The niyamas in breast cancer recovery

Continuing on our exploration of yoga philosophy and the 8 limbs of yoga, as originally outlined by Patanjali, let’s discuss the niyamas, or the 2nd limb. The niyamas can be described as duties, inner observances, or guidelines for the way we interact with ourselves. As with the yamas, there are 5 niyamas:

  1. Saucha: cleanliness or purity (of body, mind, energy)
  2. Santosha: contentment
  3. Tapas: self-discipline, inner fire, dedication
  4. Svadhyaya: Self-study
  5. Isvara Pranidhana: Surrender, either to a higher power, or just to the present moment, letting go, releasing control

So, as with the yamas, I won’t expound on all of them here, or you’ll never finish reading this post! I’ll focus today on my favorite niyama, the 4th one, svadhyaya. As BKS Iyengar beautifully expresses, “Yoga is a mirror to look at ourselves from within”, and yoga indeed helps us to explore and understand ourselves. Practicing svadhyaya helps us become more self-aware, better able to observe the things that we do and think, and then to begin to understand why we do them, and how they affect us. This allows us to then work on avoiding thoughts and behaviors that are harmful to us, and to pursue more of the thoughts and behaviors that help us move in the direction we want, toward our higher selves, toward peace, truth, wellness, and joy.

In yoga asana, self-study is huge in helping us understand the physical part of our practice. Where are we resisting the pose? Where can we soften more to achieve more flexibility? Why do we love certain poses and avoid others? (You know they say the poses we hate the most are probably the ones our bodies need the most!) Can we translate any of that to our lives off the mat?

In relating svadhyaya to our breast cancer journeys, what have you learned about yourself through your cancer experience? Do you need to be more patient? To learn to accept help from others? To release anger or the need to control every detail? Do you need to work on releasing fear? Developing trust? Empowering yourself? Did having cancer make you more compassionate and understanding with others? Did you learn to take better care of yourself? In all of these ways (and probably many others you can think of), we can see how studying ourselves through our cancer experience can help us see the good things that can come from this crummy disease. We can turn it into an opportunity for growth and development, to make ourselves into our newer, better selves. This outlook will help us feel more at ease with the situation, more optimistic about the future, and more joyful in the moment.

Finally, spend a little time considering the other niyamas and how they might relate to your life. For example, saucha encourages us to keep our thoughts clean and pure, and avoid putting toxic ideas and energy into ourselves (via movies, fighting with people on the internet, obsessing over the news, or otherwise). Santosha encourages us to find contentment in the present moment, despite whatever difficulties we might be facing. Tapas encourages us to maintain our self-discipline in the things we know are good for us, such as taking our medicine, eating healthy, or exercising. And Isvara pranidhana can be so helpful in releasing our need for control, in trusting the universe or our higher power, in finding peace and grace in our situation.

So as for the yamas, I hope that reflecting a little on the niyamas will help you, as it has me, in traversing this crazy breast cancer journey. As always, be patient with yourself. And just keep practicing.


The yamas in breast cancer recovery

So we wrote a little in the last blog post about the 8 limbs of yoga, and promised to discuss each of them a little more in coming posts. As I mentioned, yoga is so much more than just asana (physical postures), and while asana is huge in helping us recover from the physical effects of our cancer journey, I really feel like some of the other limbs are even more important in helping us heal from the mental and spiritual effects of having cancer. So let’s discuss them a bit.

The first limb of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga is the yamas, or the guidelines for the way we interact with the world around us. The yamas help us develop a healthy mindset, honesty, contentment, and peace. There are 5 yamas:

  1. Ahimsa: non-violence, non-harming in action and in thought
  2. Satya: truthfulness, honesty
  3. Asteya: non-stealing, avoiding a feeling of lack which might cause one to steal
  4. Brahmacharya: right use of energy (historically referred to celibacy/sexual energy, now often considered more just related to energy in general)
  5. Aparigraha: non-attachment (or its correlate, non-resistance)

I’m not going to expound on all of the yamas here (that would be too long of a read!), but will just focus in on one of them. My favorite yama is the 5th one, aparigraha, or non-attachment. As the Buddha said (and I believe Yoda repeated), “Attachment is the root of all suffering”, meaning we cause ourselves to suffer by allowing ourselves to be overly attached to things, events, people, or ideas. There are many ways to think about non-attachment, such as not attaching our happiness to material things, accomplishments, events, or things that we find pleasing. For example avoiding thinking “I’ll be happy when I get that new car, or when I finish that degree, or when I get that promotion”. You can see how attaching your happiness or contentment to such things really sets you up for unhappiness or suffering in the present moment, for feeling like your current situation is inadequate or somehow unsatisfying. Why would you want to do that to yourself?? Of course it is fine to strive for things that we want, or want to accomplish, but we mustn’t allow that to rob us of our happiness or joy in this moment, whatever it contains.

For us as cancer survivors, it is easy to allow ourselves to think “I’ll be ok when I’m 5 years out… or when I get my reconstruction finalized… or when my hair grows in…. or when I’m done with this treatment”. And while it is totally understandable that some of the things we go through are truly difficult and even unpleasant, we must learn to still be able to find our happiness, our peace, our contentment in the present moment, whatever it contains. If we hang our happiness on some future event, there will always be some other next thing that keeps us from feeling joyful. And why put off feeling joyful, if we can learn to feel joyful now and always?! Non-attachment can also mean not being so rigidly attached to our ideas of how things should be. For example, maybe you thought your chemotherapy should happen on some specific schedule that would allow you to make a holiday or some other engagement. And unfortunately, it didn’t happen exactly the way you wanted because of low blood counts or drug availability, or other causes for delay. Or maybe you thought your surgical outcome should look a certain way, but you had abnormal scarring or an infection, that made it look different. We musn’t allow these sorts of detours to wreck our emotions, causing us to suffer.

Non-resistance is sort of the flip side of non-attachment, and refers to dropping that feeling of aversion or dread of things that are unpleasant. Like those Sunday night doldrums, in anticipation of going back to work on Monday. Why do we let ourselves ruin perfectly good Sunday nights this way? Aparigraha teaches us to be adaptable, to be equanimous, to take each day as it comes, to be able to roll with the punches, and to be ok with whatever twists and turns our lives and our cancer journeys take.

Non-attachment doesn’t mean complacence or just not giving a shit about anything. We can look forward to certain things for the future, or work hard to get wherever we’d like to be. But we still find joy and happiness wherever we are along the way there. We recognize that wherever we are, whatever is happening in the now, is a necessary step in our journey. And thus, we find more acceptance and grace in this moment, even if it is a difficult one.

I’m not saying aparigraha is easy. I work at it constantly. But I truly believe that having some awareness of how your mindset and your attachment/resistance affects your emotions and your state of consciousness is so helpful in training yourself to develop healthier patterns and thus cultivating more peace and joy in your daily life. Just try it for a while and see if you find yourself noticing and then letting go of those excessive attachments or resistance. See if you feel a little lighter and freer as a result.

Take a little time also to think about how some of the other yamas might relate to your cancer recovery, and to developing a healthier mindset as you recover. For example, we discussed ahimsa and non-violence to ourselves in a prior blog post (, and have touched on brahmacharya as well ( , You might consider satya, or truthfulness, in being more honest with yourself or your loved ones about what you are going through or what you need. Or you might consider asteya, or non-stealing, not so much in terms of actual theft, but in terms of wanting something other than what you have.

I hope that study of the yamas will help you as much as it has me, in getting my mind right, and feeling much more peace, acceptance, and even gratitude for my life and all of my experiences, including the tough ones.


The 8 limbs of yoga in cancer survivorship

By now you’ve heard me say 100 times “yoga is so much more than just asana (postures)”, and you’ve seen discussion about individual yamas or niyamas in some of my blogs, so you may be thinking “what in the world is she talking about?!”.

The original written text on yoga, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written nearly 2000 years ago, outlined an 8-limbed path to freedom or enlightenment, a holistic guide for all parts of our lives. Yoga asana, or the physical postures/exercises, now commonly understood to equal “yoga” is really just one of these 8 limbs. So let’s learn, briefly, about the whole system.

1. Yamas: Moral guidelines, restraints, how we deal with the world

2. Niyamas: Duties, inner observances, how we deal with ourselves

3. Asana: physical postures

4. Pranayama: breathing practices

5. Pratyahara: withdrawal of/from the senses

6. Dharana: focus, concentration

7. Dhyana: meditation

8. Samadhi: Bliss, enlightenment

In a fabulous TED talk, I recently heard a woman (who is a psychotherapist and a yoga teacher) describe Patanjali’s 8 limbs as “the original cognitive behavioral therapy”! And it truly is! It is a comprehensive guide to practices that will positively affect every corner of our lives, making us kinder, happier, healthier, more peaceful, more patient, more understanding, more fulfilled human beings, more in line with our true selves and our purpose. And maybe, eventually, with enough practice, we reach that place of pure joy and bliss, completely free from suffering of any kind. I believe that we, as cancer survivors, can benefit from this path and these practices as much (or maybe more) as anyone!

So asana is just one part of the system. However, it can be a great starting point, and a springboard to developing our practice of all the other limbs. For example, asana practice clearly encourages pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana. And with time, your asana practice truly becomes a moving meditation, or dhyana. So as we grow our asana practice, we automatically develop in the other areas as well.

It is important to clarify that yoga is not a religion. This system of practices is compatible with whatever spiritual or religious tradition you already identify with. In fact, as you progress in yoga practice, you may become even more connected to whatever spiritual practice you currently have, because of the way yoga helps us become more in touch with ourselves, understanding our true natures, our higher selves, our inner wisdom, and our truth.
If you are interested in more, and how this relates to cancer recovery specifically, check out my educational video on the topic.

In any event, keep practicing and know that if you begin to feel better in general, more peaceful, physically healthier, more at ease in your own skin, more connected to those around you, more compassionate, and more joyful — those are sure signs that you are doing it right, and yoga is working for you, regardless of what your postures look like.


Be kinder to yourself

The first of the yamas (from Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga) is ahimsa, most commonly translated as non-violence. As you may know, the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali’s 8 limbs are guidelines for the way we think, behave, and interact with ourselves and the world. For more detail on the 8 limbs, check out my educational video on the topic, and stay tuned for my next blog post, in which I’ll spend a little more time on the topic in general.

Today’s thoughts are on ahimsa, or non-violence, but really thinking about ahimsa as it relates to ourselves, as well as others. Ahimsa is traditionally thought of in terms of avoiding violence or harm to other humans or to animals. I think this interpretation is pretty obvious to most people. But perhaps more important is the idea of avoiding violence toward ourselves. There are many ways that we might unknowingly be expressing violence toward ourselves, from abusing our bodies though excessive diet or over-exercise, to over-working and stressing our bodies and minds to the point of exhaustion, to violent thoughts toward our bodies and ourselves (“I’m so angry that my body developed this cancer”, or “I hate the way my body is since my cancer treatment”, or “Why can’t I just be over this already?”). The Buddha famously said “You, as much as anyone in the universe, deserve your own love and affection” (there is some controversy as to whether he really said it, but I like it one way or the other). And it is true. It is easy to always focus our energy and efforts on those around us or our work, prioritizing the needs of others over our own, in fact maybe never even considering our own needs. But we must learn to really listen to our own bodies and spirits, to hear what they need, and to be kind, patient, and gentle with ourselves.

After all, consider what your body and mind have been through, and how amazing they are to have carried you through your life and all of its challenges to this point. Despite everything, our bodies are resilient and strong, persevering though toxic treatments, healing wounds, and recovering. Our minds are strong and adaptable, able to handle the stresses of regular life and those associated with cancer and cancer treatment on top of that! Just take a moment to recognize how amazing you really are. Direct some gratitude to your body and mind for carrying you through, and then allow yourself to feel kindness and compassion for yourself growing from the inside. As you begin to cultivate this love and understanding for yourself, you will naturally feel those same feelings begin to grow toward those around you. This is the beauty of ahimsa, for ourselves and for those around us. Just as Pema Chodron says, “Be kinder to yourself. And then let your kindness flood the world”.


Focus your awareness

Thich Nhat Hanh said “Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed”. And it’s true, isn’t it? We all know that what we place our awareness on, or wherever we focus our attention, has a big impact on our mental state and therefore the condition of our lives. We can choose to keep our awareness scattered about in a million directions, and thus feel frazzled and overwhelmed. We can choose to focus intently on all of the sorrows and tragedies of the world, and thus feel sad and hopeless. Or we can choose to focus on the beautiful things in life for which we are grateful, and feel a full and content heart (even despite our difficulties). And we can focus on opportunities for growth and positive change and feel hopeful and optimistic.

Yoga teaches us to develop the ability to truly focus our awareness in the direction we choose. Through the 8 limbs of yoga, we learn to direct and maintain our attention and awareness in places we know are healthy, rather than allowing mindless meandering of our thoughts and consciousness into those unhealthy or maladaptive habits that are so easy to fall into. No judgement if you find yourself falling into those negative places in the mind. This is a natural phenomenon called negativity bias, in which our ancestors were trained to focus on the things in their lives that were a potential threat to their well-being. For example, historically it was more important to be aware of something that might kill you than to be aware of a beautiful flower. So we adapted, over millenia, the tendency to focus on things that are potentially threatening, to focus on the negative or frightening things in our lives. So we must learn to recognize that and train ourselves to overcome that tendency, developing the ability to focus our attention where we choose, like a focused beam of sunlight.

In the physical practice of asana, we learn to focus our awareness because we have to do so in order to balance or hold our bodies in certain positions. We also learn to focus our awareness through the many different types of meditation and breathing practices in yoga. So this training will allow us to also be able to direct our attention and awareness in the rest of our lives, off the mat. This may be especially important for us as cancer survivors, or for anyone who has particularly difficult or stressful life circumstances. Because for us, it is very easy to fall into habits of negative thought patterns, like fear or anger. It is so natural to focus and obsess on our fear of recurrence or death, or to be angry at our situation, and frustrated with the cards we’ve been dealt, but of course we know this isn’t healthy or helpful to our recovery. Instead, we can use what we learn on our mat, and first notice when these negative thought patterns arise, and then gently bring our awareness back to something better. We can use our breath, our gratitude practice, a mantra, or anything we choose as a tool to focus that awareness. And we just practice, over and over, with patience and compassion for ourselves, bringing our awareness back to that positive thing. With practice, this becomes easier and easier, and happens more naturally, and eventually those “bad” habits begin to fade away.

As BKS Iyengar said, “The study of asana is not about mastering posture. It is about using posture to understand and transform yourself”. So keep coming back to your mat. Keep practicing asana, and in doing so, keep practicing focused awareness. Develop the ability to direct your awareness like a beautiful beam of sunlight, and see how your life transforms for the better.


p.s. This gorgeous beam of sunlight shining through the clouds occurred in Puerto Vallarta just a few days ago, and served as inspiration for today’s thoughts.