Each morning I treasure the opening chant of the Ashtanga vinyasa tradition. The Sanskrit is only partially understood but one phrase stands out to me- ‘nih sreyase jangalikayamane’, simply translated as ‘beyond better, acting like the jungle physician’. It makes me think that this is how I care for myself, without needing anything external to myself, I can increase my internal heat ‘ boiling out impurities’ as Pattabhi Jois has said, while burning up my mental angst, flushing my cells with well oxygenated blood, moving every single joint through its range of motion, exploring my own energy, accepting myself as I am in each moment. Some days it feels like jumping through mud, others, like soaring lightly just off the earth. Neither lasts, and that helps remind me of the impermanence of everything. Some days I experience a sort of melancholy sweetness, so filled am I with appreciation for this body that moves, a mind that can concentrate, and the opportunity to learn this practice. When I started Ashtanga in a Mysore room, I wasn’t sure I’d stick to it, but five years later, I’m considering getting serious! Actually my yoga experience adds up to twenty years in total, and as I turn 40 years old tomorrow that’s literally half my life.
Recently in a workshop on yoga therapy in palliative care, the facilitator took us through a reminiscence exercise. I found myself transported back to a childhood gymnastics experience- an event that I was well trained and prepared for, and my vivid memory was of mounting the beam feeling strong, light, confident, and immersed in what I was doing. I recall flowing through my routine, landing the challenging baranis and sticking my front sault dismount. In my flashback I viscerally felt the strength and embodied grace of being fit. It’s what I get now as an adult in my yoga practice and I’m so grateful for that joy.
Without yoga I know my health would be worse. As it is I use mindful asana to keep my mental health stable. Having grown up with a paranoid schizophrenic mother, I prize feeling sane, even though I’ve flirted with psychedelic drugs and other consciousness altering techniques. Maturity for me means being able to watch my mood fluctuate without leaping to any self diagnosis. Thankfully I always return to equilibrium. More than just staving off mental illness, yoga has shown me high level mental wellness.
As a naturopath I know a fair bit about healthy lifestyles. However being a voracious reader, I could easily fall into a bookish sedentary life. I became a vegetarian in my teens, mainly out of empathy for animals, but also a desire for peak health and an attraction to all things ‘alternative’ ( it was the 90’s just to give that the proper context). However a vegetarian diet can still have too much promite on toast, bean nachos, sweet treats and pizza, and even a great vego diet is not enough to feel truly well without the movement element. Yoga keeps my diet on track by causing me to tune in to the effects of yesterday’s food. Each morning I am aware of the energy and nutrients I absorbed in the preceding 24 hours. Like any athlete, I’m still seeking the right ingredients, enough fuel, but not too much. A Prana rich sattvik diet that’s good for my mind, body and all living beings is my goal. Though the experiment continues, I’ve found that a light, early dinner with a good long fast overnight, is ideal.
The jungle physician is within me, it’s my capacity for interoception that lets me know how things are flowing each day.
So when I work with clients, especially the people I am called to support in my work with cancer, I want to empower them to also be their own jungle physician. My own experience with malignant melanoma brought the often denied realities of mortality to the forefront of my attention. I believe we can thrive even in awful circumstances, if we have the motivation, access and skills to take charge of the things we can control. It’s true we don’t really have much control in this life. A health crisis can happen to anyone, and there’s an aspect of cancer that’s truly random, but even when these things happen, the tools of yoga can be a life raft. There’s ample research to support the practices of meditation, yoga and other mindful movement techniques like tai chi. All these things are proven to improve quality of life and minimise some of the negative experiences that can go with cancer, like fatigue, inflammation, anxiety and insomnia. Okay, so we still need doctors, surgeons, oncologists. I am grateful for the experts and their skills. But when the acute treatment phase is done, we are left with ourselves and our daily choices. I choose to be my own jungle physician, and to remind myself each morning on the yoga mat, when I chant the opening mantra, including jangalikayamane with my whole being, I really mean to dedicate my practice to the teachers who have come before me, and to use yoga as medicine for body, mind and spiritual self.
Having filled my pranic tank through my dedicated practice, I am ready to get to work, passing on the most practical of skills and philosophies. Tomorrow on my 40th birthday, I’ll do my practice in the busy Mysore room at the Yoga Space in West Perth, then head to Cottesloe to Cancer Support WA where I’ll teach people affected by cancer mindful meditation for 90 minutes. Then I’ll finalise next years program of wellness activities, educational courses and supportive care events, in consultation with other health and wellness providers, before coming home to my own studio, where I’ll teach a meditative vinyasa flow class to my small but serious group of students. I couldn’t really ask for more meaning and purpose in my life. I’m so grateful to have a regular sadhana to sustain me, and a supportive family and community, who inspire me to keep up my practice, and to be the jungle physician for myself and encourage others to find their own way to wellness.