Last month I had a plastic mask made in preparation for Cyberknife surgery. When it was placed over my face and head a few weeks ago before starting the radiation treatment, the technician secured the mask with screws to the table so that my head was immobile, and the mask felt so snug that I had trouble opening my mouth and could barely part my lips.
How could I stay present in the moment and welcome it, as well as the moments that would come after it, while undergoing the radiation treatment?
The treatment itself wasn’t painful, thank goodness, but it was daunting to walk into a large room and view the machine that would administer the radiation—a tall, thick, cream-color cylinder with a collapsible arm—and realize that my fate lay in the accuracy of the machine and the care and attention given to the treatment plan by my doctors. As long as I remembered to breathe, just as in a difficult or challenging pose, I told myself, I could stay centered and hold my balance.
Earlier, moments before the mask had been placed over my face, I was asked to lay down on my back and set my head on a block of Styrofoam with a shallow cup hollowed out for the back of my skull. I’d felt almost like I was lying down on my mat in Savasana, even though the table was two or three feet above the floor. In Savasana, I’ve learned to check my body for tension and stress, and so, as I inhaled and exhaled beneath the mask, I mentally scanned my body—working my way up from my toes to my head—for stress or discomfort. After a bit of squiggling and squirming, I found a comfortable position, inhaled through slightly parted lips, and exhaled in an attempt to relax using the breath-work that I’d learned on my mat.
Between the mindful breathing and body scan, I felt at ease, and that made it a bit easier to accept the mask’s pressure on my chin and on my forehead. After a few minutes, I didn’t really notice the mask at all. And once I was carefully strapped in around my chest, my hands and arms relaxed at my side, I didn’t have to do anything except listen to pleasant piano music, daydream, meditate, or sleep for roughly 90 minutes. Of course, I didn’t sleep. I wanted to stay alert and try to understand what was happening. So, I watched with great interest as the robot’s arm zoomed in and out, twisting and spinning as it aimed a tiny pin-size hole at my head. I might have felt some fear, but I imagined the arm as a magic wand being used to heal me, and it didn’t seem quite so threatening.
The machine itself was practically noiseless, except for an occasional creak, and that made the treatment even more mysterious because I couldn’t tell if anything was happening. In and out zoomed the arm. I could read different numbers on the end of the cylinder–15mm, 25 mm, 50 mm—which, I found out later, indicated the different doses of radiation delivered during the treatment. After a while, instead of imagining the robot’s arm as a magic wand, I thought of it more as the limb of a robot-physician, a caregiver who I could actually confide in. It was very strange, and I felt as if I’d stepped into a sci-fi novel, but I accepted these thoughts as they arrived, one at a time, and then let each thought go, just as I learned to let go of thoughts as I do in my yoga poses. One thought, then another… just as on my mat.
After an hour or so, I started flexing my fingers and feet to reduce the stiffness in my hands and feet. But there wasn’t anything that I could do to relieve the pain that was pushing at the base of my skull where my head lay on the Styrofoam block. What had looked like a soft cushion and hadn’t bothered me in the initial stages now felt like a steel bar, and the edge of that bar was cutting into the base of my skull. It wasn’t painful so much as uncomfortable, much as my head sometimes hurt when I used to balance upside down in Headstand on a hard floor. Of course, in this instance, I didn’t have a choice to come out of the pose. But knowing how to breathe into the pain and disperse it, knowing from my experience in challenging poses how to approach the pain and pull back, approach it again and pull back again, made it easier. Without my yoga practice, I might have had trouble making it through the end of the session.
In another twenty minutes, the machine’s arm stopped moving and returned to its original position. A voice over the speakers announced that I was done. It took a few minutes longer before I was unstrapped and unmasked and could rise off the table. It wasn’t quite like spending 90 minutes in my yoga class, but it felt as if I’d managed to welcome each moment rather than let fear pull me out of the moment. That had been my intention, regardless of the discomfort of remaining immobile for so long: to welcome each moment. Thanks to my yoga practice, I was able to savor life fully, even in a challenging pose.
Practice Journal: How does your yoga practice help you learn to savor each moment, even though the moment may be challenging, painful, or uncomfortable? Write: 10 min.