My yoga story
Yoga teacher and architect, Annabel Chown, battled through breast cancer and is now happily married with a son and still loving her practice. Here, she says yoga was a guiding light throughout her difficult journey
I fell in love with yoga in 2001. I was taken to a class led by Simon Low at triyoga. At the end, after Savasana, I felt connected to a part of myself I’d not really experienced: a part that felt grounded and calm, spacious and free. It was a contrast to the rest of my life, where my days were spent working long hours as an architect, in an interesting but stressful job, and my evenings were spent either pushing myself through gym workouts, or socialising in the hope I would meet a boyfriend. I was 31 and still single, my biggest worry back then.
My life changed dramatically after I found a lump in my breast in the early hours of a Sunday morning, getting undressed after returning home from a party. Cancer, I panicked, even though no one in my family had experienced breast cancer. “A benign lump,” a doctor reassured me after an ultrasound and needle biopsy. “We’ll take it out as a precaution, though.”
After the op, the oncologist told me I’d need chemotherapy and radiotherapy; six months of treatment. I pictured myself at my computer, plugging away at drawings until late, nauseous from chemo. I told my boss I wouldn’t be coming back until it was over.
I always wished I had more time: to be still, to do things like meditation. I wrote those words in my journal a month before I found the lump. Sometimes you get what you wish for. It was bittersweet, though. That summer, my freedom came at a price: the
intense sickness that lasted for days after each chemo cycle; the loss of my hair; the terror I would die young. Each cycle, as soon as the sickness wore off, I returned to yoga. Now I had time to attend classes several times a week. I’d show up in my wig, and no one had a clue I had cancer. I moved through Warriors and Down Dogs and they reminded me of my power, something cancer and its treatments can easily strip you of. Despite everything, my body was still strong, vibrant, and more than just a receptacle for needles, cytotoxic drugs and fear.
I also discovered Yin Yoga. The intensity of its long-held stretches was such a valuable lesson in learning to be present to discomfort. “Feel right into the sensations. And take it breath by breath, moment by moment,” my teacher instructed, as he kept us in Pigeon pose for five long minutes. Those words became my mantra as I travelled through what felt like an endless landscape of treatment. If I could just stay present to this breath, this moment, everything became more manageable.
Finally my treatment was over. I had no idea how my life would unfold, but I knew I didn’t want to return to an architect’s practice. Cancer taught me that we’re not here forever. I wanted my time to be less dominated by work, to include space for the things I loved, such as yoga and writing. I set myself up as a freelance architect, working from home, and took on smaller projects.
“Yoga came into my life at exactly the right time. It has been my steady and faithful companion, with me through all the highs and lows of the past two decades.”
I started to travel more. Pre-cancer, I never took more than a week off work. The year after my diagnosis, I went to Australia for two months and spent several weeks in Byron Bay, learning Ashtanga Yoga with Dena Kingsberg. It was hard work. But I loved it, as it made me feel so alive. “Always do what feels authentic to you,” Dena said to our group on the final day of the course. I held her words close.
Back in London, I decided to train as a teacher with triyoga. I completed my training in 2008 and then established a wonderful freelance lifestyle, with its balance of yoga classes, architecture projects and time to myself.
But one thing was still missing: a relationship. I signed up for online dating, and after a few false starts, met Mark who is now my husband. It was several years from my diagnosis and the threat of cancer had faded into the background.
Except it hadn’t. By 2010, in quick succession, two of my first cousins, both in their early forties, were diagnosed with breast cancer. Suddenly I was being closely screened, and recommended to ultimately have a risk-reducing double mastectomy. Why did cancer have to take up space again, especially just as I’d finally fallen in love? All I wanted to do was enjoy myself with Mark. But of course life is never quite as we plan it.
It wasn’t until 2016, by which time we were married, that I felt ready to have surgery. I was tired of claustrophobic sessions in the MRI scanner, to check for disease, and anxiously waiting for results. But how would my body look and feel after a mastectomy?
My worries were unfounded. My new breasts, created from silicon implants, looked great. Seven weeks after surgery I flew to Goa to attend a yoga retreat. I wasn’t expecting to be able to do too much, but to my surprise I was almost back to my full practice. I felt immense gratitude for my body and its ability to heal so quickly, no doubt helped by all those years of yoga. Above all, I was so thankful to be alive and healthy, something too many others are denied.
In 2018, my life changed again, when I became a mother. It is now 18 years since my cancer diagnosis. My body is stronger than it was at 30. More importantly, yoga has taught me to hold space for all the experiences life brings — including the uncomfortable ones. It reminds me that while we cannot always control what happens to us, we can choose how we respond, and that in every challenge lies the potential for growth and transformation.
Yoga came into my life at exactly the right time. It has been my steady and faithful companion, with me through all the highs and lows of the past two decades. I have no doubt it will continue to be so as long as I live.
Hidden: Young, Single, Cancer by Annabel Chown
(published by Blue Door Press, £8.99)