Helping Others Find Their Way Through Breast Cancer
by Sharon Steffensen
Of all the things Elesa Commerse is–a yogi, certified meditation teacher, certified Himalayan singing bowl practitioner, MBA graduate, nature photographer, cancer survivor, producer of several CDs on mantras and meditation, and most recently producer of a DVD/CD program for those with breast cancer–she is most proud to be the daughter of Evelyn Winslow, who was her mentor, her guru and her inspiration. Elesa’s multi-faceted journey has yielded many life lessons. Prominent among these is a profound appreciation of the transformative power of meditation, which she defines as “the art and practice of being present for your life.”
Elesa’s interest in spirituality and nature began in her early childhood. Both of her parents were interested in philosophy, and their friends often met at their home to discuss P.D. Ouspensky, J. Krishnamurti, Alan Watts and other philosophers. Her father was a musician and artist who earned a living as a graphic artist. Evelyn was trained as a concert pianist and as a teacher, but she chose to be a stay-at-home mom for her two daughters. Money was scarce, so the family often spent leisure time going out into nature to “be quiet and release our cares and concerns,” says Elesa.
Evelyn was a meditator, and she was also psychic. I n the 1960s she took Elesa to the Psychic Research Foundation on Wabash Street in downtown Chicago, where classes were conducted on astrology, tarot, healing, astral travel and other metaphysical subjects. Elesa was the only child there, but from these early experiences, Elesa learned that human beings are “so much more than the body and mind.”
Growing up in what Elesa calls “the age where formal education was perceived as the ultimate ticket to freedom,” Elesa (a Phi Beta Kappa) graduated magna cum laude from Smith College with a degree in psychology. Being fascinated by the human mind, she pursued a Ph.D. in psychology right after undergraduate school and went on to earn an MBA in Marketing and Entrepreneurial Management from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She also studied Japanese garden design at the Kyoto College of Art and Design, in Kyoto, Japan.
After graduation from business school, Elesa went to work for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. Around that time her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Elesa returned home to Chicago. “My dad had a small publishing company and he wanted me to manage the business,” says Elesa. “I wanted to honor him by doing this [but] I realized it just wasn’t my calling. I had to let him know gently that I loved him, but that it was best for me to follow another path. Once he realized what that path was, he understood and fully supported my decision.”
Elesa started her own business as a marketing and corporate communications consultant–at first to large companies and then to small nonprofit agencies. She focused on marketing and fundraising to help strengthen community-based organizations that served highly under-resourced populations, primarily on the south side of Chicago. While the shift was good for her, she still felt an unanswered calling. “It’s one of the things I come back to in my teachings with students,” she says. “It’s like Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says, ‘The only thing we are going to be asked when we die is, “Why didn’t you become you?”‘ We have so many pressures to be other than who we are. To find your way in the world and be authentic takes tremendous courage.”
Meanwhile, after graduate school in the late 1980s, Elesa’s interest in spiritual matters was reignited when she went into a bookstore where she was drawn to The Miracle of Mindfulness by Zen master, spiritual leader and author Thich Nhat Hanh. At that time he was not well known, and Elesa had never heard of him, but something told her she needed to read his book. Soon after, she went on retreats he led in New York, Florida and California, where her meditation practice deepened.
Shortly after, Elesa began taking Hatha yoga classes at the Himalayan Institute in Glenview, Illinois. She became very close to her teacher, Pat Tiverios, who Elesa says was like an angel sent from Heaven to her. Pat had been going to the Temple of Kriya Yoga, where she was enrolled in the seminary program. She tried to encourage Elesa to become a yoga teacher. It took years before Pat got through to her, and in 2001 Elesa signed up for a nine-month meditation teacher training program at the Temple and began attending noon meditations and Friday night mantra sessions.
Elesa loves the Sanskrit language and considers herself a Bhakti yogi (yoga of devotion), so mantra became a large part of her practice and teaching. “I could sing my heart out to the Divine night and day and never tire of it,” says Elesa.
But in 2003 Elesa was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went into the hospital for a lumpectomy, then a second lumpectomy, and a third and then a mastectomy along with a TRAM ( transverse rectus abdominus myocutaneous) flap reconstruction . An apparent lack of blood supply to the reconstructed breast took Elesa back to the operating room. Finally everything looked good–until several days later when an infection set in, and Elesa went back into the hospital.
Throughout the ordeal, Elesa kept telling herself, “This is temporary..This procedure is temporary..This pain that I feel, so all-consuming, is temporary..This feeling of being trapped in a body that feels so foreign to me–this is temporary.” She says, ” If I didn’t have my faith and my practice, I would have lost my mind.” Once, during a particularly painful episode, she chanted “Om Shanti, Shanti, Shantih” for hours in the hospital shower. The nurses kept offering to give her painkillers, but she assured them she would be all right if they just allowed her to work through the pain in the way she knew. By working with her mind, as she had been taught by her mother and then by her other teachers, she was able to get through six surgeries with no post-op pain medicine.
Elesa recuperated at the home of some dear friends near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Through them, she met yoga master Tias Little, who invited her to join his yoga teacher training team as director of wisdom training ( www.prajnayoga.net ) .
While teaching for Tias Little at the Upaya Zen Center, Elesa met Kim Wilcox, a teacher at Moksha Yoga in Chicago, who introduced her to Moksha’s director, Daren Friesen, who invited her to join his teaching staff. At Moksha, Elesa teaches meditation and other programs including an annual weekend workshop, “The Call to Teach Peace,” for yoga teacher trainees. Elesa also teaches at Generations Yoga in Wilmette, directed by Eric Berliner, Yin Yang Pilates in Barrington and the Silken Tent in Glenview. Elesa has a warm, clear and compassionate way of expressing spiritual teachings. For example, some of the points she made at a recent workshop for teachers in training, which are appropriate for anyone, are as follows:
- Strength and power come from the ability to be still, clear, consistent and focused.
- Practice deep listening. When your students are speaking to you, give them your full and undivided attention so they will feel seen and heard.
- Our life can only occur in this moment. As her teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Slow down so you don’t miss your appointment with life!”
- When speaking, be mindful. Ask yourself 1) Is it helpful? 2) Is it true? 3) Is it necessary? Remember that words have power. They carry a vibration.
- You cannot teach what you don’t embody. Teach what you know. Teach what you live. Allow your teachings to emerge from your experience. Students will feel the authenticity in that.
- Practice going to the mirror to see what is right, not what is wrong. Build on what is there, because what is there is enough. If you can really see what is there, it is plenty.
- How will you live now that you are presenting yourself as a yoga teacher? How do you integrate the yamas and niyamas into your daily life? Stay away from that which causes suffering. Move toward health and wholeness in all the areas of your life.
- As Heather Sellers says, “Teaching is a process of showing others how to shape chaos into something they can carry around in a way that makes sense. Don’t be afraid to risk your significance as you teach. This makes you more real–more human–to your students.”
- To be a good teacher, remain a good student. Stay curious. Stay humble. Learn from your students. It you let it, anything and anyone can be your teacher.
The journey through cancer motivated Elesa to create a CD/DVD program, Finding Your Way; Expert Help in Navigating the Breast Cancer Journey. Featured in the program are an MD, who is a national leader in breast cancer research and treatment ; a chef/psychotherapist; and a dietitian, acupuncturist, physical therapist, yoga teacher, health educator and oncology nurse/yoga teacher trainer. Elesa’s segment is about meditation; she also leads a yoga nidra (deep relaxation) session. Finding Your Way was also a way for Elesa to honor her mother, who passed away in 1992.
For those who are experiencing cancer, Elesa says, “Once you have looked death in the face, you begin living with a different awareness of how fragile and fleeting life is. Everything and everyone becomes holy. In a way, you become free to fully live your life. A line gets drawn in the sand with the important things in the forefront and the unimportant things falling off the radar screen. I want those who are going through these tough times to know that it is possible to look at this enormous challenge as a huge opportunity–a blessing, really–to propel your life forward with an undeniable clarity that actually adds more ‘life’ to your living. We can become potent in our humanity, purging that which has distracted us and no longer serves us and getting clear about what really matters–about what endures beyond the body.”
Elesa emphasizes that although there may not yet be a cure for cancer, people can be healed, and there is a big difference between the two. “Cure is an elimination of the symptoms,” she says. “But when we are healed, we have an understanding and hopefully an insight into the causes of why the body broke down–how stress, diet or lifestyle may have contributed–and we can build up from that point. The whole process of healing is about experiencing an ever-enhanced sense of wholeness that includes more than what is happening with the body. If the symptoms are just taken away, we could go back to the things that caused us to get sick. What we must focus on is what we can do rather than what we can’t do. What we can do is help eliminate suffering. That’s what we should focus on.”
Elesa continues, “For the spiritual seeker, the meditator, the yogi, [having cancer] is a tremendous opportunity to come face to face with your mortality. In that defining moment, you see where you are holding back. You can experience the type of breakthrough that you might never otherwise achieve in this life..You get to learn what you are made of when you are faced with such unyielding limitation, pain and illness. Rather than thinking of this as bad news, you can think, ‘I have this enormous opportunity to not run away, to be all right with what is and with what isn’t, to face my fears and to have the courage to move forward anyway.’ Miracles are born out of this decision to persevere.”
Eric Berliner, founder of Generations Yoga in Wilmette, is hosting a fundraiser for Forever Whole, the Illinois nonprofit organization Elesa founded to help alleviate suffering among those newly diagnosed with breast cancer. The event is Sunday, October 4, 2-5 p.m. Everyone who attends will receive a free copy of Finding Your Way .
Elesa Commerse has been teaching since 1977. She also holds two certificates in Advanced Yoga Studies for completing Donna Farhi’s yoga teacher training program. Elesa is the creator and facilitator of the critically acclaimed self-development workshop, Living Your Legacy ( livingyourlegacy.com ). Elesa offers ongoing meditation classes at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital Wellness Institute, Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and the Swedish Covenant Hospital Galter Life Center. In addition, she leads sessions in “Chanting Sacred Mantras” at Generations Yoga and the Silken Tent. Visit Elesa’s Web site, thedeepcalm.com for information about her programs for organizations, adults and children.
More about Elesa
Birthplace : Chicago’s south side
Sun sign: Leo
Favorite pose : Viparita karani (legs up the wall)
Least favorite pose : Kapotasana (pigeon pose). I have challenged knees, and it’s so hard for me.
Spare time activity : Taking photos out in nature. I usually have my camera with me, and I treasure the chance to be a witness to the mind-blowing creativity of the Divine in this way.
Favorite book : A two-volume set of landmark speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Knock at Midnight and A Call to Conscience. His voice, even as printed word decades after his physical passing, rings with the undeniable sound of Truth.
Favorite snack : When it’s good, watermelon
Message to others : In all of creation, there is only one You. Yours is a precious life. The time we have on this earth is our opportunity to do good in the world. What we make of that time, how we spend that time, becomes the substance of our life. If we make the most of our time by loving each other, helping each other and working through our own stuff, we have a good life. In this way, we honor the Divine.
Our lives only occur in the moment. And that’s the training–to be here right now in this moment. Life can only occur in this moment. If we make this moment a good moment, we will have a good minute, and then we will have a few good minutes, and then a good hour, a good day, a good week, a good month and ultimately a good life.
Inspirational phrase : “Suffering that can be avoided is to be avoided. We exist to alleviate suffering.”