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by Neha Verma, MS2

A yoga studio, ten o’clock in the morning. Eight women on eight mats in a circle. Four ceiling fans spinning slowly. Streaks of sunlight coming in through the third-floor windows, like outstretched fingers trying to grasp something out of reach. In one corner, a rack of pamphlets: Cancer Fighting Foods, Relay for Life, and The American Cancer Society.

“Week Three is when your hair starts to fall out,” one woman remarks to another, as they wait for class to begin.

A ten-minute drive separates UNC’s Cancer Hospital from UNC’s Cancer Support Program Yoga Studio. Surrounding the studio, there are no ambulances or white coats; instead, there is a Hardee’s, a nail salon, and Mardi Gras Bowling Center.

The eight women in the circle come here every Friday morning, or every Friday morning that they aren’t too sick from chemotherapy and radiation.

“It helps me make sense of what’s happened to me,” one woman tells me. She wears an off-center wig; her eyebrows are penciled on. She has deep creases around her eyes. “Helps bring me peace.”

“I think the cancer can make you feel so trapped,” another woman adds. Her thin, pale arms remind me of toothpicks. “Your body is falling apart and that’s the only body you’ve got. Yoga makes me feel more free.”

Three of the women are dressed in those loose-fitting floral-print tops that grandmothers seem to love, while one wears a pink Race for the Cure t-shirt. Four of the women have short white hair; two have blonde ponytails. The air smells faintly of lavender perfume, and the sunlight from the windows warms the polished hardwood floor.

The instructor, Maureen, sits in the middle of the circle. She wears wire-rimmed glasses that make her look stern, but her smile is welcoming. At five after ten, she presses a button on a stereo, and the soft strumming of guitar strings spreads across the room.

Maureen’s voice is gentle and smooth as she directs the women through the routine. Her words seem to float in the warm, lavender-scented air.

“Breathe deeply and just be,” she tells the class. “Just be.”

Within the first half hour, one woman gets up from her mat and disappears into the adjoining single-stall bathroom five times. During her fifth disappearance, the sound of retching comes through the bathroom door just as Maureen sings, “Ommm.”

The woman reappears with a flushed face and bloodshot eyes.

“Just started a new treatment,” she mumbles apologetically. “Irinotecan.”

“That’s a tough one,” one woman says.

“Worst diarrhea of my life!” says another. A third nods in sympathy.

When Maureen leads the women into the tree pose, they clasp their hands above their heads. One woman stops with her arms sticking straight out like a scarecrow’s. She turns her head from side to side, examining the arms as if surprised that they are her own.

“Haven’t been able to lift them up this far since surgery,” she announces with a grin. The woman beside her starts to clap her hands, and the others follow her lead.

Eleven o’clock. It is time for the Savasana, the Final Relaxation. The women lie on their backs with their toes pointing up at the ceiling, and Maureen passes out pillows and blankets. Once the women are settled, Maureen returns to the center of the room and shares a verse from the poet Rilke:

Let everything happen to you

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

No feeling is final.

No one moves or speaks. Rilke’s words hang in the air. After twenty minutes, Maureen announces that the class has come to an end.

“You can stand up to go whenever you’re ready,” she tells the women. “Please take your time.”

They linger. Their reluctance is almost palpable, as though they are waging a silent protest against the world outside these big third-floor windows and polished hardwood floors. Maureen simply smiles at them in understanding. After the last woman finally ties her shoes and makes her way out nearly forty-five minutes later, Maureen tells me: “I always plan to stay about an hour extra. It can be so hard for them to leave, and – well, at least in this room – I never want them to feel like they have run out of time.”