The Desert Sun — It wasn’t exercise, it was my lifeline

“It wasn’t exercise, it was my lifeline.”

Former caregiver found ‘respite’ in yoga after fiance’s cancer diagnosis.

There should have been a lot to celebrate in June 2018 for Indian Wells resident Alex Sabbag: Her 33rd birthday was on June 16, and her partner, Matt West, proposed the following day.

But that joyous time was plagued by earthshattering news. Her fiancé was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, making all the plans the two had in mind for a long life together seem impossible.

With her mind swirling with questions and the next steps as his caregiver, the first place she turned to once they were discharged from the hospital was Bare Feet Power Yoga, her local studio in Chicago. At the sight of her shiny new engagement ring, her instructor was buzzing with excitement, but all Sabbag could do in the moment was burst into tears.

"(The instructor) said, 'This place is your home. You do whatever you need to do here,'" Sabbag, 37 today, said. "She didn’t hug me, she didn't pity me, there was no woe is me. It was all messages of empowerment, not false hope. It was exactly what I needed to hear, and I had no idea."

Sabbag didn't know it at the time, but yoga — what she once viewed as just exercise — would become a vital part of her personal healing journey. Years later, what helped her the most is something she can provide for others through her own studio, Soul Dive Yoga, located at 73-725 El Paseo Suite 23B in Palm Desert.

It's a space where the Indian Wells resident hopes to offer caregivers and others in the Coachella Valley a place to find strength, healing and, above all else, the tools needed to cope with whatever life has in store. Just in time for National Caregivers Day on Friday, Sabbag will hold a class dedicated to caregivers to explore movement, breathwork and stillness as a method of self-love. The class is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday.

‘The most tragically beautiful love story on earth'

Sabbag met West in September 2017 in Chicago and described their relationship as "fast and furious" and "the most tragically beautiful love story on earth."

He was the "absolute smartest person" she had ever met, and he took impeccable care of himself and meditated every day. After just a few weeks of dating, they already discussed what type of diamond Sabbag would want for an engagement ring, and they were looking forward to starting a family together. He even got along with an important member of her family, her senior Yorkie, Alfie.

Eight months into the relationship, however, the couple was dealt a difficult blow with West's grade-three anaplastic astrocytoma diagnosis. Anaplastic astrocytoma is a rare, malignant brain tumor that arises from astrocytes, the supportive cells in the nervous system, according to the University of California San Francisco Brain Tumor Center. It is relatively rare, accounting for about 2% of all primary brain tumors.

"I dropped everything and became his caregiver," Sabbag said, who owned her own business at the time. "There’s plenty of couples who have been married for 20 years and have kids, and then this diagnosis comes in and you’re in. For me, I was so in and so committed to the life I thought we were going to build together."

The couple was then thrown into the deep end of scheduling doctors appointments, learning as much as they could about his cancer, faxing paperwork and more. Sabbag felt her body go into "fight or flight" mode in response to all the stress and panic in her life, and she chose to fight hard. She was also in a "constant state of reaction," she said, in order to keep West alive and her household intact.

What she didn't have, she admitted, were any tools to mentally and emotionally cope with all that was happening in her life.

Sabbag had been practicing yoga for a number of years as her primary form of exercise. At her Chicago studio, she found her "home away from home," made friends and felt the physical benefits of the practice, like sleeping well and feeling strong and lean. But she wasn't connecting on an emotional or spiritual level, choosing to keep her faith separate.

Aside from the physical benefits yoga can provide, like flexibility, muscle strength and tone, it can help a person better manage stress and improve their mental well-being due to its incorporation of meditation and breathing exercises, according to the American Osteopathic Association.

Things began to change, however, in the summer of 2018 following West's diagnosis. After his radiation appointments, Sabbag would head to the studio while he slept at home, even though she felt weak from all the grief, fear and panic she faced on a daily basis.

"It was my respite, my retreat," she said. "Whether I laid there or cried my eyes out or did two poses or did the whole class, it was my place to go."

Over the next few months, West's condition worsened, and she felt powerless as there was so little she could do for him. She cared for her fiancé for six months before he went to live with his family in Southern California. Once he left, Sabbag questioned her identity, what she was doing in life and her purpose. After some time mulling over a few options, like a sommelier certification, she decided to pursue a yoga instructor certification.

She was "kind of a recluse" for a year and a half, she said, as she peeled all the layers back and dove into a self-inquiry and discovery phase.

"When yoga really started to strike was as I came into the practice from a different angle. It wasn’t exercise, it was my lifeline," she said.

Sabbag called the roughly 18 months she spent working toward her teacher training her "soul dive." She and West continued to stay in touch and see each other whenever they could. In the end, "there was a lot of love between us," she said, and they were able to get the closure and understanding they needed the last time they saw each other.

'Path to heal'

The 37-year-old left Chicago in 2020, and after some time in the San Diego area, she made her way to the Coachella Valley and began another soul dive by opening her new business, the aptly named Soul Dive Yoga. She got the keys to the space on Sept. 14, 2022 — which, by some divine intervention, was the same day West died — and doors opened Oct. 1.

On a recent Monday afternoon, yoga enthusiasts of all ages trickled into the Palm Desert space for a vinyasa class, where they flowed from posture to posture.

Sabbag, leading the class in an all-turquoise athletic outfit, encouraged the 11 students gathered to get "really purposeful and personal" with their breath. With each new pose she guided them through, students could be heard deeply inhaling and exhaling, letting go of all the stress, noise and fuss from the day. Even her four-legged Yorkie could be heard taking Sabbag's advice, although his down dog looked more like a napping pose.

"There’s a lot of reasons why this place exists," Sabbag said. "I went to yoga teacher training because I looked at myself, and I was like, wow, I was really not equipped to handle that," referring to all that she went through with West. When she thought about other people and what inevitably happens in life, whether it's death or other stressors, she also felt many "didn’t have the tools to not immediately react" either.

Soul Dive Yoga is "a place for all of that readiness to happen," she said. Sabbag and several other yoga instructors provide a variety of class offerings to suit anyone's needs. There's a slow flow for new students and returning yogis getting reacquainted to their practice, as well as gentle yoga, an entry-level class that incorporates the eight pillars of yoga — asana (movement), breath and chanting.

In many of these classes, students sit in stillness, which requires being OK with the discomfort that might be swirling in someone's mind, until they learn to let it go and focus on the work they're doing on the mat. It's reflective practices like this that, knowing what she knows now, make Sabbag wish she and West could have taken time to slow down and fully process all the challenges they were handed.

The studio also offers workshops to teach students more about an area of yoga and get to know their instructors better. From 9 to 11 a.m. this Sunday, the community can join Sabbag for a free shopping event and fireside chat at Athleta in Palm Desert, followed by a yoga class at Soul Dive Yoga, which costs $25 for drop-ins. Instructor Leesann Shefa will also host a yoga for golfers workshop at 1 p.m. Feb. 26.

Whether one is stepping inside a yoga studio for the first time ever or is a seasoned yogi, Sabbag hopes to make her space a welcoming and less intimidating one. Soul Dive Yoga's white walls are covered in records and colorful artwork, and upbeat music plays during her classes. If she notices a student is struggling with a pose, she'll quietly walk over and help guide them to where they need to be.

In the nearly five months since the studio opened, traffic has mainly come from locals and snowbirds. Sabbag said there's been a lot of release, magic and connection in the space, which is far more important than how many advanced poses one can do. Grief, loss and trauma has been discussed, tears have been shed and people have shared their feelings of isolation and loneliness. Fellow yogis have been supportive through it all.

There's even a pink couch where people can sit and talk, as well as a tea and coffee bar to gather around.

"It’s been a space where people really, after a practice, opened up, and it’s not necessarily between student and the teacher, it’s between student and another student," Sabbag said. "The level of connection that’s been happening has been organic and beautiful."

Whether one is a caregiver, a yoga enthusiast or curious about the practice, Sabbag hopes that Soul Dive Yoga and yoga can provide them with a number of benefits physically, spiritually and emotionally. If her story or journey inspires others, that's an added bonus, but at the end of the day, she hopes others are able to go on their own soul dive in whatever form it takes.

"It was my path to heal," she said. "I want to share it and give people, even in an hour [-long] class, a place to go where they can be however they show up."

To learn more about Soul Dive Yoga, such as its class schedule, pricing options and other offerings, visit

Ema Sasic covers entertainment and health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at or on Twitter @ema_sasic.

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