Yoga and Cancer Recovery: Beyond the Physical Poses
For many, yoga is often thought of as a physical exercise, but in fact it is comprised of three equally important components – the physical poses or asanas as they are referred to in Sanskrit; controlled breathing techniques, or pranayama (prana – “life force” and ayama – “extension”), which can both energize and relax the body and mind; and finally, mindful exercises or meditation (a contemplative practice for “resting the mind”). The word yoga literally means “to yoke” or join together. The union of the mind and body is the essence of yoga. For many, yoga can become the most powerful mind-body practice for moving towards the achievement of a state of equanimity or a state of mental calmness, especially during times of distress and upheaval, such as when a serious illness occurs. It is thought of as achieving emotional balance, both accepting life’s challenges and joys with a calm state of being. It is a virtue embedded in many ancient spiritual and religious philosophies and it is one that can be cultivated through a regular yoga practice. The following quote from the famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, exemplifies the value of equanimity:
“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.”
For so many, a cancer diagnosis creates disharmony and imbalances physically, mentally and spiritually. Some have described the “shock” of a cancer diagnosis as turning their “world upside down” and as a time of “loss of control” over the familiar. Emotional distress in fact is one of the most commonly experienced adverse effects of a cancer diagnosis and often lingers well beyond the time of diagnosis and end of treatments. Not only are individuals “struggling” to make sense of the situation, they often have to contend with a myriad of other unpleasant side effects (e.g., fatigue, loss of muscle strength, cognitive changes, insomnia, pain, etc.) from treatments and/or the cancer itself.
Over the past decade or more there has been a growing body of literature showing the many benefits of yoga for individuals affected by cancer. While the physical postures of yoga can lead to improved strength and flexibility and better physical balance, yoga has also been found to enhance sleep, lower fatigue, decrease musculoskeletal symptoms, and reduce cognitive impairment among cancer survivors, either during and/or beyond active cancer treatments. In addition to relieving physical symptoms and side effects of treatments, yoga can help provide emotional stability through relief of anxiety and depression, which are commonly experienced at some point along the cancer trajectory as previously mentioned. Then there are the more subtle benefits that touch on the spiritual realm, helping to cultivate patience, equanimity, self-compassion and kindness. These qualities of yoga are not as easily quantified through experimental studies as the physical and mental health benefits, but in fact may be more profound and meaningful to an individual affected by cancer and lead to a deeper level of healing.
Earlier this summer I was fortunate to attend a 10-day intensive yoga teacher training entitled, Yoga of the Heart: Cardiac and Cancer Certification Training. It was led by a gifted spiritual yoga teacher who was one of the co-founders of the yoga and stress management program developed for cancer survivors at the non-profit Commonweal in Bolinas, California over 30 years ago. The training provided me with greater insight and a deeper understanding of the multitude of benefits that a regular yoga practice can bring to those affected by cancer, as well as those affected by heart disease and other life-threatening illnesses. While yoga can help one achieve physical balance through the poses (balancing both effort and ease in a pose), it can perhaps more importantly help one attain mental calmness and to more gracefully flow with, and through a cancer experience.
Many cancer centers, local health clubs, and even some yoga studios offer low-cost or free yoga classes specifically for cancer survivors. Check with your cancer center and/or in your community for a class with a certified yoga instructor trained to teach individuals affected by cancer. Begin to experience the peaceful sense of CALM that can develop from a regular yoga practice.
(The light and love in me honors the light and love in you)