Using yoga to navigate the intersection of heart and mind

Paulo Coehlo said “The spiritual path can only be traveled through the daily experience of love”, and I couldn’t love this quote more. Of course he doesn’t mean only romantic love, but rather love as a state of being, love as a way of living, of going through life with a completely open heart, full of compassion and understanding for those around us and for ourselves, fully in tune with our intuitive heart, really feeling each experience deeply (not just thinking about it and judging it), and an eager openness to finding bliss in whatever life brings us.

Interestingly, I am traditionally much more of a cerebral, or thinking-mind- dominant person. I was always science and math oriented, and wasn’t good at believing or feeling anything that couldn’t be proven to me by documented facts. Then of course, living in the medical field for much of my life, that mindset was just solidified. Everything had to be proven in well designed, solid, scientific studies for me to give it much credence. I did, however, in caring for individual patients, have many moments of pure love, where the mind and the facts melt away, and true human connection just lays your heart wide open. Those moments were some of the best moments of my practice, although of course I also loved discussing the science behind cancer treatment and remain fascinated by developments in the field and new treatments that can cure many people of cancers that would have been lethal just a few years ago.

My yoga practice, over the years, has really helped me to be much more in touch with my intuitive heart, and to recognize and understand the intersection between mind and heart. In yoga we often say things like “Feel how your body is in the pose, don’t think about it”, to help us stop over-thinking and practice dropping into ourselves, into that space that is deeper than the mind, into our true selves, what some might call our soul. Yoga allows us to use our bodies as the doorway to that space. Most of the time, we run around controlled by our thoughts: what am I doing next, what do I think about that, what might go wrong, how I wish something were different, etc. Yoga trains us to be able to suspend those thoughts, even if just for a few moments, and just BE. To allow things like fear, anxiety, and judgement (which all come from too much thinking mind) to drop away, leaving peaceful freedom and open-heartedness, that state of being pure love. Of course the thinking mind often comes back into action, but the more we practice moving into BE-ing, the easier it will be and the longer we can stay in that blissful state.

Now this isn’t to say that our thinking mind isn’t a valuable tool! Of course it is. The thinking mind does amazing things for us. For example, the thinking mind can interpret the scientific research supporting yoga in cancer survivors! And you know I love science. While I do think it is of prime importance for us each to focus on how yoga works for us individually, how we truly feel on the inside when we keep up our practice, it also helps to know that there is sound science supporting those benefits as well.

The medical community has finally embraced mind body practices like yoga and meditation because the benefits have now been proven in scientific studies in many different conditions. There is extensive literature on the effects of yoga in cancer survivors. In fact, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) endorsed recommendations originally made by the Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO), that include recommending yoga and meditation for: overall quality of life, fatigue, depression/mood disturbance, and sleep. These recommendations were published by Lyman et al in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO), the premiere cancer publication, in 2018. Similarly, in a Cochrane Review (which analyzes multiple scientific studies together to come to an overall conclusion on the evidence), it was concluded that there was evidence to support the use of yoga in breast cancer survivors in improving health-related quality of life, reducing fatigue and sleep disturbance, and reducing depression and anxiety (Cramer et al Cochrane Database 2017). Further studies on other specific symptoms like lymphedema, chemo induced neuropathy, hot flashes, etc are ongoing. The science behind how yoga results in these benefits is fascinating, and includes deep effects on our nervous systems, immune systems, musculoskeletal systems and more! We are beginning to have a much better understanding of just how yoga works to make us feel and function so much better.

Navigating the line between mind and heart is something that we, as breast cancer survivors, have to do continuously. We must pay attention to details and understand scan and lab results, our medications and side effects, and new information that our doctors share with us at each appointment. But we must also learn to let go of too much thinking mind, which can exacerbate fear and anxiety, and prevent us from feeling our true open intuitive hearts. We must learn to live in a state of love and joy, despite the stressors and difficulties that might arise. I submit to you that yoga will help you do that. But don’t just rely on the science that states it is so. Do your practice, and really feel, in your body and in your heart, if it is true for you too!


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