Yoga for Cancer

I recently did a yoga practice with a good friend who is dealing with cancer. She naturally embodies many elements of yogic philosophy and i’m looking forward to helping her interweave this philosophy with the physical asana practice to help make her everyday life a little more comfortable and teach her some meditation techniques to help her through the really tough times. She came over with another friend, so there was a bit more banter and laughter than in my usual classes- but i think that is important too!

My research around the topic has been really rewarding. Yoga as a complementary therapy is gaining more and more mainstream acceptance, Dr Dean Ornish, well known for his work combating heart disease with yoga, meditation and healthy diet is currently trailing his program with prostate cancer sufferers. It was the personal stories that inspired me the most though….

Sandy Boucher describes how, the practice of asana, built upon the foundation of philosophy can have powerful benefits…
“Traditionally, yoga’s power to bring deliverance from pain and sorrow comes as the student learns to work with his or her senses and intellect. While the practices of yoga, as codified by the Indian master Patanjali centuries ago, classically begin with ethics and self-purification, the cancer patient probably benefits initially from the asanas themselves. These poses are designed to exercise every muscle, nerve, and gland in the body. Refined over centuries, the postures precisely address the tension, holding, and sometimes blockage of energy in any particular joint or organ. When the tension is released, energy can flow more easily in the body and allow patients to experience a sense of well-being and strength—a balance of body, mind, and spirit.”

I’ve personally noticed how much stronger and more alive i feel after a yoga practice. I love that the practice is so personal, while someone may guide you, it is “you” doing the yoga. I imagine that this self direction would be feel particularly beneficial when so much of your daily activity is dictated by your treatment, it’s side effects and a timetable of appointments with the team devising it. A gentle, nurturing practice could be a way of reconnecting to a body in pain and to the present moment (releasing worries of the future).  
As Sandy Boucher describes
“Perhaps the most compelling reason cancer patients are turning to yoga is this: It shows us how a person stricken with a serious illness, instead of “running away” from their threatened body, can connect more strongly to that body and begin to experience self-empowerment and well-being. As we engage our physical selves in the precise body gestures of yoga, our minds come along, growing accustomed to focusing on the affairs of this moment and leaving worries and future-thinking behind. As we breathe and meditate, our minds grow more clear and steady.”

Whether you are standing strong in a warrior pose, or feeling the ground beneath you in savasana- yoga is grounding, it grounds us within our physical bodies and reinforces our connection to the earth.

Nischala Joy Devi, who created on of the first yoga programs for people with cancer in 1982 as part of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Bolinas, California, elaborates on how yoga can heal, by cultivating acceptance and love for a body that may be physically scared.
“Ahimsa also teaches people to treat their bodies with love, which can be extremely therapeutic for patients who feel betrayed or repulsed by affected body parts. “I encourage people to touch their scars and say nice things to a breast that has been removed, because energetically it’s still there,” Devi says. “Yoga reminds people that regardless of whatever’s been cut out or scarred, on a subtle level they are still whole.” These practices help people let go of fear and tension, which can block the flow of prana and result in pain. “When you allow prana to flow, the reduction in pain can be quite dramatic,”.

Visualization can also be used as part of a conventional medical treatment, imbuing it with the philosophy of ahisma (non harming), can reduce side effects and increase effectiveness.
According to Devi “How we view the cancer, the treatments, and ourselves is very important to healing,” adding that chemotherapy is typically considered a poison that kills cancer cells. “Taking a poison is a frightening concept,” she says. “The more we talk about something as negative, the more our body sets itself up to reject it.” Instead, Devi advises patients to adopt an attitude of ahimsa and meditate on chemotherapy as “a nectar that helps the body rid itself of what it doesn’t want. This can help people heal and not be so adversely affected by side effects.”

Betsy Flagg also harnessed her understanding of yogic philosophy to help her through her treatment….

The yogic principle of Ishvara pranidhana (devotion) is central to her practice of Anusara Yoga. “I didn’t choose the disease, but I can choose my attitude,” Flagg says. “I trust that the Divine has my best interests at the forefront. Grace abounds. My job is to be as fully present as I can be and accepting of whatever life serves up.” Among the most powerful lessons of this experience, she says, “is that you can go through trauma and still find beauty.”

Cris Karr, has embraced this beauty and shares it in her film, Crazy sexy cancer and on her website, filled with joy, raw and vegan recipes, expert articles and her own special love for life and desire to help others through this challenging journey.

I’d initially planned a gentler sequence than what we ended up doing, my friend had never done yoga before and was recovering from surgery as well as her Chemotherapy, but she had a great understanding of her body and when to rest.  What we actually do will probably change each session depending on her energy levels. My training, all articles i’ve been reading and my instincts agree that external goals are not important with this practice. This is not about pushing, or even goal setting, it’s about listening to the body, cultivating relaxation, observing the breath and gradually freeing up movement and energy in a caring, nurturing way. As one of my favorite yoga quote states 

Do yoga to feel better not to get better at it and practice ‘as though you were treating yourself to an hour or so of pure indulgence.’  


(L. Sparrow & P. Walden, The Women’s book of yoga and Health, p 95).
Before starting yoga, check with your medical team and i’d recommend seeking out a Yoga therapist rather than going to a general class or working from a book- you’ll get so much more out of a practice that is tailored to your needs.

The Ian Gawler Foundation also run meditation retreats for patients (of many chronic illnesses) and their families and carers.