Life, The Universe, whatever you want to call it has been handing me plenty of dilemmas, especially as I get older. I’ve discovered that, with the right mind set, any ‘bad news’ can be converted into the next learning opportunity. Maybe even ultimately into good luck.
A challenge I had to face a few years ago was undergoing a total hysterectomy. I was diagnosed with “hyperplasia with severe atypia”. This, in layman’s terms, means the lining of my uterus was abnormally thickened, with precancerous cells in the endometrium. The progression to cancer from this condition is 25-30%. My gynaecologist recommended the removal of tubes, ovaries, uterus, and cervix.
What a shock! I had been proud of the fact that I’d managed to get through menopause relatively unscathed. I’d had hardly any hot flushes and no need for H.R.T.
One of the worst bits of news was that I would need 4-6 weeks to recover. That meant I would be without income for that period. Worse, I would be missing the yoga teaching relationship with my students that I love so much.
But there was another darker feeling that came up – shame! I experienced an overriding, albeit illogical, sense that here I was, a yoga teacher, afflicted with a serious condition. I told myself I should have been able to prevent this through my yoga practice.
When I confessed these negative thoughts to my doctor, she picked me up on them right away. She told me that my body had been very kind to me by giving an early warning symptom (bleeding). She emphasised that many of her patients didn’t get such signals until they already had progressed to cancer.
See, this was the lucky bit.
It took me some days before I could begin to make the mental transition that enabled me to take care of myself and let others take care of me. In my experience, yoga teachers are great caregivers but need to learn a lot about receiving.
I got busy on the internet searching for yogic ways of dealing with recovery and rehabilitation from the hysterectomy. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much. I did discover a wonderful web site for pre and post hysterectomy surgery called Hyster Sisters: www.hystersisters.com. This site provided me all the anecdotal information I needed or wanted.
I decided I needed to create my own holistic method for dealing with major surgery.
- I let people know what was happening so they could support me if they wished. I sent out e-mails to friends, family and some yoga students to say that the operation was scheduled and when, and would they please send healing energy. The simple fact that I was willing to be open and vulnerable helped eliminate any residual shame.
- I started keeping a journal in which I could collect information on hysterectomies, and more importantly, write down questions and feelings as they arose.
On the evening of my surgery, as I was being prepped, I started to fantasise about all the things I’d been told that could go wrong. I might succumb to infections, blood clots, and nausea, for instance. My mind was well and truly in the grip of what’s called in Sanskrit cotta vritti – eddies of negative thoughts and fearful emotions.
So as I waited for the anaesthetist to do his magic, I deliberately turned my mind to thinking about all the people I knew who were sending me healing energy. I felt the small room I occupied immediately fill up with the goodwill of everyone I knew or had known. I felt totally enveloped by love as I went into theatre. And that feeling lingered on in recovery.
My operation was done in the least invasive and most remarkable way – as a laparoscopic procedure. The only evidence that I’d been cut were one centimetre incisions on the outside of my abdomen, with much more invisible stitching on the inside
More luck. I had virtually no pain immediately after surgery, so I had little need for drugs as the general anaesthetic wore off.
Just twelve hours after surgery I got up and had a shower.
While still in my hospital bed, I began my yoga practice. The first day I did a little of the Pawanmuktasana – joint-freeing exercises for feet, legs, and arms. These movements are a good preventative for deep vein thrombosis. I followed my doctor’s advice to take frequent deep breaths, which I instinctively wanted to do anyway.
Three weeks post-op I started doing some soothing, passive poses, using lots of soft props. Gentle, supported forward stretches felt great for my back. I discovered the joys of pranayama (breathing exercises), including ujjayi, viloma, and nodhi sodhana.
These quieter, more reflective practices usually took a back seat in my regular dynamic practice. As I was “forced” to do this kind of yoga for several weeks, I learned a more holistic way of practising that has stayed with me ever since.
The biggest lesson for me in this process was listening acutely to what my body needed. I thought I knew a lot about tuning into my body, but I learned that there are infinite, subtle levels of awareness. I had to pay attention to movements that I used to do without thinking, like bending, lifting, and reaching.
The great thing about cultivating this level of awareness with one’s body is that it can be transferred to being more present with others. I could better attend to those with whom I came in contact.
In this supposedly unwanted recovery time, I got to hang out with friends, while being free from time constraints. I had the time and sensitivity to open up and receive all the healing love friends, students, my husband, and family were giving me.
As always, a teacher who has struggled with an illness or injury becomes an invaluable resource to his or her students. I can now speak from my own experience about recovery from major surgery and empathise more with those who have trouble dealing with sickness or weakness.
Yoga teachers are notorious for doing too much, and I’m definitely no exception. I was given the chance to rest, renew, and be thankful. I returned to teaching with new insights, creativity, and humanity.
I found out it actually takes courage to take care of yourself.
At the end of the sixth week of my recuperation, my husband and I flew out to Broome, W.A. for a holiday. The trip had been planned long before I knew I had to be operated on, and I didn’t want to cancel. It took me a week to find my legs in long walks on the beach. Then we undertook a 100 km walk on the Lurajarri Trail over 10 days with 30 tourists and an extended Aboriginal family. We slept in swags under the stars and ate amazing meals around the campfire. On the tenth day we finished our trek. One of the indigenous women found a special piece of wood for me to use when we returned to our Broome quarters. I used it like a “smudge stick” to smoke out any dark spirits that might have clung to us after the walk, and also to further insure my healing was complete.
While I still had many internal stitches that would need months to knit, the tiny abdominal incisions were nearly invisible. As I walked on the beach in 30-degree sunshine I took a deep breath, and knew I was truly healed.
Resources: Eve’s Yoga Program for Recovery from Hysterectomy or Other Surgery
- Research your condition and learn everything you need to know about it. You will be a better patient if you are informed and become a partner to your health professionals. You can keep a journal in which to collect information on hysterectomies, and more importantly, write down questions and feelings as they arise
- Do meditation to reduce anxiety before the surgery. Meditation may also reduce the amount of pain medication you need after surgery and contribute to a shorter hospital stay. Meditation is reputed to create the “biochemistry of healing”, that is, causing the brain to produce chemicals that strengthen the immune systems. It gives the feeling that you are in control of what happens because you participate in your own healing.
- Practice relaxation that focuses on the feeling of love, perhaps thinking of a person or pet who is easy to love. Or, recall a specific time you felt a great deal of love.
- Describe to yourself or a friend how you want to feel immediately after surgery. Imagine an activity that can be enjoyed as a result of the surgery.
- Imagine that other aspects of your life that need attention are healed.
- Be grateful. Gratitude is a powerful practice. Ideally a person will not want to have surgery, but when it is deemed necessary, it makes a difference to embrace the experience and be thankful for the skills and support of people involved.
- Immediately following surgery—on the very day of surgery—and all during your follow-up treatment, you can begin your yoga practice with visualisation, meditation, pranayama (the yogic breathing focusing on the abdominal breath), and relaxation. Keep your practice short and simple
- Depending on the type of surgery you have had, you can begin pawanmuktasana movements.
- Getting out of bed, doing things for yourself, walking are usually encouraged.
- Avoid any movements that tear internal or external stitches
- Follow your doctor’s orders.
- Observe and adjust activities to energy levels.
- Take time for yourself and receive support.
After discharge from hospital
- Continue meditation; it’s fine to do it lying down.
- The basic pose – Tadasana, mountain pose – is great for improving concentration, lengthening and strengthening your spine. It will help ground you.
- Continue abdominal breathing.
- Do savasana each day for total relaxation.
- Do yoga nidra to any audio recording you like.
Sequence At 3 weeks
- Seated forward bends, head resting on chair, Baddha Konasana and Upavistha Konasana against wall sitting on a bolster, Setu Bandhasana using 2 bolsters.
- Meditation, lying or seated.
- Pelvic floor exercises.
- 3-part breath. It bathes your lungs in energy (prana), and provides a mindfulness meditation method.
- Alternate nostril breath—to calm your mind.
After six weeks
- Gentle yoga, possibly for the next 3 months.
- This may be good time for Svadhyaya. Learn about the philosophy of yoga: non-harming, living in the present moment, being disciplined, letting go, release of fear, respecting your limits, non-judging of yourself and others, giving up attachment to your illness, establishing a connection with the universe.
- Restorative poses – supported backbends.
- Sitting: Janu Sirsasana, and other head supported forward bends.
- Gentle arm exercises.
- Standing poses: Virabhadrasana 2, Vrshkasana.
- Cat/cow, supported uttanasana, adho mukha svanasana.
- Lion pose just for fun and a laugh!
- Get out into Nature
3 – 6 months
- Begin to do more abdominal exercises.
- Back bends—cobra, locust—to strengthen your back and provide an energy boost.
- Gentle salutes—to get you going!
- Dolphin pose for arm strength.
- Gomukhasana, maha mudra
Yoga and Hysterectomy – References for healing from surgery:
Pawanmuktasana Exercises – Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Bihar Yoga Bharati, India, 1997
Yoga Nidra – The Meditative Heart of Yoga C.D. and book, Richard C. Miller