Sit as tall as you can comfortably…let your belly expand like a balloon…let your arms relax, let your shoulders relax, let your jaw relax…remember our affirmation: “Health is my natural state of being.”
Yoga can bring positive effects and actual health benefits to everyone, but it is particularly helpful to those going through cancer treatment or managing chronic diseases.
There are many different types of yoga. The most common form used for health conditions is Hatha yoga because it has easier movements and a more relaxed pace.
One of the major concerns that cancer survivors experience even after treatment is lack of energy and fatigue. When studied with a group of breast cancer survivors, those who practiced yoga had a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate, improved energy levels and mood.
Along with decreasing stress levels, other benefits include an increase in muscle strength and flexibility, and improved balance.
I am fortunate to help breast cancer patients and others discover the health benefits of yoga and mindful relaxation. I’ve seen people come in with stooped shoulders and leave standing tall, feeling energized, yet calm and relaxed.
How does yoga help?
We start a yoga session by bringing awareness to our bodies. Next, we do some breath work, slow movements, and finally a relaxation.
One of the really important benefits of yoga in health care settings is to help reduce some of the stress associated with going through treatment. Stress is a large component in both physical and emotional health. Conscious breathing and relaxation can help us reduce some of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
And because our body might have been rearranged a little bit through surgery or treatment, yoga can also help boost our self-esteem.
Take a look at the stress cycle to help you understand where the stress shows up. We know that stress has a negative effect on our bodies, and we know we’re going through a lot of stress when we’re going through treatment and even as a survivor after successful treatment, we might experience stress when we go back for a checkup or go back for a mammogram.
When we’re dealing with a lot of stress, the first thing we notice is we begin thinking in terms of fight or flight — for example, when you first receive the news that you have cancer or that you might need chemotherapy. In the short term, fight or flight is a normal reaction, but when it becomes long-term, negative thinking kicks in, “am I ever going to get better?” We might then begin to breathe more shallow, become scared or negative, tense our muscles, develop spams and pains, and start a cascade of stress-related symptoms that can lead to disease.
Turning negatives into positives
So, instead of going along with the stress cycle, we can use yoga for mental coaching, relaxation and even positive body image. We sit up tall to move energy through our bodies, and we also use affirmation to bring our minds to the positive.
Through yoga, we start looking at ways to reverse negative thoughts through mental control and mindful breathing. Paying attention to our breath is very important because we know that when we’re fearful we hold our breath. When we’re not breathing we’re not allowing in the oxygen we need to repair our cells. If instead we tell our brain that there’s nothing to be afraid of, we’re learning to use the breath to take us out of stress.
The gentle stretches we do in yoga also help reverse tension and muscle spams. We can become aware of what triggers our negative reactions and neutralize it before we develop chronic problems that can suppress the immune system.
So, by using yoga to relearn breathing and relaxation techniques we can actually help our bodies relax and let all the stress go.
Listen to your body, remember to breathe, move slowly and comfortably though your journey to health.
Joan Ryan, PYT, is a 14-year breast cancer survivor. In addition to her work and teaching as a Certified Professional Integrative Yoga Therapist-1000 hours, Joan teaches workshops and programs including Therapeutic Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors, Stress Management for Healthcare Professionals and “Happy Spine Yoga” for Radiant Wellness at yoga centers, hospitals, businesses, schools, conferences and not-for-profit organizations. She volunteers her time delivering educational workshops and lectures at hospitals, hospice, cancer and other support groups.