'I was pregnant and had aggressive breast cancer but bikram yoga was my secret weapon'
Mum Anne Marie Browne talks about how the so-called 'hot yoga' helped her battle cancer
For Anne Marie Browne, 2012 was "the best and the most difficult year of my life". That's putting it mildly. It was the year Anne Marie found out that she was pregnant with her first baby - and had cancer.
Anne Marie was four months into her pregnancy when she got the news that would devastate most women; she had "extremely aggressive breast cancer and a tumour the size of a grapefruit".
"It was," she admits, "one of the worst things you can ever hear. I felt as if I was on my own, but then I realised that there were so many other women in the same boat. My family and friends gathered round to give me amazing support. It may sound a bit corny now, but I almost miss being sick. It just lifted me up".
But Anne Marie also had a secret weapon in her fight against her cancer: bikram yoga. Now, here I have to put my hand up and admit that I am not an unbiased reporter in this area. I practise bikram yoga regularly myself, I find it fantastic for my physical health and balance - but most particularly, for my mental health. But I'm never going to argue that it's a cure for cancer - and neither is Anne Marie.
But what she does insist is her practice of bikram yoga was "her lifeline; I would have been lost without it… as my mother says, 'we all have our crosses to bear' but bikram yoga changed my life, it made me more determined, patient and strong".
Claiming a yoga practice as a life-changer may sound a bit far-fetched but in Anne Marie's case it is literally true. She started practising bikram in 2005, having suffered from back pain for 16 years previously.
I'm amused to find that she admits "initially I didn't like it very much, it was hot and confined and I was more used to outdoor exercise. But the benefits were amazing so I just kept coming back, again and again".
Anne Marie's experience will probably chime with many devotees who are initially shocked at the heat, the quiet intensity and the 90 minutes of meditation of a bikram class. Its founder Bikram Choudhury didn't name it the "torture chamber" for nothing.
But gradually Anne Marie found that she was hooked - she no longer suffered back pain, and whenever she did get a little twinge she knew how to deal with it - and in spring 2008, after spending 11 years working in architecture, she threw it all in to head off to Mexico and train as a bikram yoga teacher.
Then in August 2010, after two years' teaching in Dublin, she opened her own studio - Bikram Yoga D15 - and thought she'd live happily ever after.
Two years later when she and her French husband discovered she was pregnant, everything seemed perfect.
Except that she knew something just wasn't right.
"You know how bikram makes you so aware of your own body?" she asks me. "Well, I just knew that there was something wrong".
Twice Anne Marie took herself off to a doctor only to be told that she was fine, but she "knew she wasn't".
Eventually she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer and had to have immediate surgery. Most of us would think that having breast cancer is awful enough without being pregnant simultaneously, but Anne Marie says: "I was so glad I was already pregnant because if I wasn't, I'd never have had my baby. I was four months gone when I found the lump".
Anne Marie was then kept waiting three weeks for her surgery as her oncologist was away, and during this period she felt like she was "dying".
"I knew I was going to lose, not just my breast, but also my long, curly red hair. Friends always said my hair defined me. It was part of who I was. But in May of that year I had a mastectomy and 20 lymph nodes removed and I came out and thought; 'Well, now I just have to get on with it…' so instead of concentrating on the sickness I concentrated on my baby".
During all this time Anne Marie continued to practise her bikram yoga at least five times a week.
"Bikram is great for stopping morning sickness anyway," she says. "We have had quite a few pregnant women in our classes who practise right until birth. It stops morning sickness."
But Anne Marie wasn't just pregnant, she was undergoing intensive chemotherapy.
"The chemo, of course, can cause a lot of sickness", she says. "It is poison and I did feel sick, but the yoga helped flush it out of my system. I have no doubt this helped protect my internal organs and I attribute my normal blood levels during chemotherapy to my practice. My oncologist commented on the ease with which I was coping and told me to continue doing what I was doing, so I did".
But what, I ask her, about all the yoga detractors, those who say the heat is dangerous and that there's no proof of any benefits of the type she describes.
"There's a lot of research now that shows the benefits of yoga," she says, "especially for cancer patients".
"And the heat?"
"The heat is good for the muscles and for sweating".
We both agree, a bit guiltily, that a class of bikram yoga is also the best hangover cure in the world. As well as an excellent mood balancer.
"I'm still on medication", Anne Marie says. "And my doctor told me that the medication can make you go a bit batty - but you know, I feel perfect. My energy levels and my mood are very good."
This weekend Anne Marie will be at the 2015 Irish Yoga Comp/Expo (probably with Andre, her now two-year-old boy) which will be held in The Hanger, Andrews Lane at 4pm this Sunday. Who knew that yoga was a competitive sport?
Anne Leonard, director of Bikram Yoga Dublin, says that "competition in yoga is founded on the ideal of promoting yoga as a healing activity, and focuses on the individual improving their own practice, rather than competing against others".
"Yoga has the potential to heal a huge range of physical, mental and emotional ailments and we see evidence of that in our studios on a daily basis," Anne says.
As for Anne Marie, on the mental as well as physical benefits of yoga, she says simply: "I'd be divorced without it!"
For more information on Bikram Yoga see bikramyogaireland.ie Contact Anne Marie at bikramdublin.ie or 8202273