You’ve seen this quote before because it is one of my favorites: “The flexibility we gain in asana is the living symbol of the suppleness we gain in relation to life’s problems and challenges” – BKS Iyengar. Many people think of flexibility first when they think of yoga. Images of super bendy people tying themselves into pretzels or contorting their bodies into unimaginable shapes are all over instagram, so these come easily into our minds. And of course, it is true that improving the flexibility of our body is a big part of yoga. But it definitely isn’t the only, nor the most important part. So let’s talk about flexibility.
I took this picture to remind myself to talk about flexibility of the chest/shoulder for us breast cancer survivors. This pose (and others that require the same opening of the chest wall and pectoralis muscle) were impossible for me for a time after recovering from my surgery and radiation. And my radiated side still, 4 years and lots of yoga later, is a bit tight. But after hours and hours of slow, steady effort, I am able to get into the position without pain. As you know, surgery (be it lumpectomy, mastectomy, or reconstruction) and radiation to the area of the breast create scarring across the front side of the chest wall. And our body’s natural reaction to an injury like surgery is to lay down scar tissue, which creates some contraction of the area as the body tries to heal. Radiation also causes a special kind of scarring, called radiation fibrosis, which causes a thickening and loss of elasticity of the skin, muscle, and connective tissue. Finally, immobility during recovery can also cause some contraction of this area and tightening of muscles. All of this results in contraction of the front side of the chest and shoulder, and a forward rolling of the shoulder, which can be uncomfortable or even painful. And if left untreated can end up in a frozen shoulder. So this type of stretch, which opens the front side of the body, stretching the skin, pectoralis, and other tissues of the chest wall, is so important in recovery after breast cancer. Of course we have to do it slowly and gently over a period of time. But it can be done, and it makes us feel so much better when we can get our chest loosened up again.
But flexibility in life is perhaps the more important skill that we learn from our yoga practice. Life is constantly changing, right? And presenting us with new and different challenges and surprises, requiring us to be able to shift gears and adapt to each new circumstance or obstacle. In yoga, as we train our bodies and minds to tolerate different positions and actions of the body and breath, we lay the groundwork for more flexibility out in the rest of our lives. This is what Iyengar means in the quote. Yes, flexibility in our body is important, but it is really just a symbol of the deeper flexibility that we gain from this practice.
And wow, does a cancer experience require us to be flexible! From things like waiting on test results, to ever-changing treatment schedules, new recommendations for treatment duration or testing regimes, to constantly changing treatment side effects and changes in our bodies as a result, to elation at good test results, and fear and worry with not-so-good results, a cancer journey is ever-changing. And the only way to get through this maze of twists and turns is to learn to be flexible, adaptable, resilient, and equanimous. To try not to get totally bent out of shape when your appointments have to change, or when you need to get another scan to better evaluate some abnormality. It is easier said than done, and I know that it is impossible to go through all of this stuff and not ever get flustered. But if we can just learn to be a little more flexible and at ease in the unknown, we will suffer much less as we navigate our way through. If we can realize that we are resilient, and we will figure it out, whatever the next step requires, we can relieve ourselves of some of that anxiety and tension. Yoga teaches our bodies and minds to do this. We use our breath, we relax into the unknown, we feel our strength, and we engage in the present as much as possible. Then with clarity and a calm mind, we do whatever we need to do.
So whether you just need a little more flexibility in your pecs, or you want to see what deeper flexibility you might be able to cultivate in your mind and your life, give yoga a try. Slow, gentle, persistent effort will get you there.