Meet Yoga Instructor and Breast Cancer Survivor Rosie Townsend

May 1, 2023

Cancer Pathways’ Shayla Ring sits down with guest yoga instructor Rosie Townsend. They discuss her journey with yoga and breast cancer. 

Tell me a bit about your personal journey. What drew you to yoga in the first place?

I took my first yoga class back in the early 90s. I was home for summer break and I only saw it as something to help me deal with stress. But based on the first class I had, I found myself being drawn to more of the philosophical aspects of yoga, beyond the asana, the poses and physical practice. 

As I continued my yoga journey, I found that the larger meaning of yoga is to help you discover your true nature. That means cutting through the messaging and societal expectations that have been placed upon us, and being able to discover your true self.

I’ve been practicing consistently for the last ten years. The nice thing about yoga is that it’s always there for you to jump back into. 

How has your journey with yoga impacted your mindset and your way of thinking?

It’s caused me to think very carefully about how I move through my community and this world, and how I want to do that. I understand that my existence on this planet makes an impact in one way or another. I can go through this world doing harm; or, I can move through this world in a way, not to sound cliche, but where I’m trying to make it a better place.

What was it like going from someone who practices yoga to a yoga instructor?

I started in 2017. I had just quit a job in corporate land. I decided that wasn’t a world I wanted to live in, and that yoga had made such an incredible impact and difference in my life, and I wanted to share that with other people. So I thought, “what better way to do that than to become an instructor?”

I finished my 200-hour training and did a certification called Yoga For All, an amazing program that teaches you to work with folks of all body types, all abilities. Yoga is not just for one type of person. You don’t have to be flexible, you don’t have to be super strong, you don’t have to be any of those things, that’s not what yoga is. Yoga will always meet you where you are. 

I was very happy I did that training. It’s nice to be able to offer a variety of ways to do something, because you have a variety of different body types in your class. Nobody is built the same. 

In our western culture we’re hyperfocused on being ‘correct’ or ‘right’ or looking a certain way. People know their bodies. My biggest philosophy as a teacher is you know your body best, and you decide what’s best for your body. You decide how far and how deep you go into a pose. I don’t decide that for you.

There’s a few things I’ll check on, things you don’t want to do because it’ll hurt your knee or your neck. Otherwise, most people know what to do with their bodies. In a way, teaching online has gotten us away from this hyper-perfectionist view of what yoga poses should be.

How did you come to find out about Cancer Pathways?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in February of 2022, so just over a year ago.We caught it fairly early, which was great, but I still had a lot of treatment to do. 

I did 16 rounds of chemotherapy, 33 rounds of radiation, and I had a lumpectomy. Everything went great. We had a great prognosis, which I’m extremely grateful for. 

But I’ll tell you, a cancer diagnosis really did change my life quite a bit. It really changes the way that I look at things, and not necessarily in a bad way. It’s good. 

I noticed something that made me interested in teaching yoga for cancer patients currently in treatment or remission. A lot of times we think, “oh, you’re in remission, so everything is great and you just move on.” Actually, no. I finished chemo ten months ago. My joints are still aching. I still have stiffness in my body, I still have neuropathy in my fingertips and toes.  

A month after I finished chemo, and shortly after my lumpectomy, that was when all the stiffness started. I had no idea what was happening. I’m a very active person, and it was kind of disheartening to all of a sudden realize that there was so much repair that still had to happen in my body. 

And to feel so suddenly unfamiliar in your body, I’m sure. 

100%. I was really aware of my body but at the same time I felt super disconnected from my body. I think for folks who are going through treatment and are on the other side of treatment, yoga can really help you connect with your body. 

I’d like to approach it from this view of “No judgment here. Your body might be feeling super weird, or you might be having a really hard time moving, and that’s okay. That is just where you are right now, and it’s fine.”

And there’s so much that you can still do. 

That’s where my practice has really helped me, and I would like to pass that on to other people. To be able to work with people and just say, “Yeah, I get it. I totally understand what you’re going through right now.” Or, “I have an idea of what you’re going through.”

Then there’s the emotional aspect. I had a good prognosis. What I had has a very low recurrence rate, but there’s always that thought in the back of your mind, “Is it gonna come back? And whoa, what does this mean for my future?” I can’t live too much in that. I have to take it one day at a time.

So there’s a physical, and there’s definitely a mental and an emotional toll that cancer and cancer treatment can take on a person. So I would love to be able to share my experience with others who are on the same path, and if there’s anything I’m able to contribute to help them with their healing, then I can take my experience and use it for good. 

What is your approach to Cancer Pathways through yoga?

I think helping folks find tools to help them manage their experience with cancer. Whether they’re actively in treatment, if they’re living with cancer, if they’re on the other side of treatment and in remission. If there’s any sort of way that I can provide guidance or tools that people can even use on their own, that would be great. 

I know that when I do yoga, sometimes just moving through a practice or sitting on my mat in a meditation practice, I know that there’s so much more happening in my life and in this world than just this one component of cancer. 

It’s kind of a reminder that yes, this is something that’s happening, but there’s so much more out there. And to remind myself that I can’t let cancer have a spotlight on it all the time. I think yoga has helped me with that.

What do you think is the biggest takeaway from your practice? 

I would have to say one of the biggest takeaways from this journey is that we’re only on this planet for a definite amount of time. And it’s really got me thinking about how I want to spend my time here, and what I want to do.

It’s made me realize that the paths I want to take are to be in service to people, either through teaching yoga or involvement in political activism. 

That’s where I want to focus. I don’t ever think I can go back to a corporate job again. I know for sure that whatever I’m going to do, it has to have some sort of meaning.

I have a dear friend, Julie, who was a breast cancer survivor. I call her my guardian angel through this process. Julie went with me to all my treatments, which was amazing. 

She had survived advanced stage three breast cancer. It was stage 3C, very close to becoming four. She’s eleven years cancer free. She’s thriving, she’s living her best life. 

I remember before I started chemo she said to me, “I don’t expect you to think of it this way, but I look back on that experience and I realize it was a gift.”

At the time, I thought, “I could see that…[and] I don’t know if I’m gonna look at it this way.”

But after going through everything  I went through…I think I understand exactly what she’s talking about. 

It has deeply shifted my perspective and my thinking. For the better. So, I get it. I’ll tell you, I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. I don’t get worked up about little things. I don’t panic about the things I used to panic about. 

It’s just different. After you’ve been through cancer, it’s like that other stuff doesn’t even matter. It’s good.