A Part, but Not Apart: A Transformational Journey for CancerJuly 25, 2016
The following is a guest blog post by Priya Krishnan for the Yoga and Body Image Coalition.
Taking off from a runway at night when I have the window seat is one of my favorite experiences. The city’s blocky skyscrapers become little Lego roofs; the glittering lights shrink to glowing colored lozenges. I watch cars whiz along the expanse of crisscrossing highways, and all of this reminds me that I am a tiny grain in the shifting sands of the universe (probably a tinier than average grain, because I’m only 5’ 3”).
Taking time to seek out experiences that endow us with perspective is important because we can understand that each of us is part of something greater. Traveling and spending time in nature is one of the most enjoyable ways to remind us of this interconnectedness. Three years ago, twenty-five other young adults and I embarked on the 4K for Cancer, a 70-day cycling trip across the country to benefit a nonprofit organization, The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults (UCF). We dipped the back tires of our bikes in the grey-green water of the Baltimore harbor, rode south through the Carolinas, dipped all the way down to Austin, and made our way up through the Rockies, across the deserts of Arizona, and along the coast of California all the way into the churning waves of Mission Beach, San Diego (and I mean this literally; we rode our bikes into the ocean!). We nicknamed our route The Heartbeat Across America.
To devote as much money as possible towards UCF’s initiatives, we obtained food donations from restaurants each day to sustain our team. Our lodging was donated as well; we slept at YMCAs, churches, campgrounds, and even in particularly generous people’s homes. Traveling like this, we learned to expect little, but we received so much.
Each of us had a strong connection to the cancer community and began the ride with specific dedications for afflicted family members and friends. Of course there were days when self-doubt tugged at our heels and threatened to slow down our pedals. We spent long days in the saddle, riding between 60 and 120 miles per day. Our butts hurt and we were constantly hungry. We often napped at lunch and shed our inhibitions like children, splaying our bodies out on the sidewalks of restaurants. There were the days of 100°+ temperatures, incessant rain, and unyielding mountains (and sometimes all three!). What kept us going then was the knowledge that we were not alone in the struggle to raise cancer awareness. We would write the names of loved ones on the backs of our legs in Sharpie. Those names powered us up countless hills.
As the trip progressed, our dedications expanded to include more and more people. I originally began riding to honor my aunt, who passed away a few years prior to the trip at a young age from a breast cancer relapse. My dedications expanded to include the following people and many more:
The woman at the cancer center who wanted to hold my hands because I reminded her of the granddaughter she hadn’t seen in twelve years.
The four-year-old who showed us his port scar and made us promise to run into the Pacific when we got there.
The man who told us he had lost not one, but two loves to cancer, and cried when he told us Happiness was a choice.
The woman who walked up to us as we were sitting outside a Panera to hand us a bunch of bills, and returned twice more when she found more money in her pocket.
The man who had had four types of cancer and could no longer speak from his throat, who bought us ten water bottles when we crossed the border to California and had another hundred miles to pedal with no other water source in sight.
Riding a bike for hours is a moving meditation, just like yoga. Your breath sustains and propels you. There is the open sky above, the rattle of road beneath, the complaining leg muscles, and your feet bringing the pedals full circle as if to wipe the slate clean – as in a vinyasa.
At nineteen, I was one of the youngest members of our team. I was also one of the team’s two Ride Directors, meaning I was responsible for planning our route, coordinating all daily team activities, managing team finances, and making decisions in emergent situations. I really, really wanted my peers to like me, but at the same time, I was a neurotic planner. I felt like I needed to execute logistics down to every miniscule detail, or else something catastrophic might happen. This was beneficial in some situations, like when I came up with a comprehensive plan for handling medical emergencies. But I definitely made some decisions on the trip that angered people, like telling everyone to get off the road if heat exceeded 115°. A particularly memorable situation occurred one day when some team members wanted to change the route to have an extra rest day. To do this, they proposed riding 100 miles in one day instead of the planned 60 miles that day and 40 miles the next day. I didn’t think this was a good idea, partially because it deviated from the plan, and also selfishly because I was tired. Despite my protests, the majority of the team decided to ride 100 miles. I agonized endlessly over the discrepancy between my desire to be a good leader and my teammates’ negative perceptions of my decisions.
In retrospect, on that day, I lacked the perspective necessary to allow myself to be more spontaneous and better attuned to the “natural rhythm” of the team. My teacher Gina Caputo often encourages us to “Relax around the process” of self-development, and the ride taught me to be more open-minded. Being immersed in nature especially helped. Riding through Colorado, I truly felt this interconnectedness as we struggled up high mountain passes and swept down them with abandon. Breathing in the crisp air of the mountains, I often found myself exclaiming “Wow,” even if no one else could hear me. It felt radically, impossibly lucky to feel so alive. Since then I have realized Nature is one of the greatest universal gurus.
Yogic philosophy purports that there are five koshas, or “sheaths” that characterize our true being; from gross to subtle, these are: annamaya kosha (“foodstuff sheath” i.e. the physical body), pranamaya kosha (“energy sheath” i.e. life force), manomaya kosha (“mind sheath”), vijnanamaya kosha (“discriminating awareness sheath”), and anandamaya kosha (“bliss sheath”).
Mostly, we hang out in the realm of manomaya kosha. In other words, we willingly, even eagerly, engage with the vrttis (fluctuations) of what is sometimes called the “monkey mind” as it hops from one object of interest to another. From manomaya kosha are borne our attempts to control outcomes, often yielding anxiety and anger. But sometimes we allow our “gut feeling,” our intuitive wisdom, to emanate and inform our decisions – this is vijnanamaya kosha. In these moments, we feel a lightness, a freedom from the struggle of trying to engineer a certain result. When I read Emma Lazarus’ quote on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” I think of the illuminating power of vijnanamaya kosha. In making decisions for our team, I was susceptible to the patterning of manomaya kosha; nature revealed to me the brilliance of vijnanamaya kosha.
Surrendering to this intuitive wisdom, also known as isvara-pranidhana in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is not easy. It takes daily practice. Yoga asanas such as eka pada sirsasana (in which one leg is placed behind the head) call for this self-surrender, in which you are immersed in the process, observing your mind-body reactions like a sponge soaking up water. At the same time, just as a sponge can have the water squeezed from it, you are able to let go of the ultimate result; this is actually the message of the Bhagavad Gita. Cycling day after day taught me that I was not riding my bike for the purpose of gloating upon my destination, if and when it was reached, but for the journey – the endless prayer wheels my feet made in homage to the continuity of the universe.
A recent class with Gina reminded me of how we can seek out perspective in daily life, even when we aren’t on a seventy-day bike ride. The peak pose of the class was Hanumasana, or full splits. As some of my fellow practitioners found their way into the pose, I wiggled around impatiently in half splits. “This pose does not magically happen in one day,” she joked.
“If you are truly blessed,” she told us, “the journey to this pose will take a lifetime.”
We can relinquish control in situations when our desire for a specific outcome causes us anxiety. We can ease up on the brakes of this wild ride we call life.
Go, find yourself outside – without a phone or a laptop; abandon your semblance of connection for real Connection. You will find your quiet walk in each ocean wave as it makes its unhurried journey to the shore; your wise breath in the rippling leaves of tiny shrubs and tall trees; your heartbeat in the thrumming purple peaks of the mountains.
Ask these oceans, trees, and mountains to be your teachers.
Then listen, because trust me, you won’t want to miss a single thing.