Thirty years of practice have taught me that yoga offers no guarantees. It has not guaranteed me health, a beautiful body or longevity.
In 1994 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy along with the removal of some lymph nodes from my right armpit. That was followed by a hysterectomy in 1999 for removal of an ovarian tumor. In March of 2001, I was diagnosed with spread of the breast cancer into my abdominal and pleural cavities. The tumor in my abdomen is sizable and both tumors have adhesions, which have restricted my movement and breathing. As I write this in March 2003, I am undergoing chemotherapy.
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was shocked. I felt that I had been doing everything right: I had a good diet, practiced yoga, had a healthy lifestyle, and held a relatively stress-free job. That’s when I learned that yoga offers no guarantees.
I was first drawn to yoga as a means of helping me sit comfortably on the floor. In January 1972 I was 25 and living in London, England. I moved into the Archway community, one of a number of intentional communities, developed under the auspices of Dr. R. D. Laing, a radical psychiatrist who envisioned the communities as true asylums–places where one could retreat for protection and healing.
I was attracted to this community because of the willingness of its members to strip away roles, norms and conventions in order to find the truth at the heart of their experience. I had no idea until many years later that that is also the goal of yoga and meditation.
As part of the hippie aspect of the community, people sat on the floor for meals, meetings and seminars. I was surprised that so many people found it comfortable. I didn’t. When Arthur Balaskas offered us a free yoga class, I decided to take it, thinking that it would help me sit on the floor more easily. I was right.
The classes were in Iyengar yoga, now known for its precision and attention to details of structure and alignment. I learned the poses quickly and easily. I loved its dynamic energy. I took to its relentless challenge to extend and improve like a duck to water.
Looking back now, I am struck by the immediate resonance I had with the archetypal forms of the postures. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I had found my way and discovered a practice that gave, and continues to give, focus, meaning, direction and purpose to my life.
In 1974 I began studying with Mary Stewart, author of Yoga for Children and Yoga Over 50 , and did most of my training in Iyengar yoga with her in London. When I completed my training in 1976, I returned to my native Toronto and began to teach. I was one of the first Iyengar teachers in Toronto, and found myself instantly teaching teachers who were also drawn to the precision and challenge of the Iyengar Method. I returned to Europe annually for continued lessons.
In 1978 I was introduced to Vanda Scaravelli, author of Awakening the Spine , at her home just outside Fiesole in the hills overlooking Florence, Italy. Vanda had studied with B. K. S. Iyengar and T. K. V. Desikachar in the early 1960s, then set out to find her own way: a yoga that is simultaneously gentle and dynamic.
Using the breath as her guide, Vanda discovered a movement within the postures that integrated the flow of breath and the curving of the spine to create a powerful undulation through the poses.
In 1984 she came to Toronto to visit her daughter and I had my first lessons with her. For the next ten years, she came to Toronto annually in the summer and stayed for three or four months. I had lessons with her three times a week while she was here.
Vanda taught as she had learned from Mr. Iyengar: one-to-one, body-to-body. Studying with her demanded a level of trust and surrender that I had never experienced before. Vanda was an extraordinary role model in following her passion, trusting her process and accessing the extraordinary possibilities of the human body, regardless of age. She showed me dynamic and expressive potential in asana practice that I had never seen or imagined.
She was 78 when I began studying with her, and transmitting her discovery before she died was a core issue in her life. I took on the mantle readily.
My first challenge was to integrate her approach into my practice and later to translate what I had learned into a class or workshop setting. The deeper challenges came when my annual lessons stopped and I was working on my own without a teacher. I began to acknowledge my profound sense of emptiness, and the feeling that I could not begin to access the powerful energy she had tapped into. Very slowly that has changed.
Vanda did not want her work named. She said that she had studied with Mr. Iyengar and then found her own way. She told me that I should take her work and find my own way. That brought my inner critic to the fore. I found myself confronting a relentless voice that asked: “Who do you think you are?”The diagnosis of cancer and subsequent mastectomy in the spring of 1994 brought new challenges to my yoga practice. The first was deciding on what kind of treatment to have. My surgeon said I could take my time making a decision. Even in the midst of my terror and confusion, I knew that I could reach a clear, quiet place in which I would know what to do, and that I should wait until that happened.
The mastectomy changed my body overnight. I was suddenly exhausted and barely able to move my right arm. I was used to a strong practice and had no resources for dealing with my new state. The surgery forced me to learn to listen to my body and respect its limitations. This lesson was repeated after the hysterectomy and again with the spread of the disease. Before I started chemotherapy, my breathing was becoming increasingly restricted. I was no longer practicing to do the poses; I was practicing in order to breathe.
The combination of losing a breast, my ovaries and uterus and the physical changes of menopause made me realize how deeply I was identified with the Western ideal of an attractive body. Furthermore, the undulating movement that Vanda incorporated in the postures was fluid, organic and quintessentially feminine. I questioned what it meant to be a woman and the relationship of my sexuality to my yoga practice.
In the last nine years I have gone through long periods where my practice consisted primarily of passive and restful poses, and relaxation. Another golden opportunity for my inner critic. I so often feel that I should be practicing longer, or more deeply, or doing more advanced practices.
At the moment I average an hour to an hour and a half a day of practice, including about half an hour of sitting. My practice is very gradual. If I overdo it, especially with back bends, my abdomen recoils in spasm.
The last nine years have brought me face-to-face with so many physical and emotional challenges. My practice has highlighted my deepest fears and insecurities; it is often hard to get back on the mat. I have yearned for the innocent joy I felt in my practice when I began over thirty years ago.
Yoga has not offered me any quick fixes or easy solutions. One of my students asked me recently if my yoga practice has been sufficient to sustain me through these health crises. The answer: Absolutely not. In addition to extraordinary support from students, colleagues, family and friends, I have made extensive use of conventional medicine, naturopathic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, psychotherapy, bodywork and other healing modalities.
Very gradually I have found moments of being at peace with the limitations in my movement and energy, and a deeper appreciation of the richness of my life. At Kripalu’s 2002 Yoga and Buddhism Conference, Buddhist teacher Robert Hall spoke of learning to live a happy life while looking death in the eye. I thought, “Yes.”
Finding ways to alleviate my own suffering, become more truly myself and help others find their way is a key goal of my practice and teaching. On a global level, it’s hard to imagine how I can make a difference. When I think about the violence and suffering in the world, as well as the state of the environment, I find it difficult not to sink into despair and helplessness.
On a personal level, however, I have seen changes in my students that are gratifying and often humbling. Many of my students have left more conventional or lucrative jobs to become yoga teachers. Others have made major life changes that have helped them live more authentic and satisfying lives. One of my students came out as a lesbian as a result of her yoga practice.
Another student told me recently about a class she was teaching for people with post-polio syndrome. One day one of the students unexpectedly brought her husband, who is paraplegic, to class. As my student scrambled to figure out what she could teach that would include him, she thought: “Yoga is love. How can I love him?” She decided to teach alternate nostril breathing, since he has the use of one arm. After the class he told her that before his accident he had been a diver. Breathing was a practice he understood deeply.
As I listened to her story, I felt that I was in the presence of an extraordinary teacher. I wondered, “Who is the teacher here and who is the student?” To my amazement, upon completing her story, she turned to me and said: “Esther, I learned that from you.”
Extracted from “Will Yoga & Meditation Really change my Life” edited by Stephen Cope. Published by Storey Publishing (2003).
Esther Myers 1947 – 2004
Esther Myers was an internationally respected yoga teacher and author. She was also a brilliant and articulate teacher of teachers. Esther was committed to honest inquiry and she challenged her students to explore and understand the practice of yoga as it developed and evolved within each individual’s body. She always encouraged her students to explore the rationale behind poses, and never to accept an absolute statement at face value.
A student of the late Vanda Scaravelli, Esther devised a simple and profound approach to yoga that both gently challenges and unites the body, mind and spirit. Esther established her Toronto studio in 1979. She created a rigorous and comprehensive teacher training curriculum which has produced many fine teachers throughout Canada and the United States. Esther developed a therapeutic yoga program for breast cancer survivors, which continues to run at the Marvel Koffler Centre in Toronto. Her video, Gentle Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors, has been distributed internationally, as have her books and her video on the teachings of Vanda Scaravelli.
Esther Myers died on January 6, 2004 after a long struggle with cancer. She taught her last class at her Toronto studio on December 16, 2003. Esther will be deeply missed by her students, colleagues, and friends. Her life and work were an inspiration to us all.