Yoga for Cancer: A Series for Cancer Patients and Survivors
My name is Hilaire Lockwood and I’m bringing this series of yoga for cancer to you, not because I wanted a “specialty” or because I’ve had special training. I bring this series to you because I’ve lived it. In the 30 years on my mat and teaching, I have seen yoga save lives over and over again. My life is one of them. I lived with Cancer for 15 years, surgery after surgery each time with different pieces of me being taken, I’ve had five neck dissections with lymph removal, I was radiated and quarantined to no avail.
This series is about healing. It is about approaching disease as best we can from a tangible yogic perspective. Which means feel what you feel. Cry, scream, yell at God, laugh, feel what you feel. Believe me, being yogic doesn’t mean being happy, it means acceptance. To sit in the shit, you are in as honestly as you can and be there. Its from that real starting point that healing begins. I was diagnosed in 2004 with papillary carcinoma, thyroid Cancer. “The easiest Cancer you can get” This is truly what I was told. It proved to be anything but. The first surgery took my thyroid, 4 parathyroid and resulted in left vocal cord paralysis. What I refer to now as my Janice Joplin. After my first surgery I was Ablated with RAI, basically radiated with radioactive iodine. I was quarantined for a week away from my two and half and fourteen-month-old baby boys, we had to build a door at the top of the stairs, so I didn’t kill my animals when I touched them. I had to flush three times as my urine was radioactive. After a very long, difficult week, I went back in and there was no change. 12 weeks later, just enough time to heal I was back in surgery, now plucking lymph nodes. New diagnosis, metastasis. Since the spread was in my lymph system another surgery was critical. They took nodes, some soft tissue at my chest wall to create a margin of safety. 14 weeks later, its back. Headed into third surgery and before I get radiated again I had them test for resistance. In very rare cases this cancer will not uptake the RAI, its cure. Two trips to MD Anderson later, I was diagnosed with metastatic resistant thyroid cancer. This put me in the 1% of survival.
Yoga For Cancer Diagnosis
The first part of this series deals with not only the physical options but with the mental and emotional roller coaster that we travel on. I found my Cancer in meditation. I kept getting real messages of illness and heat in the front and left side of my neck. I knew something was wrong. I was sent home by three local surgeons who told me it was nothing. Swollen lymph nodes from a cold, allergies. I was diagnosed because I followed through.
Being Your Body's Advocate
We all just blindly do what they say out of fear. They know best right? They are the expert. No, you are. Its your body and you are in charge. That moment of diagnosis is beyond expression. No one teaches us how to process this moment. My suggestion, get on your mat! When things fall apart that tendency to walk away from the mat is so strong, don’t! Then it turns into FIGHT. No healing can happen in a space of fight. Fighting separates, us from whatever we are fighting. Here, our bodies. Your body, mind, heart will not heal in a space of separate. In this first portion, we will still move our bodies in asana. Gentle but deep postures to process not only physical illness but mental and emotional fear and stress. Before we are swept away into treatment, surgery. Move it through you! This practice will make you sweat, possibly cry, yell, do what you need to do to push some of it out of you. Depending on the location in the body of the cancer, different postures will benefit most. This practice sweetly covers the basis of all areas. We will also sit in meditation to visualize healing and acceptance. Put down the fight!
The Treatment Journey
I feel this is when the mourning of our old selves begins. My level of anger and fear was overwhelming. My babies would have no cognitive memories of me. I feel this is the hardest part. Treatment is brutal. They bring us as close to death as possible. To cure. In this part of the yoga for cancer series there is less movement and more pranayama, breath work, and meditation. When we are in the throws of treatment, whether it's healing from surgery, or radiation, or chemotherapy, the last thing we are capable of is vigorous physical activity. We can barely get up to go to the bathroom. I encourage you to do these meditations every day. I remember feeling as if I truly was not going to survive. I was constantly reminding myself that there are seven other limbs to this practice and I need to be utilizing them. I need to remember that I can still breathe, and meditate, and visualize healing and try to find a place of peace. My body is not my enemy, we are working together to heal.
Recovery and Remission
I have now been cut open 5 times, ear to ear, clavicle to clavicle. I have recovered from surgeries repeatedly. The first surgery was really hard to s from. With each one, it strangely got easier. It is quite extraordinary what we will settle into if the heart and mind are in harmony. I still had very bad days, believe me. This is when the questioning begins. When we feel we are on the other side of it and maybe are going to survive. We start to ask the very real question why? What is this karmically about? What am I not getting that this just keeps repeating itself? I feel there is light at this point though. A lightness that allows us to begin to look at the possibility of life without cancer. We start to feel better. This part of the series will move you slowly through a practice that allows you to distribute breath and life energy throughout without exhausting. We want to let some movement back in. When you don’t use something it atrophies. This is about your heart and mind as well. This is where fight and flight have to be viewed differently. Put down the fight and fly above the circumstance. Know that you can. This empowering practice uses breath work, meditation, and gentle asana to bring you back into your body, and heart-mind.
Rediscovery of Self After Cancer
You are new. Forever changed. This is where we learn to embrace our new bodies as they are and a changed mind. My Cancer has given me so many gifts. I am a better person in every way. A better mom, wife, teacher. Life is precious and needs to be enjoyed. I adopted my philosophy on moderation. I was not going to punish or withdraw anything. I was going to do my best to feel empowered by what I now know. It’s a knowing you don’t want anyone to ever have, but when you have it, you know it. Illness creates such a beautiful presence. I live in my moments. I no longer look 5, 10 years ahead because I don’t know if I'll be here. None of us knows. None of us. The quality of our moments is better when we are actually in them. I refuse to look over my Cancer shoulder to see if its back. I was told I was going to die twice. I was told if I spoke, it would be through a trach box. I was told I would never be in remission.
It's now 2019. I am in full asana practice, I sit in meditation an hour every day, pranayama is my lifeline. I was just given remission after living with this disease for 15 years. I’m clear. Do I believe yoga cured me of cancer? I don’t know. I know it healed me. To me those are very different. I didn’t know if my cancer would kill me but I knew that I was going to live fully the time I was given. I was not going to fight with it or hate my body. While I’m here, I’m going to be here. I stayed in yoga practice the entire time during my cancer. What I mean when I say it yoga healed me of cancer, was that it healed my mind into a place of acceptance opening the door of possibility. It healed my heart to love and embrace the people I have in my life rather than live in fear that I was going to leave them. It healed my voice in showing me that it doesn’t matter how you sound, it matters what you say. It healed my soul and achieves (fear of death) was no longer there. Through yoga practice during my cancer I was able to know myself and my soul better than I ever have. I am still here. I teach because I’m supposed to. It is my life’s work. I do not believe we should ever teach anything we do not have true insight into. I come to you with this series in hope that it helps you through your process. I put this in the world because I believe with everything I am in the strength of this practice and its ability to heal every piece of us, body, mind, and soul. In this final portion of the series we reclaim what is ours...US. We get back on the mat in our new bodies and minds and we move through a powerful practice that leaves you feeling empowered and strong in every way.
About Hilaire: It all changed when Maty passed. The view needed to be broader, the responsibility now bigger. There is a very good chance you don’t know Hilaire Lockwood, though she studied alongside some of the biggest household yoga names today such as, Seane Corn, Annie Carpenter, Eddie Stern and Kathryn Budig.
After studying 13 years with Maty Ezraty and Chuck Miller at the original YogaWorks in Santa Monica, Hilaire moved back to Michigan in 2004 to raise her family and opened her own studio. Her decades of experience since then has been with Hilltop Yoga, teaching students and training teachers. Her priority and focus were solely teaching her community, which is strongly felt in Lansing and more recently, Chicago with the studio opening in 2016.
A loyal practitioner and lifelong student, Hilaire credits yoga to her survival. She was diagnosed with metastatic resistant thyroid cancer in 2004 and was given six months to live with a 1% chance of survival. She underwent five radical neck dissections and lumpectomies. During her third and fourth surgery, her brother was brutally murdered, pieces of him found in the Grand River after missing for two months.
Her lifeline was the practice throughout it all. Meditation was the key to her healing. Hilaire tells her story to empower others, understanding that no type of suffering is too big or too small. Yoga is more than asana (the physical practice), it’s a tool for survival.