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.


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