I was five when I was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare, cancerous tumor that occurs in bones or soft tissue. It was 1967, and the survival rate was below 20 percent. Laying in my hospital bed with my entire family surrounding me, a priest came to perform last rites (my grandmother told me I was receiving my first communion). As soon as the priest placed the holy wafer on my tongue, a profound spiritual experience took place. I felt a deep sensation of trust settle into my bones—and I knew that I would be OK. Against the odds, I survived, and after about a year of chemotherapy and radiation, I found remission.
Asana came a few years later. I recall thumbing through a Guinness Book of World Records, which contained pictures of yogis in various postures or suspending their breath for long periods of time. As a young gymnast and ballerina, I was curious. I began constantly “playing yoga” anywhere I could—on the couch, in the backyard, during recess.
When I turned 13, I noticed a lump on my lower left tibia. I thought I’d sprained my ankle, but the cancer had actually come back—and it was advanced. I was admitted to Boston Children’s Hospital, and within 10 days, doctors amputated my left leg below the knee and started chemotherapy. I was terrified and traumatized. Throughout high school, I was in and out of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. I was hairless, missing half a leg, and, like so many teenage girls, wondering if I would ever get a boyfriend.
Still, with help from my yoga practice, I persisted. For the next 17 years, I practiced in dorm rooms, on mountaintops, in trendy gyms, and on the linoleum floors of outdated churches. In those days, I had a clunky below-knee prosthetic leg; the design hadn’t changed since World War II. My prosthetic foot had no traction or ankle flexion. I’d stand on towels or blankets and try to balance, but I was sliding all over the place. This forced me to learn how to build a stronger core, move from my center, and stabilize my limbs. I adapted and invented my own poses to work with what I had at the time. Yoga teachers didn’t know what to do with me, yet I kept showing up.
But when I was 33, the long-term effects of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery took their toll. My kidneys failed, and I was placed on dialysis for the next 11 years.
Four years later, in 1999, as I was walking down the hall in my apartment complex, I felt an enormous angelic presence standing in front of me. I was overcome with emotion and stopped in my tracks. I heard these words inside my head: You are going to become a yoga teacher.
A few nights after that, three joyful yogis I’d never met before came to me in a dream. One anointed me with a mantra and told me I was being given shaktipat (spiritual energy passed from one person to another). At the time, I had no idea what the word even meant. The next morning,
I decided to try out a new yoga studio I’d seen advertised on a flyer at the library. Much to my disbelief, on the altar I noticed a photo of the yogi who had anointed me in my dream. The next day, I returned to the studio and spotted a catalogue advertising a teacher training in Massachusetts.
Three weeks later, I was living at an ashram in the Berkshires, sticking to my rigorous dialysis schedule and figuring out how, as an amputee, to keep up with my teacher training. I received my certification that year.
Before my kidney transplant in 2006, I spent 11 years having dialysis three times a week. During particularly arduous sessions, it was yoga that gave me something to look forward to. By then I was teaching 13 classes a week, leading workshops and trainings, and running my own studio. Yoga has saved me so many times that I’ve lost count. It kept me flexible—physically and mentally—when my instinct was to be rigid because my life was in danger.
I taught my first Yoga for Amputees workshop in 2008, and today my organization offers trainings, classes, consultations, online courses, and free resources for yoga teachers, practitioners, and health care professionals around the world. I also launched the Amputee Yoga Association, which connects amputee yoga teachers and practitioners, and I recently published a book, Yoga for Amputees: The Essential Guide to Finding Wholeness After Limb Loss. My hope is to help people awaken to their own strength and remember that there is a pure part of themselves that is timeless. Every body is a sacred vessel of the divine.
Get inspired! For more personal stories on the transformational power of yoga, see Yoga Saved Me.