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Saddle Up! Cowgirls vs. Cancer is Helping Women Give Cancer the Boot

The Fall Season is finally upon us and we’re celebrating by heading into our favorite month, October! The month also generates high regard for a major cause that Dosha Pops is pretty passionate about, Breast Cancer Awareness.

In honor of this important month, we recently sat down with a very special yogi, Margaret Burns Vap, who is not only taking action to increase breast cancer awareness but helping women with breast cancer through her annual Cowgirls vs. Cancer retreats on her Double T River Ranch in Montana. Earlier this year, we helped sponsor Cowgirls vs. Cancer to help support her scholarship retreat that creates a nurturing environment for emotional support and self-healing through a combination of yoga, meditation, Ayurveda and horses.

Here’s what Margaret had to say about the strides she’s making to help the breast cancer community:

A friend with breast cancer who came to your ranch for a much-needed respite inspired you to invite others, how long did it take for this annual Cowgirls vs. Cancer event to come to fruition?

Breast cancer has touched too many of our mothers, sisters, and friends. That’s why we created Cowgirls vs. Cancer, a one-of-a-kind scholarship retreat and 501(c)3 designed to provide solace, rejuvenation, and healing for women battling breast cancer. Thanks to our amazing partners, we’ve been able to give scholarships to 60+ yoginis, who are all-too-familiar with the physical, emotional, and financial toll of breast cancer. They can experience holistic healing through yoga and horses in the wilds of Montana.

Shortly after I started Big Sky Yoga Retreats in 2008, I was looking for a way to give back. It wasn’t as simple as when I had a yoga studio. Around this time, someone contacted me who had a friend that was just diagnosed with breast cancer, and who wanted to come on a Cowgirl Yoga retreat. Around the same time, I had my own scare. Someone was trying to tell me something. I committed to bringing our first cancer kickin’ cowgirl out the following year, after her treatment. Since then we have grown from having 2 Cowgirls vs. Cancer scholarship recipients join our regular retreats each year, to having an annual retreat entirely dedicated to 8-10 women with breast cancer.

What is the philosophy behind your retreats?

Our motto is, “Add a little Yeehaw to your Namaste.” AND that is what Cowgirl Yoga is all about. We want you to yell “Yeehaw!” when you have a breakthrough on the yoga mat and murmur “Namaste” when you feel that amazing connection between human and horse.

The message that we hope everyone will take home is that self-care is non-negotiable. It is not a luxury, but a necessity, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We all have so many demands on our time that taking care of ourselves can feel like a luxury. But how many other things suffer if we don’t start with ourselves? It has a ripple effect.

What goals do you try to set and achieve with these women while teaching?

  1. To trust their bodies.
  2. To feel like no matter where they are in their cancer journey, some form of the yoga practice is always available to them. Even if it’s just one pose.
  3. The importance of the mind-body connection – these women have felt so disconnected from their bodies, and many of them often say they feel betrayed by their bodies as well. Time on the mat proves that connecting the mind and body through yoga can diminish those feelings.

How does yoga help these women during such an emotional process?

Yoga is healing. Yoga focuses you on the present and gives your mind a break from the constant ruminating and worrying about the future. For someone with cancer, this practice can be enormously grounding. Even if asana (the poses) is not an option, there are meditation and pranayama practices that can offer ways to calm the mind and focus on breathing. Yoga can help people with cancer feel more connected to their bodies, during treatment. Yoga can help them find trust in their physical self again, after treatment. And yoga provides an ongoing opportunity to get stronger and healthier.

Could you tell us about your Ayurvedic background? When did you first start practicing this lifestyle?

Most yoga teacher trainings touch on Ayurveda; I always wanted more but found some of the reading material dry and overwhelming. Deepak Chopra’s book Perfect Health made perfect sense to me and made Ayurveda accessible. I’m hoping to do his online course soon too.

The science of Ayurveda is based on maximizing wellness longevity and spiritual evolution. How does this wisdom apply to women on your retreat?

We could say that our retreat is based on the same ideas.  Our goal is to offer cancer kickin’ cowgirls as many ways as possible to improve their health and grow emotionally and spiritually. And to inspire them to explore new and different ways, like Ayurveda, that they haven’t tried before.

As you know, we love herbal teas. Ayurveda encourages drinking herbal teas on a daily basis. What herbal teas do you use at the retreat?

You can find a lot of tea on our retreats! We partner with The Tea Spot, whose founder Maria is a cancer survivor initially drawn to the health benefits of premium tea during her recovery. The Tea Spot gives 10% of all sales as in–kind donations to cancer wellness and community programs, including Cowgirls vs. Cancer. Maria and I have collaborated on Tea + Yoga: A Blend Steeped in History, Health, and Spirit, a presentation we first gave at the 2015 World Tea Expo and now include on our Winter Wonderland and Wellness retreat. Maria also interviews me in her forthcoming book (October 2016!) called Cancer Hates Tea. We plan to take this talk on the road to spas in 2017.

Which transforming effects have you seen in your cowgirls’ lives at the end of the retreat?

One word that can sum it up: connection.

Connection is the craving behind all human existence. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing.” We’re healthy when we connect with others in meaningful ways and when we connect with animals, nature, and what’s going on inside ourselves.

The goal of Cowgirl Yoga is to find ways to make your day-to-day life the one you want to live, the place you want to be. Yoga definitely helps add a sacred element to the mundane, and that is available daily to everyone in some way. On retreat, we focus on ways you can infuse your daily life with what is sacred to you, with yoga being the foundation. We cultivate connection.
Perhaps it’s also meditation, journaling, finding joy in what you eat, joining up with horses. It’s about recognizing what you are passionate about, what matters most to you, and how that can help you live the most fulfilling life possible on a daily basis.

So basically, after a retreat…we want you to be excited to go home and find a connection there.

With that said, what do you think is your favorite aspect of the retreat?

It’s incredible to see over and over how such a wide variety of women come together for this experience, most of the time not knowing each other, and then interact like they’ve been good friends for years. Many meet here and come back on retreat again together. Camaraderie through cancer is not necessarily a club anyone wants to be in, but being able to share their experiences and come together to share an experience that came from having cancer is healing.

The best part of Cowgirls vs. Cancer is getting to see the cowgirls be transformed through healing with horses and yoga. Our goal is to contribute meaningfully to their healing process. We believe that yoga, horses and eating well all make the women physically stronger. And these women are determined to get strong. Some of us who are healthy complain about dragging ourselves through the motions, but we really have no idea what it’s like to want to feel normal again. To see them surpass that hurdle is pretty cool. It’s inspiring.

What are the main messages you want people to hear about breast cancer? Why is that important?

All of us have a story about how cancer has affected our lives. My feeling is that we all need to try and do something to make a difference in fighting this disease, and helping those who have it. With our retreat focus of self-care, we also want women to take action to do what they can to prevent cancer, and recognize the importance of screening for it regularly. We are excited to partner with an organization that has this mission – and was founded by one of our Cowgirls vs. Cancer alumna who recently passed away: The Get in Touch Foundation.

How are Dosha Pops incorporated into this inspirational retreat?

We give everyone a brief quiz to discover their dosha, and then they get to pick a pop. It’s a super fun way to introduce them to Ayurveda, and spark their interest in another holistic health care option.

We’ll end it with just two last question as we’re curious to know: What’s your dosha and what’s your favorite Dosha Pop flavor?

Pitta-Vata. And since I adore anything with rose, my fave is Wishful Pinking. But the new Sarsapari-ahh is a close second.

Many thanks to Margaret Burns Vap for sharing her passion with us and enlightening our community on how “self-care is non-negotiable.” We all have to do our part to make bigger strides in living a healthier lifestyle. Have an amazing person that you think could be a great candidate for their Cowgirl vs. Cancer 2017 Program? Simply nominate them right here. As a fitting end to our interview, Yeehaw Namaste!

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