by Alison Abbruzzi
While fully engaged in a yoga pose, total awareness is essential. One must be conscious of the quality of breath entering and exiting the body, the placement and positioning of hands, limbs and feet, the engagement of specific muscles, the relaxation of others, and the subtle energy field permeating the surrounding space. Mental and spiritual mindfulness is also present as practitioners are often encouraged to set an intention for their practice, chant a healing mantra, pose a question they wish to answer, offer the merits of their practice to a person or cause, and be witness to their thoughts. Through yoga, one is brought into the present moment, and there is a gentle shift that occurs when, through patience, commitment, and breath, one is able to awaken to experience and let life unfold.
When my 65-year-old mother in law, Sue, was diagnosed with stage 4-colon cancer last May, our lives dramatically shifted. Taking supreme importance were the simple moments of joy we are living in, and the gratitude we share every day that we have together. There became a new focus in our household, one that did not linger on trivialities or superfluous details. We became fully present, and truly began living in the moment. A retired hospice nurse, vegetarian, and yoga practitioner, Sue’s gentle and loving spirit continues to radiate from her, and the lives (and deaths) of others are richer and more beautiful because of her. When Sue urged me to culminate my years of yoga study into a teaching certification, I felt a strong devotion to do it for her. Despite the myriad responsibilities that a high school English teacher and mother of three young children possesses, I felt wholly supported knowing that I was serving a power far greater than myself.
Sue and I discovered yoga together over 13 years ago, months after we had both ceased smoking. (My impetus to quit came in the form of a collapsed lung followed by a blebectomy, where Sue found inspiration from the sudden death of her father.) Watching a VHS tape in our living room, we introduced ourselves to breathing techniques, pranayama, and postures, asanas, which somehow made us feel better and stronger as we became more aware of our movements and our breath. After stability and flexibility increased, I took my first yoga class at a Unity church in Orlando, FL. Here, I was lead through a series of free-flowing meditative poses synchronizing body, breath and mind. Slowly, I began to open up to a new state of being, yoga.
Yoga is the harnessing of energies. The word yoga comes from yoj, which means to yoke, unite, or bind. It is the powerful yoking of the mind to create union of spirit, breath, and body. Through this constant state of focus, awareness, and presence, it brings the practitioner into a natural state of balance, tranquility, and equilibrium. Through yogic practice, one can fully experience the expansiveness of being. There is an easeful sweetness and open-heartedness that can be released by purifying the body through right actions, movement, breath, and meditation. I began to realize that I always felt lighter after practice, and I was happier, more grounded, and more open. I felt that as I was making space for yoga in my day, yoga was making space for me, in my body, my mind, and my life.
When we moved to the Hudson Valley area in 1999, I found a small studio less than three miles from my house in Accord where I continued to explore the philosophy and discipline of yoga. When the studio closed, however, I trekked about the area looking for a teacher or place to fill that void. I explored Kundalini yoga classes in Rosendale, prenatal classes in New Paltz, and a variety of workshops in Woodstock. One of the many beauties of our area is that we have such an abundance of yoga studios and styles to choose from. At this time I began having babies, but I continued to seek out new places to practice. In 2005, months after the birth of my second son, a dynamic studio opened in Stone Ridge. I was elated. Here I met a talented, vibrant, heart-centered yogini whose wise and loving teachings encouraged me to begin living my yoga and bring the lessons I learned off the mat. Accepting myself and others with an open-heart, surrendering my efforts, offering daily gratitude, and finding my personal edge in a variety of situations are just a few of the seeds she propagated. Following the closing of the studio, she opened her own space, and classes became sanctuaries offering a supportive environment to nourish the spirit, explore the body, and observe the mind. Several other gifted teachers from various lineages taught here as well, and I continue to study with many of them today.
Pursuing Sue’s wish, I researched a variety schools and studios that presented a yoga teacher training which would fit into my demanding lifestyle. I found a lovely studio in Woodstock which offered a richly philosophic, largely experiential, and academically rigorous experience at an affordable price. The intensity of the eight month program was physically and mentally demanding, but the simple fact that what I was doing would not only serve my mother in law, but the greater good was the divine breath that energized my spirit. Additionally, we were encouraged to research specialty areas of interest and complete outside fieldwork. I chose to focus my studies on yoga for cancer patients, and designed a personalized program for my mother-in-law. I discovered how yoga can minimize the symptoms of aggressive therapies, decrease levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, improve balance and circulation, dispel harmful toxins, foster a greater sense of well-being, create unity, and promote acceptance and healing for those living with cancer. I am honored to guide Sue through asana sequences, pranayama techniques, mantras, meditations and visualizations that continue to nourish and support her. Well over a decade later, we continue to experience profound healing through yoga.
Although my moments with Sue are numbered, we savor each experience together cultivating joy and laughing often. I am so grateful for Sue and for yoga, as they both continue to teach me, humble me, and move me closer towards truth. The mindset of fully living in the present, coupled with the transformative powers of yoga, are two of the greatest gifts I have to share. Through the practice of yoga, we can uplift others by uplifting ourselves and, even in the face of death, we can live in happiness without fear and feel the divine grace of being alive.