Fitness Magazine

Interview with Anjali Rao About Breast Cancer, Yoga, and Social Activism

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge

by Nina

Interview with Anjali Rao About Breast Cancer, Yoga, and Social ActivismWhen I learned that Anjali Rao, a new friend of mine, had become a social activist after having breast cancer, I asked her for an interview . I think it's important for us to all to know that social activism can be a natural outcome from practicing yoga. This is the path of Karma Yoga (selfless service), one of the yoga paths for those of us who want to stay engaged with the world. Thanks, Anjali for sharing your story with us.
Nina: Anjali, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what your life was like before your breast cancer diagnosis. 
Anjali: I was 37, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, a mom of two young kids, busy with “life,” physically fit and healthy, with plans of going back to my corporate career after a year or so of being with my children at home. My gynecologist suggested I do a baseline mammogram because I had mentioned in the medical history questionnaire that I may have a paternal aunt who had some form cancer in India. I wasn’t sure which cancer this was, as she passed when I was young, and no one was knew exactly what the original cancer was as it had metastasized by the time of discovery. In the baseline mammogram, there were micro-calcifications, and upon further testing, it was found to be Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS or what is also called as Stage 0 Cancer). The cancer cells were contained in the milk ducts. 
Nina: What happened when you were diagnosed? How were you feeling? 
Anjali: I was devastated and in shock. The period between the first test and the final decision was over a period of 10 days or so, and those were scary. I had two young kids, and I didn’t want to miss out on their lives, I had absolutely no risk factors: didn’t smoke, drank alcohol occasionally, was physically fit and otherwise healthy. How did this happen? It was a dark time. 
Once I made the decision to do a bilateral mastectomy and immediate reconstruction, I did feel better. I would do anything that is needed to reduce chances of recurrence. 
Nina: Did yoga help support you during this time? If so, how? And which practices and philosophy particular? 
Anjali: I had no asana practice during this time. What helped me was the chanting practice that I learned as a child, Bhakthi Yoga (Yoga of Devotion), and the love and support of family and friends. Once a day, I chanted Vishnu Sahasranama, the 1000 Names of Vishnu. It took around 20 minutes, and I had it memorized by then, helped to calm my mind. And connect with my roots and my ancestral practices.
Asana came to my life after reconstruction. I was in the kitchen one day and realized that I couldn’t open a jar of pasta sauce—I had absolutely no upper body strength. I went into my first yoga class and fell in love with it. Asana gave me a connection with my body. The practice connected parts of me: physically and emotionally. 
I practice asana and pranayama to connect with the body and breath, understand where I am in my body and regulate my nervous system. As a dancer, I love movement, so I practice vinyasa, and moving and feeling my body with mindfulness and awareness of the breath has helped me a lot. I love sweating and the release of endorphins at the end, too. I do practice inversions, some form of it every day—Viparita Karani to a Handstand to Prasarita Padottansana—helps bring a sense of calmness. But also the ongoing practice of svadhyaya, self-study, helps, I know more of who I am now and how my mind works and reacts to something.
It took more than a year to regain strength physically. But more importantly yoga changed the trajectory of my life. I knew I wanted to share this with people who were going through treatment for cancer. After a year of practice, I signed up for the 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training and then started teaching. 
Nina: What was the treatment and recovery period like for you? Did you have good or bad experiences with the medical system? 
Anjali: All my doctors were and are compassionate and humane. They were honest and supportive. I was and am grateful for them. I remember lying on a biopsy couch, very vulnerable and scared, not knowing what will happen. Two nurses were with me. Both of them were survivors of breast cancer, both of them showed me their reconstructions and scars and were optimistic in the way they talked of lives after a cancer diagnosis. That helped me immensely. I also think of them often, and whatever I do now, in service, is my way of carrying this forward. 
Nina: Did you feel changed by this whole experience? In what ways?
Anjali: Absolutely changed. In countless ways and yet the essence is perhaps the same, unchanged. I think I am more resilient than before. I do know how it feels to be scared, to see my mortality face to face. And because of yoga, I am more self-aware of what can trigger anxiety and what I need to do to take care of myself so I can show up for everyone else. I also know that time on the planet is finite for all of us, so we have to make it count. And this shows up in the kind of work I choose to do (I am grateful that there is a choice here), which is what? and to savor the small joys in the time we have. It shows up because I feel I have been given a second lease of life, and I live with gratitude. Also, I have a sense of courage. In the past, I may have been more fearful of saying something or doing something that is not pleasing to everyone. Now, I don’t try to please, but be honest and kind. Of course, it’s a work in progress. 
Nina: How did this experience lead you to become an advocate for health care? Did the path of karma yoga have anything to do with this? 
Anjali: I had and do have access to good doctors and medical professionals. But many in this country don’t have access to medical care or time off from work—if they need that—during and after treatment. This is supposedly the most developed country in the world, and this has to change. People of color are impacted even more so. I have been a vocal advocate for medical reform politically and, in a more community level, an advocate for sharing our stories of survivorship openly. There is such a stigma attached to talking about this even now and especially so in the South Asian community. The more of us that do this with honest vulnerability, the more inclusive we will be. 
And, yes, of course all of what we do is Karma Yoga. The central tenet of the Bhagavad Gita is Nishkama Karma, to relinquish the fruits of one’s labor and to surrender to something bigger than oneself. This helps give us perspective and manage our egos. It’s so internalized for me that I cannot separate and pinpoint a specific example. But when the pandemic started, I, along with a couple others, started a volunteer group for my local neighborhood community. We have done all kinds of things, small and big, from dropping off masks and PPE to at-risk groups to medical facilities, to fund raising and helping those impacted by job losses with food collection drives, to helping some whose homes were burned down due to the fires. I do all this without any expectation of recognition or validation. This is Nishkama Karma to me. 
Nina: What are the causes you’re working for these days? And how can other people help? 
Anjali: I am a yoga educator now, integrating yoga philosophy and social justice work, teaching for teacher trainings and intensives for yoga schools. I’m also a Board Member of HERS Breast Cancer Foundation, whose mission it is to support anyone going through treatment with post-surgical products and services, regardless of financial status. You could donate or volunteer to this organization:
Nina: Do you have anything else you’d like to tell our readers? 
Anjali: More than ever we need to be resilient to face the immense challenges in our world due to the pandemic. Resilience comes from within and without us. It is the ability to be flexible and bounce back from hardship and suffering. It also comes from a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Each of us have gifts and resources that can make a difference or impact someone’s life in a way that is helpful to them, and when we tap into that reservoir, the collective will be stronger.
Interview with Anjali Rao About Breast Cancer, Yoga, and Social ActivismAnjali Rao came to the yoga mat at nearly 40 recovering from surgery from Breast Cancer. She studies, teaches, and writes about Yoga philosophy/ history from a socio-political perspective and is deeply interested in the intersectionality of race, culture, gender and accessibility of Yoga practices. She aims to make the practice Yoga on and off the mat accessible, helpful and joyful to people across ages, genders and abilities. She is a part of the teacher training faculty in 200 and 300 hour programs in the Bay Area and teaches Yoga for Cancer Survivorship for the Stanford Cancer Program. She serves on the Board for HERS Breast Cancer Foundation, a non-profit that helps survivors and those going through treatment regardless of financial status. She is a lifelong student of Indian Classical Dance, a sucker for puppies, loves dark chocolate, the ocean and old trees. For more information, see to Yoga for Healthy Aging by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook ° To order Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being, go to AmazonShambhalaIndie Boundor your local bookstore.

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