Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Opening the body, opening to peace

Amy Webb
Pawleys Island, South Carolina, United States


Photography by Elena Levitskaya
Photography by Elena Levitskaya, RN

The Friday morning beginner yoga class started at 10:30 and ended about noon. I had worked full-time until my breast cancer diagnosis a couple weeks ago, and until then it was almost impossible to attend this class. I hadn’t found a weekend class; so I had contented myself with a now-and-then relationship with the practice. While I’ve known that yoga stretches my mind, heart and spirit along with my body, today’s yoga class was my first in many, many months. I’d yearned for a more regular experience of this opening, this integration of the body. It’s not lost on me what it took to clear my schedule in order to make room for healing myself.

Lisa, a true gift of a teacher, offered her potent words and serene voice to call us to the present. She invited each of us to start with a movement, focusing on the breath to lead the mind to explore a body stiff with resistance. I was amazed to think of how little I had tuned into this body or gave it a chance to move in new ways over decades of my life. How often had I required it to obey the seemingly superior dictates of my mind, the willful driver in a life lived on the run? I routinely neglected my body’s needs, its cries for nurture. And I knew better: recovering from a highway collision years ago taught me that the body has an innate intelligence about how to heal. I got distracted from that awareness. I pushed rather than listened. Now my body was shouting to be heard.

Sitting on my mat, comfortably cross-legged, I waited, breathing. Lisa invited us to sit in “Seated Mountain Pose,” each imagining herself as a mountain, exuding its strong unwavering presence. She described the mountain as being fully connected to the earth, accepting what comes, embracing what can, or cannot, grow on its surface. The posture requires simultaneous pushing into the floor while rising out from the waist. In that union of opposites, the body releases space and energy, giving the breath more room to move through the ribs. For the first time since my diagnosis, I found the space to breathe.

Tears streamed down my face as I realized the perfection of this posture. I began to ground myself in a body that I had so recently learned to distrust and, until recently, took for granted. I was moved by the irony—this pose was asking me to accept a body that had seemed physically strong, while cancer was having its way with me. That feeling of being betrayed, deceived, and lost was so fresh, yet somehow remained at bay in the swirl of uncertainty of things to come. To be directed to greet all this with compassion seemed foreign, but necessary and life-saving. Here in this moment of stillness, in a roomful of strangers, I could face my mountain of uncertainty, and be the mountain of peace.

Move after move, the poses brought me out of my head and into my body. Since diagnosis, I had been reading, researching, thinking, deciding. I knew I needed a physical practice that would center me, slowing and calming a mind that worked overtime out of habit, out of fear. Today I heard in Lisa’s guidance the words that would translate to a strategy for surviving: intend and allow, breathe into what is painful or stuck, adjust your position as needed, accept what opens and what does not, and meet it all with kindness and gentleness. It was profound for me, literally and metaphorically.  My mind took notice of how my body could lead. The result this morning was a deep ease, a lightness, a sense of what in me doesn’t change. In just over an hour, I found a spaciousness that brought me alive, beyond the confines of the body, or the reach of the cancer. I found my essence.

During the final “Corpse Pose,” a posture of letting go and relaxing that ends each yoga class, again I cried—this time, releasing tears of gratitude for being reminded that my body could be trusted to support and open me. And here, in this practice of dying I felt no fear. I surrendered to this space, this silence, and I received a gift of words that rose from deep within me: “Remember this.” I could visualize my cells remembering this calm and my heart remembering how to breathe. I promised myself that through the ordeal ahead, this yoga, this union, would be my healing balm.



AMY D. WEBB, PhD has served for over two decades as a psychologist and executive coach, consulting to organizations and their top leaders about developing through change. She coaches leaders in the US and abroad on the nature of transitions and ways to lead oneself and others through them. She specializes in assessing and unleashing the potential of individuals to grow amid challenges, and to live into a larger life. From her professional work, academic training, life experience, and deep faith, she found a repertoire to inspire her own physical, mental, and spiritual healing in the continuing transition that cancer presents. She currently lives in Pawleys Island, South Carolina.


About the photographer

ELENA LEVITSKAYA, RN photographed the images on the cover page and on this page.  She has been a Critical Care/PACU RN for the last 15 years. Photography has been one of her creative outlet for over 10 years.  She mainly explores nature as an ever present and alive subject in connection with human perception and emotional responses to natural balance and harmony.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2010 – Volume 2, Issue 3
Fall 2010  |  Sections  |  Personal Narratives

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