kick them while they are down. All of them suggested they sit and watch the yoga segment.

While I was running on the tready the other morning and email came through from Leah (she’s the heart and soul of Teens Living With Cancer). I could feel from her words she was beyond stressed about this…. she’s been there. She’s a two-time cancer survivor herself and she felt the same way I did. Is there a way we could include these three without physically risking them?

She worries…. I run. I upped the speed a bit because I felt angry. I felt angry at cancer. Again. I am told that my anger at cancer is not productive but … well look at where it’s gotten us this far. My anger at cancer causes me to become creative. It’s the only way I know how to fight back against it.

Twenty minutes later it hit me. I straddles the treadmill and began to email her back. I have an idea.… I told her.

Just because these kids are weak doesn’t mean they can not do yoga. And why does doing yoga have to be on a mat anyway? I thought back to the story of the POW golfer and the visualization that we did on my swim team. I thought about what I felt during those times where I visualized swimming. You see… we visualized swimming….. we didn’t picture ourselves floating on a cloud or on a  ray of light…. that’s not that kind of thing that works for me. I pictured every stroke I took, I felt the water against my skin, I felt each breath I took.

I can do the exact same thing with yoga. Who says we ever need to do a physical downward facing dog? There are times when these teens are not going to be able to hop on a mat and flow through a sun salutation A, and why should we deny them the ability to do it at all? I will walk them through a practice. They will lay on the floor, or sit in a chair and close their eyes. I will get them on a mat in their heads and I will lead them through the same practice as the able-bodied teens. And they will walk away from this with a tool.

When I have gone through something physically difficult, and have been unable to physically move….. I revert to swimming. When I am in a procedure…. I swim the 500 yard free in my mind. Every single time. I do it just like I did in high school. I have just never really acknowledged it like I do now.

I have had this tool with me for how many years? It’s just occurred to me that I have had it. This si what has gotten me through. This is where I go when I physically can’t go somewhere else.

It’s my hope that this gives them that … something. When they are in the middle of a treatment, in isolation in the hospital….. they can roll out the mat in their mind. Visualize the inhale as they move through a practice. If you have ever done something like this….. you know what I mean. You know how well it can work.

My anger towards cancer pushed me to be creative. That’s my way of fighting back.

I am beyond excited to be part of Dharma Rama again this weekend. It’s a day for them, for them to connect, let loose and have some fun. It’s a day for them to understand that they are not alone.

Here is a video of the Teens from a few years ago. You will understand after watching this…. why these kids are my life.


One comment

  1. Mary- amazing,this brought tears to my eyes. What a gift for these 3 that will indeed last beyond your yoga session. Current brain research supports the incredible powers of visualization. I am surprised visualization is not part of cancer treatment and recovery! Maybe you have hit on something! 🙂

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