Dana is a writer, and meditation and yoga teacher based in Los Angeles. She is also the co-founder of Mindstate, a meditation training company. As a cancer survivor, Dana has a passion for studying the mind/body/spirit connection mission. Her mission is to help people embrace their lives fully and with an open heart.
T.E. Can you tell us your name and where you live?
D.B. My name is Dana Byerlee, and I live in Playa del Rey in Los Angeles, California.
T.E. What is it that you do right now?
D.B. Right now, I teach some yoga, I teach some meditation, and I do some different writing projects on the side as well.
T.E. I know that you come from a corporate background, what did you do then?
D.B. When I used to live in New York I started out in managerial consulting, so that whole road warrior thing, always going to different companies throughout the country. Then I tried investment banking for a time, I was at Goldman Sachs, and didn’t really like that. I came back to the consulting and analytical world which led me into market research. I found out I really liked marketing, the storytelling side and content creation, but not the data side. I started to move more and more into creative and digital marketing, mostly for start-up and tech companies.
T.E. Sounds like you were definitely enmeshed in the corporate world and the stereotypical go-go-go mentality.
D.B. Yes, it would sometimes be 17 hour days, and then going out drinking, not eating properly and not sleeping well. At that time in my life and maybe within those industries, that’s how the culture was. That was the view of what it took to be successful. It was that mentality that too much rest, care, and slowing down would be considered weak. The only way to be successful, and to achieve things, was to be in burnout mode all the time.
T.E. And that relates perfectly to this book. What you describe is very much a yang lifestyle. How long would you say that you lived in that burnout, corporate lifestyle?
D.B. I mean it was definitely a full seven to eight years, which is a long time.
T.E. And that was post college?
D.B. Yeah, that was post college and I guess even my life before growing up. Ever since I was a kid I had every activity planned out. Literally the activities would be based on, “Okay, this is good for the right brain, and this is good for the left brain.” I was always trying to achieve and be the top of whatever I was doing, and then that came into high school. It was that rat race to get into the best college. Even in college I didn’t explore as much as I wanted to, or even have as much fun, because I was so concentrated on being the best in my classes there. It was a really intense time. I think I almost left college already burned out, and then pushed myself along somehow for seven more years.
T.E. So, you pushed yourself for those seven years with that mindset of planning, achieving, and striving. I think many readers can relate to that. When did that start to shift for you?
D.B. It started to shift in that I was noticing myself becoming increasingly unhappy. I wasn’t feeling great. I had spent a little time in southern California at one point, and after getting back to New York I never got it out of my head. There was such a different vibe out in California. Then one day I made the decision I really wanted a job in southern California, and within two weeks I had a job. I came out with two bags of clothes, a laptop, and got a new apartment in Santa Monica. I kind of started over. As I started exploring Santa Monica I couldn’t help but notice all the yoga studios around. I went to one of your classes, and I just left amazed and confused, like “Wow, what was that?!” Some of the things you were saying stuck in me, and I was just left in amazement, wondering “Whatever that guy has, I want it!” If you had told me in New York, “You’ll do yoga and meditation,” I would have said, “Yeah, there’s a 1% chance of that happening. That’s lame.” Something about being exposed to it around here, and I think that Yin energy started to take hold, and re-enliven my life.
T.E. The seed of yoga was planted. At this point you’re living in Santa Monica, doing yoga, and then you had a life changing experience happen. I’m wondering if you could talk about when you found out you had breast cancer?
D.B. Yeah, I had actually moved away for a year to San Francisco. Towards the end of my time there I had noticed a lump, and then it was diagnosed as a cancerous mass. At the time, all I did was have a lumpectomy and tried to change things. I embraced a much more alkaline diet. I came back to LA, I hadn’t been doing yoga that whole year in San Francisco, and I went to another class of yours at Power Yoga. You were talking about a yoga teacher training and something told me, “Oh, that’d be good. I need this for my health, and for the long term.” In teacher training I learned so much and built such a community. After that fall training I went back to the doctor, and that lump had come back. This time I had to take a different action. In my head I thought, “I’m going to choose a balance of western medicine and then bring different modes of healing into my life.” Along with the western approach that I went to UCLA for chemotherapy and surgery, now I also had the tools from yoga and meditation. This helped me to be with uncomfortable physical things, and uncomfortable emotions like fear. Suddenly, I felt I had all these tools, and the right people in my life to actually deal with this holistically.
T.E. When was the first time you did yin yoga and what was it like?
D.B. It was in teacher training. It was really confronting and intense. I’m not intrinsically the most flexible, so there was that point of not wanting to hold things for that long, and wanting to really run away. Seeing the difference from holding something 30 seconds, up to four or five minutes, was so confronting. Even though it was a really difficult practice, there were a couple of moments where I was able to use my breath as that ladder to extend and then deepen. Just noticing the slight effect that it had on my body and it was like, “Ahhhh.” When I actually shut off the mental and physical resistance, I noticed how the body began to relax into the pose. So, I saw that little promise, but it was really hard at first.
T.E. Yeah, it is for a lot of people. It’s so different from what we are used to. It sounds like your breakthroughs came from letting go instead of trying to hold on. Is that correct?
D.B. Yeah, to let go, and that sense of stepping out of your own way. As you would talk about what the body is able to do in Yin, I would feel that mentally I could step back, and turn the ‘fight-flight’ response off. It’s almost this willingness to get out of my own way, so the body can take care of things. That’s when you said, “Nature doesn’t hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Also, “By doing nothing, everything happens,” which has stuck with me ever since. I feel like that one phrase could now be the mantra of my life. That’s really what I had to surrender to, during treatment.
T.E. How did that wisdom help you, within the challenges that you were facing, during the treatment phase?
D.B. The first few treatments I resisted them in a way. I thought I should feel better quicker. I would go crazy and try to get in as much exercise between treatments as possible. I think that made it harder. The last half of treatment, I explored what would happen if I just stood out of the way as much as possible. I thought, “Why am I trying to speed things up or interfere with that?” So, it’s that process of surrendering to that treatment time, and letting it take the time it takes. Something else from the Tao, which is basically the idea that nature’s power is patience. “So, could I have the patience to just let the treatment run its course, and not force myself to try and put on this show of being strong right away. That was huge. During these times, especially in between treatment, Yin was all I could do. I feel like those practices kept my body in a better state, kept me more supple. I didn’t feel good enough to go outside. I think the Yin kept the chi flowing in a more balanced way through that.
T.E. This is a teaching point that we get from the wisdom of Taoism. The idea to not struggle with your experience, but to just be with it, and yield to it. How long did the whole treatment phase last?
D.B. It was three or four months of chemo, then I had a month off, then I had surgery, and then I had radiation. So, really from start to finish, it was a good nine months of active western treatment.
T.E. How did you use yin yoga for your recovery phrase after treatment finished?
D.B. With recovery this was the time do something really nurturing. Since I had surgery on one side, and they took out lymph nodes on that side as well, a key was dealing with my left chest region. It was pretty much the left shoulder, arm and back area. It was really difficult at first. Part of my back was numb for a good amount of time, and it felt gross, and it was difficult to get into that space and hold it. Since I had a practice from yin of knowing how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, I was able to withstand a little bit more holding. My range of movement started to open up again, especially with that arm, but really everything. These places that had been traumatized from surgery could now start to have new blood flow come back. It was really cool to use my yin practice for very specific healing.
T.E. What is your yin practice like now?
D.B. That became my new normal. I still do something longer, like at least an hour, a few times a week. But every day, I’m doing at least a half hour before bed. There are certain poses that I try to do every day for that chest and shoulder area. I just want to keep giving those places attention. It’s become a little habit. It’s crazy, when I first did Shoelace pose, I couldn’t stack my knees and now it’s my favorite way to sit. I could fall asleep in it. I love it!
T.E. What is the biggest takeaway from the high achieving, corporate Dana from the past, to where you are now?
D.B. I think the wisdom that not all movement and progress comes just from the things that we can see and control. There’s a natural wisdom at work. Out body’s innate healing system is at work. Also, letting myself have a bit more flow to life instead of pushing and forcing. It’s allowing myself to be led different places. I used to feel that might sound passive, or not being responsible. But it is true there’s a lot more flow and synchronicity. I don’t know what you call it, maybe natural magic. I’ve definitely lightened my foot off the gas pedal a bit.
T.E. For any readers out there that are maybe going through something similar, what insights can you share?
D.B. Start by taking one seated pose and learn how to be still. Let your breath guide you and be in your body. I think that makes a world of difference, because whether you are in a forward fold, or whether you are sitting at the doctor’s office, eventually they all become the same. Practice maintaining your breath and awareness, and let things be. I would also consider learning the Yin practice. It doesn’t have to be every single pose. It depends on what you’re going through, and some poses may be off limits for a while. Start by picking a few poses where you can do them every day. This is your time where you can take care of the body. I think this helps the medicine get to the tissues and cells better. It also helps to have a healthy diet and drink lots of water.
T.E. If somebody is moving through some sort of treatment phase, do you have a suggestion on how may practices they should do a week? How long should those practices be?
D.B. It really depends. Let’s say you’ve just had a treatment, I found I really couldn’t do much of anything. So maybe it’s you just being in Corpse pose. Or maybe it’s just sitting upright, and that’s as far as you get. Have the mentality that it doesn’t have to look a certain way, or have the same edge as you might be able to have a week later. If it’s a minute of being able to do that, then that is enough, and that’s practice. Then between your treatments I think something light could be a half hour every day. That really comes down to just a few poses if you’re holding them five minutes or so. Whether you’re able to target a certain area or not doesn’t matter, because every place in the body needs that healing. Also, it’ll empower you that you are doing something, and that you are able to help yourself. It will bring a sense of being an active participant in your healing.
T.E. What’s your favorite yin yoga pose?
T.E. What is your least favorite yin yoga pose?
D.B. I would say…Dragonfly pose.
T.E. Thank you so much Dana for sharing your story. It’s truly inspirational and enlightening. Do you have any favorite quotes or favorite statements?
D.B. I love that Bruce Lee quote, “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” Also, “Having a flexible mind in riding the waves of life,” I think about that one a lot too.
T.E. All right, that’s a wrap. Thank you for your time.
D.B. Thank you.