A Chance To Start a New Life: Teacher Profile of Olinka Mytsiura

Guest post Written By Natalie Tomlin

A Chance To Start a New Life: Teacher Profile of Olinka Mytsiura

I met Olinka Mytsiura this spring, as we both taught yoga at Tula Yoga Studio and Alternative Health Group.  Her pure and gentle energy immediately made an impression on me, and later I found out that she was undergoing cancer treatment.  In late July 2015, as I prepared to leave Tula after teaching a class, Olinka walked in to teach the next class. I said, what's new? She replied brightly with a smile, pulling off her head scarf: "well, I lost all my hair yesterday." I then knew that I needed to profile her, in order to share her story and energy with others.

What is your background and why did you come to the United States?

I was born in 1985 in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine and came to the States as an au pair in 2009. I had just got my Master's degree in architecture and worked for half a year when the financial crisis started. I was sitting without a job for almost a year. So I applied for the au pair program and a family from Chicago contacted me. I could not have asked for a better host family. One of the children, Daniel, used to do aikido and the family wanted me to try it out so that I could go to class with him. Eventually Daniel quit, but I stuck around the aikido community for over three years. This is how I found myself in the dojo family at MAC (Midwest Aikido Center) and met my husband, JB.

How did you become interested in yoga?

Three months before I left my home country, I met Shalinder Negi - my yoga teacher. He lives yoga and has a very sunny presence. From children to the elderly, everybody loves him, because it's impossible not to smile when Shalinder is around. He has an ashram in Rishikesh and people from all over the world come to study with him. Luckily, Shalinder likes to travel and Ukraine has become his favorite destination for over 8 years. He opened a whole new mysterious world of yama and niyama, mantras, meditation, pranayama, asana and so on to me. Since that time, I knew I wanted to be a yoga teacher. 

Upon moving to the United States, I maintained daily personal practice for three years until I found Alternative Health Group. Tim Suh and Rhiannon Kirby inspired me to take the yoga teacher training and focus on the Sivananda and Ashtanga (modified primary series) lineages. Later I did prenatal yoga training with Cassie Rodgers and apprenticed with Jenny Fishman. I was happily continuing my yoga education through apprenticeship with an amazing teacher, Gabriel Halpern, when I was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Would you take us back through the process of diagnosis and treatment?

It all began about three years ago, with symptoms that I thought I could explain in other ways than a brain tumor: spasms in my right arm – which I thought was an old injury from martial arts re-awoken by doing Aikido, spasms in my right leg – which I thought as simply a pinching of the sciatic nerve, and finally the last few month before I quit Aikido altogether – anxiety, depression and "mental fuzziness.” I forgot things, behaved in weird ways and felt as if my personality was getting thinner and thinner. My husband and I finally went to a neurologist in December 2014, but for various reasons, from insurance complications to a vagueness about my condition, I didn't get an MRI right away.  My condition remained a mystery. In the beginning of 2015, because yoga had become too hard on my body and the symptoms of anxiety and depression had worsened, I quit teaching. I felt inauthentic because I was teaching something that I wasn't practicing in my own life.

In February of 2015, I decided to visit my family in Ukraine. I had a layover in Frankfurt where I probably had a seizure (my memory isn't that good of this time or of the following events). I do remember being questioned by a couple of cops, who asked if I was on any drugs. Then, they took me to the hospital where they did the MRI and found the mass. My parents found me and called my husband, who flew to Germany and brought me back to Chicago. I was almost immediately was admitted to the hospital. The next thing I remember is waking up from the surgery all drugged up. My memory of the next few days is really fuzzy.

The surgery went really well; they removed a fist-sized tumor on the left side that was pushing up against the specific part of the brain responsible for speech. So for a few days I could barely talk, even though I could understand everything that was going on around me. Basically, from that point on, I had to re-learn to walk, to talk, and to just function.

I spent about 4 days in the ICU, followed by a few days in a normal hospital room before I was transferred to the rehab facility where I stayed for a couple of weeks before coming home. A nurse and various therapists came to our house for several months and I made really good progress, which I believe was due to my martial arts and yoga experience. I have a pretty good body awareness, which was an irreplaceable skill to have at that time. I understood exactly what I was asked to do with my body, even though sometimes I could barely perform the task. I was not at all ready to start teaching yoga again, but I missed it. In the meantime, my therapists let me practice yoga and practice teaching them. 

The most difficult part of this process has been preparing for the possible effects that my treatment may have on my fertility.  My husband and I found that one option of protection, freezing my eggs, was simply too expensive.  However, the drug Lupron offered a more affordable option with high rates of success, so we decided that was our route. However, Blue Cross repeatedly denied us coverage for the drug. They claimed it was an ‘experimental’ drug and medically unnecessary, but the drug has been around for 20 years, so that was just their excuse. It was shocking to hear that they believed the drug to be unnecessary, as I am only 29 years old and want to have children, but I guess I am just a number to them. 

Luckily, Charles Askenaizer, whom I met through Yoga Circle, set up a fundraiser to help us pay for the drug, which costs $1,200 a month and is something I may need to take for up to a year. Through those who so generously donated to the fundraiser, we raised over $13,000 and are now fully funded to pay for the Lupron, which really saved us, as we already have debt from past treatments. 

What has it been like to return to teaching yoga since then? How has this experience shaped your teaching and practice?

After successful surgery, rehab, and going through the first part of my treatment (chemo in combination with radiation), I'm back to teaching. The whole experience has been like a second birth, a chance to start new life. I feel like I was given this chance for a reason. Even though I still need to go through 6-12 monthly cycles of chemo to treat existing cells in the brain, teaching really inspires me and gives me energy. I believe it is my calling. I'm so grateful for many regular students who come to my classes now.  This experience helped me to become more compassionate and patient. I now favor a more gentle approach. I love giving hands on adjustments, and for me it is very nice and pleasant to see that people like receiving them.  When I see how people’s bodies are in the poses, I can see who has tight hamstrings, or other issues, and I adjust accordingly. I have also become more careful as a teacher—I look at people’s bodies and how they work before deciding on an approach.  

Being in the hospital was very humbling.  There was a loss of privacy, being poked and prodded by strangers, and being uncomfortable in my own body. I came to realize how sometimes myself and my students push themselves too far in the practice, and I see that impulse to push is driven by ego. My experience has motivated me to help people to see that they can stop and not push so hard.

Since returning to teaching, I have been filled with gratitude for all of the people who have helped me in this process. My mother was able to be with me in the States for 3 months and this was made possible with the generous financial help of relatives and friends. When I was in the hospital, a day didn’t pass without one or more visitors. Also, along the way, a lot of people I have met have shared beautiful stories and experiences about their own family members who have survived cancer. 

After the experience, my goal as a teacher has remained the same, in some ways: to share the knowledge of yoga with others to strengthen their health and awareness, bring more happiness and balance into their lives, and help to deepen their practice. Yoga is one of the paths leading people not only to better health but also deeper into themselves. I see my students as fellow travelers and encourage their striving for growth. The most important things yoga taught me is that true happiness comes from within and that through selfless service one can share it with the whole world.

Can you give us an update on your health status, as of May 2016?

I finished chemo treatment back in February. Since that time I'm in remission and officially a cancer survivor. The scans are stable. I feel better and better as the time goes on and we are gradually lowering the dosage of my anti-seizure medication - the last one I'm still taking. Using Lupron during the chemo treatment saved my fertility, my doctor said that according to the blood work and ultrasound I am just as fertile as any other average woman in my age group.

At this point I am back to the amount of classes I had before the brain tumor surgery. I still experience some neuropathy on the right side of my body, but I started working with MAT (muscular activation techniques) specialist which helps tremendously. I plan on taking jumpstart course into MAT this summer as I would like to be able to tell if I'm activating or shutting down my students' muscle tissues. 

I am looking forward to my adventure of rock climbing in the end of June provided by First Descents (an organization supporting young adults who currently have cancer or are in remission). There, I will meet other cancer survivors as well as experience the activity I wanted to try for a long time.

Olinka Mytsiura teaches group and private classes in Chicago. Learn more about Olinka and her schedule at www.facebook.com/Olinkayoga or www.OlinkaYoga.com