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Presenting My Heart: Yoga, Depression, Anxiety, Cancer & Rising Above

“It is 1994,” I say to 2000 people, at the beginning of my TedX talk in Boulder, Colorado, with my heart in my throat and vulnerability on my sleeve.

Encouraged by a dear friend to share the story, the real story, the raw story, about how I found yoga and feel called to share it. I took all these people on a journey into my past and that night I finally admitted cancer out loud to my mother and myself.

I shared the progression of events, my determination to fight for my uterus and my life. I shared the tragic loss of that uterus and the win of my life. At that moment in the talk, I roar of applause erupted in the theatre, celebrating survival. I stated when it began to fade: “But that is not why I am here.”

Let me back up. I am not a cheerleader for cancer. Regardless of my intense belief that yoga inspires the body’s ability to change the mind, I would never get up on that stage and say, “I survived cancer! I found yoga! You can too!” However, I have often felt under pressure of living positively for those in the battle. I mean, I survived, right? Should that not have been enough to create an alchemical elixir of joy and bliss and wisdom to saturate my every future day? I wish.

I really wished for that: I met many people who survived cancer and seemed to truly have that new vision and zest. I came from the battle with more than scars. I had full-blown depression. I wished for even the tiniest verve for living when others would tell me to “cheer up,” “appreciate my luck,” and/or “know that I had so much to live for.”  Worse, I felt under the pressure of letting those I loved down at my lack of sunshine.

My shame of not celebrating my survival felt like a point of defeat.

I had no idea that others felt the same, be it cancer or another intense life circumstance that requires a fight for life. For literally a decade, I hid in plain site, healing slowly and aware of the deep groove depression and anxiety had carved in my brain. If I did not live in a just so manner, the negative mental pattern was happy to slam me back into the muck of icky, heavy, dark emotions.

The manner in which I climbed from the deepest depths initially was with my body, through my body, and eventually for my body. A kind Boulder doctor helped aim me not only towards survival from cancer, but recognized the depression and my “out of body” state of subsisting. She pointed me towards volunteering with horses and children, as well as yoga. At the time, I had no idea how it yoga worked, but I felt it slowly, and then in relationships of attention and action.  There was something to the process of showing up and moving my body and connecting to my breath.

It was years later, after developing a career in yoga that I developed a deep curiosity to understand the mechanisms that currently keep me from sliding down the slippery slope.  Great, creative teachers and basic physiology helped me draw some connections between embodied integration with breath inhales and radiant releases of muscular tension with breath out flows. At the position of the end of every breath, just before the inhale reenters the body, each of us has the capacity to learn something new, mental and muscular.

The effect of “pulsation” with this technique, learned from Shiva Rea, changed my life.  I noticed that this method was much more than a “technique,” it was a means of happening with my life, of participating deeply, and of engaging choice on as many levels as I could.

Yoga did not heal my depression after cancer. It brought me into relationship with it.

My yoga practice actually taught me patterns of embodying the concept of empowerment, which looking back, cancer and the fear of it coming back had taken away. This awareness was real, but it was raw. It is hard to talk about, as it means admitting I was not a joy-filled cancer survivor.

I wrote an initial talk and then, to this great friend, delivered it one afternoon, a couple of weeks before the event. It was clear and clinical, and it did discuss my path from cancer and the resulting depression but one level of me was removed. It was written and spoken just inside my comfort zone. It was chock full of the science, a full description of the methods and some motivation and inspiration. After reading it to him, he said, “Humph.”

“Shannon, I want you to make me cry.”  I must have looked at him with shock, as it was quite possibly the last thing I thought this man, my friend, who knows me, my career, this opportunity, and my future dreams might say.

Sharing this with someone I care about is complicated enough, but when asked to share a TedX, one can imagine, I was doing my best to skirt around this complete truth. I felt a little trapped in the image of the yoga teacher who is somehow supposed to have it all “together.”

“Show me who you really are, your cracks, and how you have really lived and lived beyond circumstance. I think people need to hear that. Sometimes real strength comes from real brokenness. Brokenness is beautiful.”

I was certain that showing my real me, my vulnerable me, my not-so-strong-me, might be seen as someone less than. Further, I was afraid it might shatter someone who needed hope. Also, part of my ability to hold things together under the eyes of 2000 might mean, I needed to hold things T.O.G.E.T.H.E.R.

“If I did that, I might cry.”

“You might cry. That would be real.”  He assured me that even if I did cry I would not cry forever, I would not break, and encouraged me to re-write, and, in fact, to re-own me.

As a calendar does, it proceeded toward the day of the event. Each day seemed to receive more feedback from speech coaches in this direction and in that direction and vulnerability began to peak through but remained just there, at the edge, peeking into my words, not really being seen. Private re-writes occurred and tears poured.

The clinical and “doing language” took up less space and depression and anxiety’s connection to my realness did. When I finally delivered my talk to the group of TedX speakers, just a couple short days before the event, I was close but oh so far away.

This group was amazing. I thought that they would hate it; it was so “feeling-based.” I thought that they would tear it down and help me put it back together in a much more safe and palatable manner. They held my rawness with kindness and space.

With love, each speaker offered something thoughtful and insightful that helped me shape it and order it and re-order my feelings, not my safety. They even collectively suggested I not offer slides, but instead simply stand and deliver a talk that might help others see themselves.

The support I received from that evening of our wobbling voices collectively and one-on-one in phone calls, emails, and Facebook messages was astounding. Each was encouraging me to keep going, to keep feeling.

Only the day before—and merely—I began to memorize the Frankenstein of my past and on the pages before me. Anxiety chirped in my ear, “you are beginning to late.” Waking the morning of, I remembered nothing and the day got shorter and shorter toward show time. I walked around with my paper, highlighted, compartmentalized in my hand all day. I would get partially through and a random sticking point would come up and I would blank and have absolutely nothing to say.

I was terrified I would end up in a pile of sobbing silence on the stage in front of a vast hall full of TedX goers and the sound of crickets and coughs, as I was forced to start over again and again.

I was having nightmares while awake. Anxiety was standing in my high heels with me, threatening to topple us both.

Parsing myself away from the group after sound checks, I strode outside to a small set of stairs on the side of the auditorium. Here, I practiced and re-stared at my, now rumbled/folded/creased and on its way to worn out final draft. I noticed, at a certain point, a man stalled behind some bushes before me on the walkway. I am certain he thought he was interrupting me. I encouraged him forward and apologized for embarrassing us both.

He was near paralyzed on the left side of his body. I assumed, as he walked slowly towards me, that he had survived a pretty serious stroke. He was no older than me. He asked me if I was a speaker and I looked down and said, “yes.” He asked what I was speaking about and I said for the first time, really clearly, “I am speaking about the climb out of depression and anxiety for those who have endured the days that no longer allowed them to take tomorrow for granted.”

“Wow. When do you go on?” he asked.
“Last,” I responded.
“I am Steve,” his right hand outstretched.
“Hi, I am Shannon,” I reached my hand into his.
“I usually cannot make it very late. Good luck, I am sure you are going to do great.  We all need to hear your message, I am sure. “

His ½ smile stayed with me as I went back to practicing holding words in my head.

The show started. The speakers began. I watched from my seat in the audience. I marveled. I held the hand of a great friend and must have nearly squeezed the life out of it. Inspiring, uplifting, humorous ideas were presented by the cascade of speakers in the most real way. Voices wobbled and jokes were made. I was in awe.

Anxiety began to build even more powerfully and after the first half, I watched the balance of the speakers from the wings.  I shook from a coldness no one else could feel and I could not get warm. I paced. I stood in the loo. And then, as if all at once, the mic was taped to my back and the clever mouth-piece hidden through my hair, and I stood on the edge of the backstage, like a cliff, the edge of experience, waiting.

I realized in that instant, I have been waiting.

I have been waiting.

I have been waiting this whole time to transform, to speak the truth about my past struggle and about my ongoing struggle with exactly what I was experiencing at this very instant. I was raw. I was real. I felt my heart pound in my chest, but I realized it was not about telling the story beyond survivorship to so many, or inspiring anyone to keep fighting. The human will to live does that. It was about telling my story and owning it myself. Every pound of my heart was one more pound of shame out of my body.

It was true, the circumstances of life had taken away my ability to take tomorrow for granted and had also robbed me of my ease in ability to authentically trust, connect, and love. However, this moment was here to speak my heart and be seen. Perhaps being seen might be permission for others to feel the same truth and then know that there was a real possibility that something like my path out, like yoga, might help them get back into their bodies as well.

Yoga would not heal them. However, it might simply bring them into relationship with themselves.

From these bodies, from being entirely in these bodies, we can sit in our circumstances.  We do not need to enjoy these circumstances, like them, or even appreciate them, just simply navigate them and transform their energy into that which helps us life our highest potential. We are each called to manage their fallout, their cave-ins and find courage to stay in the body or get back in the body if we fall out so as to not let these circumstances own us, define us, or even diminish us.

That was it. At that moment, I was in my body.

I was, for the first time in my adult life, not sharing my shoes with anxiety, shame or depression. I was ‘just me’ standing on the edge of experience. I placed the worn white paper speech aside on a backstage table and walked out to the center red dot.  I felt the lights. I saw my mom. I saw through the lights to several key people in my life.

I began to talk. Tears climbed and peaked out through my eye lashes. I delivered a talk that was not entirely what I had planned.

Toward the end, I wanted them to feel something real. I had the entire auditorium make fists with their inhales and release them as they collectively breathed out. I was stunned inside to see 2000 people pulsing through their hands together, squeezes and releases. On one round, at the pivotal turn in the breath, where the human being learns new information I asked them to think of someone that they love and someone that loves them. I saw the audience shift. I told them that. We entered a healing state, together.

I shared the tale of truth and some real tools for others. Most importantly, for me, I shared me and it seemed to set me free.

Waking through the crowd after the event with my friends and mom, the man from the bushes earlier, Steve, called my name from a center row where he must have been waiting quite awhile. He climbed awkwardly across the row and nearly hollered:

“You are why I came! I am so glad I stayed.”

“What?” I said, confused.

“You had us making fists.”  He said with urgency and stared at me with intensity, his voice was shaking, almost concerned I had forgotten. “You had us making fists and I looked down to my left hand. It has not moved since the stroke. I kept expecting it to move. You had us making fists!!”

I looked at him with excitement and he continued, “Oh, it did not move, but for the first time in years, I was not sad about it not moving. I feel like I have just been trying to make it move in the wrong way. I will try and make it move now by practicing love, self-compassion, and the courage to be seen. I have been so isolated since the stroke, so embarrassed that I am not who everyone once saw me to be. I will get back into my body. I will learn to breathe in my new body. Thank you.”

When he hugged me, he hugged my soul. “Thank you,” we both said at once.

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