The kindness of strangers, yoginis, and horses
There’s something I’ve been meaning to write about since May. Every time I’ve tried to find words to convey the emotions around the experience, I have come up empty handed. As a matter of fact, I haven’t even mobilized myself to write thank you notes to anyone involved, nor have I posted more than two or three of the probably 100+ photographs I have. However, it’s time to start telling the story.
Let me start at the beginning, so you have some context for this fumbling for language.
Yoga teacher, horsewoman, and all-around world improver Margaret Burns Vap founded Big Sky Yoga, through which she runs retreats that combine yoga and horses and the Montana landscape into alchemical creations that transcend the sum of their parts. Each retreat has a special focus – one features photography, one emphasizes hiking, one takes participants to Yellowstone, and more.
One retreat differs from the rest. It is called Cowgirls vs. Cancer, and it is for women who have fought – or are fighting – breast cancer. I heard about it one year ago through my friend Mary Ann Wasil, founder of the Get In Touch Foundation, who had attended in May of 2015. Mary Ann had posted information about her Cowgirls vs. Cancer experience on her Facebook page and encouraged her friends to nominate themselves or others. Thinking about the role yoga plays in my life, and about my longtime love of horses, I sent in a nomination for myself – and was thrilled to be selected as one of the ten women to attend the 2016 retreat (attendees receive a scholarship to attend, and need only provide their own transportation to and from the retreat site). I texted Mary Ann last December, after I received the good news, to thank her for making it all possible. I received a heart emoji back from her. It’s still on my phone, the last text she ever sent me. Mary Ann died on April 15, 2016.
I had never been to Montana before. The retreat took place at the Double T River Ranch near Livingston. I flew into Bozeman and caught a ride to the ranch with two other attendees. As we rode through the landscape toward the ranch and I stared at the snow-capped mountains, I realized I was facing an experience that was unfamiliar in every single aspect -- I was with people I’d never met, in a place I'd never been, anticipating a completely new set of circumstances. When had that last happened in my life? Mentally rolling back through the years, I had to return to 1988 to find a similar situation. That summer I worked as an actor in an outdoor historical drama in Valdese, North Carolina, living and working with a group of people I didn’t know (including a producer who ended up with a restraining order filed against him within the first week of rehearsal – but that’s a story for another time).
As Neale Donald Walsch says, “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
The ranch was a stunning oasis of calm, with fields, paths, hammocks, horses, and more. The cabins sat on a riverbank with porches facing the water. We were three or four to a cabin – some women had single bedrooms, and I shared a bedroom with a roommate. After we unpacked, we gathered in the main barn for our first yoga class of the four-day weekend. Margaret welcomed the eight of us – although ten had been invited to come, circumstances had waylaid two of our number, not unexpected when you host a retreat focused on dealing with breast cancer. Our group represented the spectrum of experience ranging from many years since treatment, to a few years post-treatment (my category), to just finishing treatment, to currently managing metastasized breast cancer. Through the yoga class and into the dinner hour, we began to get to know one another, and to comprehend the gift of these four days – not only were we the beneficiaries of incredible kindness from Margaret and so many others, but we also felt time and possibility opening up for us in a way that doesn’t happen often in our nonstop daily lives. If we wanted to sit in the dining room and have mint-and-lemon water, we could. If we wanted to go rock in the hammock, great. If we wanted to take a nap, visit a horse, ride a bike, stroll by the river, wrap up in a blanket on a porch and have a conversation, we were free to do as we wished.
Margaret and her team had planned four days of healing and heartwarming activities. Yoga practice took place on the upper floor of the ranch’s main building, a lovely barn that housed the kitchen and dining room on the main floor. Several times we practiced yoga with Margaret or Lisa, another fantastic yoga teacher affiliated with the Big Sky Yoga retreats. Caring and talented chef Kate prepared healthy and delicious meals for us three times a day (she even snuck into our cabins early each morning to brew fresh coffee for us to wake up to). Each of us had a massage on site as a gift from Tera, a wonderful massage therapist. Local merchants provided wines, fresh baby greens, and other deliciousness. Merchants that partner with Big Sky Yoga gave us gifts of all kinds that we somehow stuffed into overflowing suitcases, and received into overflowing hearts, throughout the weekend. And, of course, there were the horses.
The horses! Margaret’s own horses joined with horses from the fabulous Henry and Molly of CY Wranglers to form the weekend herd. In small groups we had time with the horses. Henry and Molly got us oriented and in the saddle, and Margaret, along with her ranch hand and horse whisperer Nicole, trained us to work with the horses in the paddock. On a separate day we went riding on paths through the ranch. One glorious late afternoon, we enjoyed a photo shoot with Larry, Montana photographer extraordinaire, who photographed each of us with a horse of our choosing and then took shots of us all together. I experienced being with the horses as calming and primal in a way that I cannot quite explain. Their presence demands your presence, pulling you into the moment. Riding them, you become an extension of them, more powerful together, capable of perspective impossible for a human being to achieve alone.
My fellow retreaters opened their hearts to me and to one another from the moment we met. I learned from them in the saddle, at the breakfast table, on walks, on the mat. We felt we could share anything without embarrassment or shame, and we did. One of the most significant epiphanies of the weekend, for me, was the importance of focusing more energy and funding and research on metastatic disease. The cancer community often pushes metastasis into the shadows. Although it’s human to want to separate yourself from something you deeply fear, metastatic disease – also known as mets – should concern us all. First of all, none of us is guaranteed to be able to avoid it, so don’t we want to have state-of-the-art weapons at the ready? Secondly, research on mets will shed light on cancer in ways that will benefit all cancer patients as well as those who hope to avoid cancer, and much more research is needed, as currently only about 7% of cancer research dollars are spent on metastatic disease. Most importantly, those fighting it are people who need care, respect, and friendship. Might they not live better if we bring them into the light, if we honor their humanity by being present with them, if we set aside our fear of the disease in favor of our love for the person?
Carlene, Debbie, Erin, Ingrid, Jennie, Kristen, and Lara – I think of you and send you love every day.
The experience of the Cowgirls vs. Cancer retreat has become infused into my life in uncountable ways. Gifts from the weekend enhance my days – I practice yoga on a JADE mat, drink from a Tea Spot mug, wear Kira Grace leggings or a shirt from Carlene’s Soulfire power yoga studio, write in a Cowgirl Yoga journal, and keep a tiny horse in my mat-side collection of inspiring things. In my mind I carry the majesty of the Crazy Mountains, the warmth of the horses’ necks, the soothing sound of a quaking aspen tree fluttering in the breeze. In my heart, I carry the people.
Thank you Margaret and everyone on your team at Big Sky Yoga, for the gifts of time and care, healing yoga and connection with horses, and simple joys. You renewed our spirits and heightened our appreciation of life’s tiny-but-enormous moments. Thank you Cancer vs Cowgirl compatriots, for your friendship and for sharing your honest, unedited selves. You taught me and lifted me up. Thank you Montana, for providing a natural haven that fostered it all.
Finally, readers, I present opportunities to take action. If you would like to nominate yourself or someone else for the 2017 Cowgirls vs. Cancer retreat you have about four days to do it – nominations are accepted through November 15. If you would like to support Margaret in providing this retreat to women year after year, go to this page and click on "Get Involved" at the bottom. If you would like to build support for research on metastatic disease, two of our 2016 Cowgirls created organizations that push this cause ahead – visit MetUp co-founded by Jennie, and Hope Scarves founded by Lara (you can also help Hope Scarves provide scarves and stories to recently diagnosed cancer patients). Thank you, all of you. As the cancer kicking cowgirls say, “namaste and yeehaw!”