A Kripalu Yoga teacher and cancer survivor gets back on her paddleboard
by Natalie Smith
Waking up in the hospital, I couldn’t do anything for myself. Even breathing was a chore. I had just undergone a bilateral mastectomy to treat breast cancer, and I felt frustrated and powerless.
Before my illness, I was a Kripalu and paddleboard yoga instructor, balancing gracefully—both on and off the board. But now, I felt as if I was being pulled under.
As a yoga teacher, my core practice focuses on the breath, which is the first gift of life. As long as I had breath, that was a beginning.
Halfway through my third day in the hospital, I felt yoga calling me back. A subtle shift began inside me that started with the connection to breath— I focused on that same holding and release that I feel when I’m practicing on my paddleboard. I began consciously linking my breath with movement. It wasn’t long before I could take a complete dirgha (three-part) breath. This practice was my savior. The mind-body connection and joyful approach to living was where my recovery began.
I learned a lot about myself over the next few weeks, as I focused on self-compassion when I couldn’t take care of myself, and self-study while my body healed. I paid close attention to my thoughts, words, intentions, energy, and relationships with everyone who cared for and supported me.
Every day, I grew physically stronger. Soon, I was able to practice chair yoga. One day and one step at a time until I reached my goal: becoming strong enough to take out a paddleboard, and secure enough to risk my balance. When you step on a paddleboard with the intention of anchoring and sharing a yoga practice, it’s a healing life change, a challenge that goes to the core. You laugh as you find your edge, and build a confidence that becomes part of you.
I am now in remission and have been cancer-free for nine months. Yoga practice and Kripalu’s core teachings are the steady foundations of my recovery. Eight weeks to the day after my mastectomy, I was back on the water, teaching my first post-surgery paddleboard yoga class.
Natalie Smith is a Kripalu Yoga teacher who lives in the Florida Keys. She offers yoga to children, chair yoga to seniors, and standup paddleboard yoga through her company, Natural Paths Fitness and Wellness.