Over my post-dog walk pre-class morning coffee today, I was reading the Irish Times online & like much health-related news, this headline ROARED out to me:
“Beware the snake-oil merchants of alternative medicine - your life could depend on it”
The article highlights the very real need for us all to be the first & most important guardians of our health; to be of sharp mind when it comes to considering & evaluating the multitude of high-falutin’ but mostly-groundless & sometimes very dangerous world of ‘cures, remedies & salves’ in the ‘alternative medicine’ world.
This is a topic very close to my heart; to my chest & the rest of me. As someone diagnosed with & then (conventionally) medically treated for breast cancer, I am like one of Pavlov’s Dogs - when I see or hear a medical story, my response is automatic (this is very often the case for survivors of any major illness or injury - we remain in HIGH ALERT mode for many, many years afterwards, even if we are supremely unaware of this).
It’s very much a double-edged sword; on the one hand, it is helpful, sensible even, to keep up-to-date with medical & health related news so that one is well-informed & can do one’s balanced best to look after oneself, to hopefully remain disease-free & to lead an enjoyable & active life as an ‘everyday’ person, not living the life of the perpetual patient.
On the other hand, it can seem so futile to 1) even try to keep up to speed with the multitude of stories hitting us from multiple media sources every day & 2) to try & sort the wheat from the chaff, the dross from the data.
My approach is to try & read well but not too ‘widely’ (a simple example, I read the Irish Times & not say the Daily Mail - the former most usually only runs stories from legitimate sources, written by people with experience & not a little nous whereas the latter? Well, just look at their ‘Side Bar of Shame’ & make your own mind up).
Online, even going back to the dark days of my diagnosis, treatment & recovery, I did my best to only look up reputable websites such as the Mayo Clinic, MD Anderson, PubMed, The Cochrane Collaboration, The Irish Cancer Society - you get the gist. And only when I needed to. Dr Google does NOT have all (any?) of the answers.
Years down the track, my approach is pretty much the same. Now, as a Yoga Teacher, I am seen (only by some) to dwell in the ‘alternative/complementary’ world & some people go one step further & assume I will not only be a fount of ‘wacky wellness’ tips but also be an avid proponent of such. No f-ing way. And yes, the language is warranted!
Yoga is about union, about balance. Yoga is not a ‘cure-all’ - this recent business of ‘YOGA FOR (insert medical condition here) is not only complete BOLLOCKS, it actually denigrates the power of Yoga.
It is reductive, not helpful & potentially dangerous. And this is being said by someone who, as soon as she was through the neo-adjuvant stage of her chemotherapy (the pre-operative chemo I had, i.e., prior to surgery to try & shrink the tumour & halt the spread of the cancer) was on a plane, butt-sore from her self-administered Neulasta injection (a drug used to prevent neutropenia, a lack of certain white blood cells caused by receiving chemotherapy) & off to Spain on a week’s Yoga retreat before flying home for a fortnight in hospital & surgery.
I practiced for years before my diagnosis. I actively practised throughout my treatment & beyond. I believed & believe still that Yoga helped me so much before, during & after the whole long cancer episode, that I left a very well-paid, secure career in Financial Services for the completely insecure, not well-paid & often lonely & sheer hard graft of self-employment as a Yoga teacher.
But that does not put stars in my eyes or wool in my ears or candy floss in my brain. I bring the same mental acuity that I used as an Underwriter (in Medical & Expatriate insurance) to my Yoga practice, my Yoga life & my Yoga teaching.
How often have I chuckled when I’ve seen (& still see) Yoga studios/teachers marketing their class/workshop or retreat as a DETOX? Deep breaths Lili deep breaths (which funnily enough does work as a detox 'cos well, read on ;-)…
… Our amazing bodies, that Mother Nature or the Big Bang or whoever/whatever entity eventually created, have LIVERS & KIDNEYS & INTESTINES & LUNGS & SKIN & LYMPH (the major 6 organs/systems of excretion in our bodies) - and thank the heavens, Gaia, Buddha that we do. And they all work very well, if we get out of their way, if we let them get on with their vital work & support them in this by eating well, exercising, sleeping well & managing our stress. Here well yes we can say HELLO YOGA but in a realistic way - there are no magic turbo 'detoxing' poses, no matter what BKS Iyengar said about 'twisting & wringing out our organs'. Many 'Gurus' said what their acolytes wanted, willed them to say & they will continue to do so while there's a quick buck to be made out of someone else's insecurities, doubts & fears.
There’s been a similar approach to marketing certain Yoga classes or courses ‘for’ conditions - as if that’s all we are, a bunch of walking conditions, sheathed in human form. Again, this is not the true Yogic way. First, it is not inclusive, it separates those of us ‘with’ or ‘without’ a condition or conditions from those who don't & second, one of the main reasons Yoga can help us (those of us with no 'conditions', one condition, many, chronic, acute, you name it) is that it is a whole-body approach or system - asking us to unify our bodies, minds & spirits.
I do recognise & cherish that there are certain places & spaces for those living with and/or going through treatment for many serious conditions, be it cancer, MS, Parkinsons, Depression, Cystic Fibrosis, you name it - the camaraderie & support gained in these special settings is immense & I myself teach in two such settings.
But what we practice there is still ‘just’ Yoga - we may adapt our practice to how we are feeling at any given time but then, that is how ALL Yoga should be practiced, with reference to & feeling for where we are right now, emotionally, physically & otherwise. I’d say just about the only exception I’d be willing to make would be Yoga FOR pregnancy, that one makes sense to me!
I recently read an interview with a US-based Yoga teacher who teaches ‘Yoga FOR Cancer’; not only did the name annoy me but her ill-founded (if well-intended & heartfelt) claims for the power of Yoga in a curative way really troubled me.
She wondered ‘why yoga was making me respond to the chemotherapy better than what was expected’.
Riiiiight. It would have been a more balanced piece if the people behind the interview/publication also asked a medic to comment on this claim or someone even impartial to ‘unpack’ that statement but hey ho, let’s give those floaty thoughts free rein. The pity is that the woman, the teacher, made some good other helpful points about the genuine benefits of a Yoga practice through cancer & beyond but how can anyone rely on the whole of the content when the wooly waffle was given equal credence?
This is where the Irish Times article hits home; we are so so so incredibly vulnerable (read sometimes abjectly terrified) when we are at the early or acute stage of any major life event (illness, injury, other life trauma) & we will gladly almost wildly grab any raft that claims it can save us.
Part of this fear-based ill-logic is alas rooted in shame & blame. We MUST have done something wrong; eaten the wrong foods; not been a good enough or lovable enough person - why else is this happening to us? And when that is where one’s thinking, or really un-thinking, where one’s feeling lies, well, then, no better time for the entrance of what I call the Slimy Dragons with their soft whispers of ‘eat this, drink that, don’t trust anyone but do trust me’. I always imagine them as Kaa the Snake in the Jungle Book - “trust in me, only me…. The inference is, if you just do this, if you just follow this path, if you just avoid this food group, subscribe to this online eating plan or buy this costly dubious 'supplement' all will be well...
Food is a particularly emotive, troubling area & laden with pitfalls. As someone who led a near 100% vegetarian existence in the several years prior to being diagnosed (ok, I was a tiny bit flexitarian but only when dining out), drank copious amounts of Green Tea (& I don’t much any more & I’m still here!), ran, biked, practised Yoga, had no excess weight on me; a good job, lots of friends - even I looked back & queried & vexed & questioned myself.
For years AFTER my diagnosis, I would automatically scan any menu & try & pick out the most ‘Anti-Cancer’ and/or ‘angiogenesis’-based dish (research is showing that certain foods have properties that can starve the microscopic cancers that develop in our bodies all the time); I even recently tried going Vegan (sadly not for me due to treatment-related on/off anaemia but I try & eat as much ‘plant-based’ as I can).
But food is a JOY! It is cultural, social, elemental, vital. Eating well-balanced & home-cooked food, with more veggies & less animal protein, more wholegrain fresh food & less processed well shite basically is where we all need to be. And less falling prey to all this shame-inducing ‘eat clean’ malarkey. I love to bake & share what I bake. The odd homemade treat is not a SIN. But I also adore my broccoli, my homemade soups & home-baked rye bread & vegetarian pasta dishes too.
But if you glance at many a ‘Yoga’ magazine or website or blog, they’re littered with pseudo-science-nutri-waffle. Different food groups are demonised, others lauded & go figure if say in five years time, the demonised & lauded foods utterly change places but everyone’s highlighted & filtered faces stay po-faced & straight.
The fact that many of the ‘big’ Insta #fitfam ‘stars’ look so healthy & ‘well’ is because they’re
so bloody young (I used to party hard, like an utter loolah several times a week, work two or sometimes 3 jobs, never went near a gym, ate fast food & I still looked basically always looked fantastic cos I was 25 for God’s sake!);
they’re filtered & photo-shopped to within an inch of their lives;
they’re uummmm lying! Snap a pic of ‘green juice’ breakfast, post online then go eat a bacon sarnie with builders tea & 3 sugars ;-)
they're actually deliberating misleading the public - ref the horrid case of the Australian known as Belle Gibson who pretended to have cancer, to have had it cured via non-conventional medicine & well, a whole sad sorry fraudulent story followed, with thousands of people financially scammed & others medically misled by her awful con.
Yoga is not just ‘asana’; not just the poses. Yoga really is a ‘lifestyle’, a philosophy, a way to navigate the world, both on & off our mats. One of the main tenets of the ‘philosophical’ side of Yoga is ‘Ahimsa’, the first of the Yamas. It is often interpreted as ‘non-violence’, of causing no harm to oneself or others or the planet, our home. It inspires us to cultivate an attitude of universal benevolence.
If we break that down into an ‘everyday’ approach to life, Ahimsa asks us to seek balance, to avoid extremes, to be kind to all, to do no harm (in thought, deed or action - intention is very much key here, not just actual actions/outcomes).
I have always been very much struck by its uncanny resemblance to the most important & ancient principles of medicine, 'Primum non nocere':
Just think. We can apply our Yoga off the mat. Take a deep breath. Pause. Bring awareness to the situation. Seek clarity. Don’t always be pushing for more, bigger, better. For alternatives. Sometimes the hard choice is the only choice. Question yes. Listen more. Intuit. Pause. Listen again to the voice within, not the clamour without. Breathe. And avoid the Slimy Dragons…
Beware the hucksters… Please do read the Irish Times article.
And hey, just channel 'Van the Man'… "No Guru. No method. No teacher"...
Hope to see you on your mat soon.