You may not have heard Danielle Orner‘s name, but if you read yoga blogs or follow your favorite teachers and brands on Facebook, you’ve probably seen the photo of her posing in a modified Tree Pose for a Manduka ad that reads: “My practice reminds me I am whole.”
A cancer survivor and amputee, Orner discovered she had bone cancer at age 15, when what she thought was a leg injury sustained while running varsity track turned out to be a cancerous tumor located just below her knee. After four months of chemo, with her tumor shrinking towards a blood vessel and threatening to spread, her leg was amputated and she received five more months of experimental chemo. And again, two years later, doctors discovered that her cancer had spread to her lungs. “I’ve had four lung surgeries and another round of chemotherapy since then, and have currently been in remission for three years–my longest cancer-free period in over a decade,” she explains.
We caught up with the self-described actress, writer, activist, vegan, and motivational speaker to find out more about how her photo ended up becoming a viral inspiration on Facebook, and how she’s not only overcome her battle with cancer, but allowed it to help her thrive.
Check out her incredible story:
How did you end up posing for Manduka?
I saw one of their ‘you series‘ ads in Yoga Journal and decided to share my story. It’s funny because I was drawn to yoga despite my fears and it has ended up bringing me so many unexpected gifts. At different points in my life, I’ve felt a lot of shame about my disability. I used to never wear shorts. I remember my first prosthetist talking all about how close he could get me to appearing “normal.” I used to think the highest compliment I could receive was someone not realizing I was an amputee. I’ve always wanted to be an actress and singer. I felt for the longest time that my amputation was an obstacle I’d never be able to overcome. Now, I realize that my experiences make me unique. I can waste all my energy trying to “pass” for something I am not or I can embrace who I really am and celebrate the stories I have to share. Doing the ad was actually very liberating because I got to acknowledge how far I’ve come.
The ad prominently features your prosthetic, but the whole point seems to be that you don’t let it define you. What’s inspired you to have such an empowered attitude?
In high school, I was very open to sharing my story, and then I got sick of it. I was afraid people would define me by my past and forget to see what I was actually doing in the present. I spent my college years focusing on cultivating my talents and rarely spoke about my experiences. I’ve reached a place where I can balance both aspects of myself. My family and friends never allowed me to lapse into self-pity. And there’s just too much I want to do to waste time worrying about what is or isn’t possible.
Plus, I started discovering other amazing amputees such as the model Aimee Mullins. Even in the last few years, the way the media deals with differently-abled people is changing. I’ve seen so many more positive representations and complicated characters–not just peg-legged pirates. No one wants to be a caricature, and I am inspired to give people a new perspective.
Most people would consider an amputation a setback, but you seem to have flourished despite or even because of it. How has it helped you?
Our culture is so obsessed with perfection but, in the end, people who appear perfect are boring. We can’t relate to them because we all have our own disabilities, visible or invisible. As a writer and an actress, I know the attraction of raw vulnerability. All my scripts and stories deal with that interplay between trying to build up walls when all we really need to do is tear them down. Being an amputee keeps me open. Strangers on the street approach me. People in my group exercise classes tell me how proud they are of me. I don’t have the option of disappearing or blending in. I can’t fake perfection. Being an amputee helps push me toward empathy and authenticity.
How did you become interested in doing yoga?
I became interested in yoga because my theater professor taught a class for actors. I did several body and voice classes but thought yoga wasn’t for a person like me. Still, I felt drawn to it for years. I did DVDs at home but still craved a class experience. I finally go up the courage to go. Once I started, I was hooked.
In yoga, they talk about having grace in adversity. Even when your body is shaking, you still seek peace in your mind. That message appealed to me because I still get scans every six months. I can’t wait for adversity to go away before I find inner peace. Writing and acting also bring a cycle of opportunity, hope, and rejection. I’ve learned to apply daily effort without freaking out over the outcome.
“Be here now” is my favorite mantra.
How has yoga helped you cope with cancer and your amputation?