Are you new to Yoga with Leona? Wondering what the big deal is about yoga in breast cancer recovery? Why am I so obsessed with this practice? Let me count the ways…
I came to yoga practice about 12 or so years ago, originally to try to help with some chronic back pain. Thus began my journey into this amazing practice that continues to bring new benefits to me with each passing year; from even before my cancer when I was a hot mess of stress and over-worked exhaustion, to my cancer diagnosis full of fear and anxiety, through chemo and all of its attendant side effects, to recovery from surgery and radiation and the local effects on my chest and shoulder (which continue to some degree even 5 years out), and into the long term recovery and rebuilding my inner strength, my confidence in myself and my body, cultivating a place of peace, gratitude, and contentment that helps me feel joyful every day, in spite of life’s ups and downs. One of the amazing things about yoga is that it is a lifelong practice. It isn’t like some skill that you master and then you are done. With yoga, you continue to find new layers of depth and new types of growth, both in the physical body, but also deeper in the mind and in the spirit, with each passing year. And THIS is why I continue to practice. Let’s make a list.
First and foremost, yoga is a practice in awareness, in mindfulness. We use mindful movement, conscious breathing, and practices in focus and concentration to make us better able to stay present. Instead of being swept away by the torrent of crazy thoughts, fears, and emotions (all of which are expected and totally normal in this situation), our minds become calm and peaceful. We learn to disengage from those unhelpful thoughts when they arise, and to choose something healthier. The increased awareness of our body is so helpful too, as we become better attuned to what our bodies need.
Yoga practice keeps me feeling flexible in body and mind. Let’s face it, cancer, early menopause, and just age alone leave us feeling a little stiff sometimes. For me, especially in my radiated chest. But if I keep up my practice, that stiffness is only a minor annoyance (as opposed to truly painful and physically limiting if I don’t). For those of you with stiffness from estrogen blocking medications, there is a lot of data that physical activity, including yoga specifically, can help. AND yoga keeps me flexible in my mind. It is easy to get stuck in patterns of rigid thought and opinions about how we think the world should be. But this just brings frustration. Yoga philosophy helps us stay open and flexible, so that we can enjoy each moment as it comes.
Yoga practice helped me feel strong again after my cancer treatment. I’ve said before that I was really afraid that after treatment, I would have to accept some “new me” that was not able to do the things I used to do. That maybe I wouldn’t be able to lift certain things, or do vigorous yard work, or do a handstand again. Yoga practice helped me gain back all of the strength I had before, and MORE! I’m honestly much stronger now, both in my body and my mind. And the mental strength is even more important than the physical. Yoga practice teaches us that we are far more powerful than we know, that we can be confident in ourselves and trust that we can handle any obstacle before us.
But that leads me to the next point. This takes patience. Sometimes we want to just jump over that obstacle straight away. But many things require time. Including cancer recovery. While we are strong beyond measure, we have to build back to activities slowly, mindfully, patiently waiting until our bodies heal and catch up to where we need them to be. In this way we safely regain all of that strength and flexibility, without worrying that we are going to hurt or derail ourselves along the way. Just having cancer alone teaches us patience, but adding yoga in to our recovery adds this quality of empowerment to the patience. So it isn’t like we just have to lie around helpless and wait to be better. We are empowered to be actively doing something about it, but with control and the understanding that it takes some time.
Yoga practice also trains us in equanimity and acceptance. We learn to be ok with whatever life is bringing us on any given day, and not to get all flustered or hysterical if things aren’t ideal. We learn to breathe, just as we would in a challenging asana, and find some ease in the midst of the situation. We accept that the moment is what it is, but with our growing skills in patience, inner strength, confidence, and flexibility, we know that we will get through whatever challenges arise. So why get ourselves all upset and freaked out? Instead, we continue to breathe, and we calmly await a clear mind that can see the way forward.
These are all of my personal experiences and observations about how yoga has impacted me over the years. But it isn’t just me. There is an extensive scientific literature growing each year with new evidence that yoga practice does, in fact, carry significant benefits to cancer survivors, and how exactly these benefits arise in the body. For example, yoga practice is clearly associated with less cancer-related fatigue and improved energy. Yoga and meditation both clearly reduce markers of inflammation, which correlate to immune system function. Yoga and breathing practices tone and strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that brings us into rest and relaxation, to a place where healing can take place. Away from the stress response and chronic inflammation that result from the sympathetic nervous system being in overdrive from the threats of illness and the tension and anxiety that accompany it. This list of scientific studies on the benefits of yoga goes on and on, and is growing with each passing year.
I’m just like anybody, and I go through periods where I miss practice for a few days when I get busy with life or I’m traveling. But I generally regret it when I do, and I quickly come back to my mat. Back to this simple but profound practice that has completely transformed my life. It has taught me so much about myself, about how I move through the world, and helped me to cultivate those qualities that make me feel my best: a calm awareness, a peaceful presence, a compassion and understanding for myself and others (except in traffic, lol I’m working on that), a flexibility and openness to whatever arises, and a true joy for each day.
So whether you are new to yoga and just trying to figure out what it is all about, or you’ve been practicing for many years, my advice is to keep practicing. It doesn’t have to be a full 60-90 minute sweat-fest. Sometimes some gentle stretching in bed, or 15 minutes of mindful breathing is just right. Listen to your body and Just. Keep. Practicing! Maybe you’ll find similar benefits to mine. Maybe yours will be completely different. Maybe they’ll be mostly in the body, or mostly in the mind, or maybe a mix of both. But I really believe in this practice, and I trust you won’t regret it.