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November 26, 2013

Embracing Change: Life, Death & Yoga. ~ Colleen Hohenstein

I loathe transitions—I’ve never been any good at them.

When I was a senior in high school my family moved halfway across the country. I was devastated. Twenty-five years later, my family is still traumatized from the temper tantrums I threw before, during and after the move.

I equate transition with uncertainty and indecision.

I will happily change plans in midstream, but having a plan gives me comfort. My personal definition of hell is sitting in endless corporate meetings where no decisions are ever actually made. Was I always this way, or was it a decision I made somewhere along the line?

I truly don’t know.

It took me forever to memorize the Ashtanga primary series, with its flowing sequence of poses connected by, you guessed it, transitions. And those who know me well, know sometimes I still forget the sequence. It used to freak me out, a lot. It’s much better than it used to be, but there is still much opportunity to grow.

I couldn’t anticipate the sudden uncertainty about to blast into my life, forcing me to change my ways. Apparently the universe thinks it’s time for me to grow up. As Patty Loveless so eloquently sings, “Life’s about changing, nothing ever stays the same”.

My mother’s lung cancer, removed this past summer, has returned.

It has grown and spread throughout her body. It has staked a claim in her liver as well, eliminating options for treatment. We are given a life expectancy phrased in months. Suddenly the entire family is in an uproar, at 2.5 hours away I am the closest family member to our mother. Somehow my four siblings and I must find a way to care for Mom. Emotions are high, solutions found and rejected—the uncertainty is draining.

Still, I continue my yoga practice.

Then it all begins to fall apart.

An unexpected rapid health decline threatens our planned move to assisted living. We begin thinking in terms of weeks instead of months. Two of my sisters fight bitterly, stubbornly clinging to differences in opinion. Both of them are motivated by love, but they are divided by their conviction. The fight is pointless, there is no great solution, just slightly less terrible ones.

It is my worst nightmare come true, endless discussions with no resolution in sight. My chest is so tight I can barely breathe and I must stop during my yoga practice. I know I can tame the anxiety inside if I can only connect back to my breath. I am living in limbo, whether I like it or not.

And through all of this, somehow my yoga practice becomes stronger.

I don’t sleep well at night, thoughts spinning endlessly in my mind and waking me at the crack of dawn. At these times, I work with my breath, doing pranayama in the early morning hours. It may be the only thing keeping me sane. I am exhausted, but still have the energy I need for myself and my family.

The precious time I dedicate to practicing becomes a dimmer switch for the intensity around me.

All of my emotions—sadness, regret, anxiety and other ones too complex to name—are still there, but manageable. I feel them, I recognize them, and I move on.

Transitions are only successful if you keep moving forward. There is a new rhythm to my movements, more focus, and less hesitation.

There are bright moments in this process of dying. I speak daily with my siblings. The coast to coast distance that normally separates us from regular communication fades away. There is satisfaction in working together toward a common goal. A dear friend leaves me an unexpected wrapped gift, a pair of extra, extra large panties. The note inside explains the next time I need to “put on my big girl panties” that I already have a pair.

There is the day my Mom goes speeding through the parking lot in her wheelchair directly towards a car, and with a flying Superwoman move I dive at the wheelchair, narrowly averting harm. As I stand there trembling with adrenaline, my mother sweetly looks up and says, “I guess I shouldn’t have released the brakes on the wheelchair”. I find the humor in the situation and laugh with her. It feels like we cheated death, albeit temporarily.

Last week was spectacular.

Bit by bit I’m working towards the infamous “tic tacs”, or viparita chakrasana in Ashtanga. Executed well, they are beautiful to watch.

The “tic” is an up and over movement into a backbend. The “tac” is flipping back over from the backbend. They’re not easy. And they’re infinitely more complicated than my description. It’s a pendulum powered by breath, strength and flexibility.

Go too far one way and we may never make it over.

Go too far the other way and we’ll stay stuck exactly where we are.

We have to embrace the transition.

Even with my teacher’s help, I completely missed the “tac” back over. I could have let it frustrate me. Normally, it would have caused great furrowing of my brow. Instead, I lay on the floor and just laughed.

After a moment, I returned to the starting position to begin again. And that was the spectacular part, I didn’t even have to pull out my big girl panties—I’m growing up.

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Assistant Editor: Laura Ashworth/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Image: a4gpa (flickr)

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Colleen Hohenstein