By Laura Kupperman
Ample scientific literature supports the benefits of yoga for cancer care, pointing toward improvements in quality of life, well-being, sleep, strength, and energy. Studies also show diminished anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD symptoms, heart rate, and more. (If you’re interested in the research, this is a great place to start, and yogatherapy.health lists relevant studies, too.)
What I’d like to share with you here, though, are the benefits I’ve witnessed, and experienced, personally. Since 2005, I’ve offered yoga to hundreds of women and men diagnosed with cancer, as well as trained other teachers how to do so safely. Over and over, I’ve been awed and humbled by the positive effects of integrating yoga therapy into cancer care. And as a 15+ year cancer survivor myself, I’ve also been on the receiving end of everything I’m sharing with you.
Here then, are my top five benefits of incorporating yoga therapy into cancer care.
- Befriending and supporting your post-diagnosis body. The physical side of cancer treatment may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, transplant, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy. Even under the best of circumstances, your body likely will have been poked, prodded, and cut, resulting in asymmetries, imbalances, weakness, and tightness. Yoga therapy can help you gently explore your body’s “new normal” so you can safely begin to address these side-effects.
- Breathing deeply. Breath is a central pillar of yoga therapy, and the breath is never more important than when you’ve received a life-changing diagnosis. When you breathe deeply you massage your internal organs, improve lymphatic flow, and help calm your nervous system, among other benefits.
- Standing up straight. This one sounds basic, but think about it: If you’ve ever had a bad cold, all you want to do is curl up in the fetal position and lie on the couch. Multiply that by 20 with a cancer diagnosis and by 100 if you’ve had surgery in your chest, and you may end up walking around like Quasimodo. Adopting a slumped, heart-protective posture is totally normal under the circumstances, but your organs and glands function best when they’re not mushed together. Chemotherapy and other treatments exact quite a toll on many body parts, and we need to support their health by giving the
m the space to work. There’s a reason the “Wonder Woman Power Pose” (shown to increase confidence and pain tolerance) involves standing up straight, and yoga therapy can you help experience this power for yourself.
- Paying attention to the present moment. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer you may be spending a lot of time in your head. Pondering treatment options and incessantly thinking about “what if” can both create stress and rob you of the present moments that are still yours to enjoy. Yoga therapy can teach you how to mindfully engage with what is actually happening in the present moment, and take a vacation from mind chatter. Doesn’t that sound great?
- Making peace with whatever is, or isn’t. Yogic philosophy is rooted in helping practitioners find peace of mind. One of the best definitions of yoga I’ve heard is “the ability to make peace with whatever is or isn’t happening in your life.” Let’s face it—cancer sucks. Nobody asks to be dealt that hand of cards. But it’s also true that there are ways of experiencing an illness that can increase suffering, and other paths that can help decrease suffering. Yoga therapy is a terrific path for learning how to decrease suffering.
Many students I’ve worked with over the years began their yoga practices after completing chemotherapy or other treatment, and the one comment I repeatedly hear is, “Why didn’t I start this sooner?!” So regardless of whether you’ve tried yoga before, my encouragement to you is DON’T WAIT. If you want individualized support from a caring professional who has the tools to help you start feeling better now, it’s time to check out yoga therapy.
Laura Kupperman, MA, C-IAYT, is a yoga therapist specializing in yoga for people with cancer. She also trains others to work with cancer survivors, presents at medical conferences on the benefits of yoga for cancer wellness, and serves as a business coach for other wellness professionals.