yoga for cancer recoveryBy: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed.

We often her that Yoga benefits cancer patients, but how does this happen? For those of us who are regular Yoga practitioners, and who are facing a cancer diagnosis, maintaining a daily or weekly Yoga practice can help to engender a sense of normalcy and promote self-care during a very difficult time period in your life. This is particularly true if you are accustomed to practicing several times a week, in order to generate energy, balance and well-being. However, if you are undergoing treatment for cancer, you may find it difficult to do the same kind of Yoga practice that you are used to doing for months, or even years to come.

During the time period when you are healing from cancer and any cancer treatments that you have undergone, including surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, you may find it to be more manageable and respectful of your own body to engage in a slower-paced, restorative practice. Of course, it is prudent to check with your family doctor or surgeon before engaging in any Yoga practice post-operatively. Do keep in mind that if you push yourself too quickly back into a challenging physical practice, you may find that you are undermining the healing and well-being that you are seeking.

For instance, you may still be in the process of healing from major surgery, and by pushing yourself into doing a vigorous asana practice too quickly, you may weaken the healing process by putting undue strain on fragile surgical sites. Although you may feel impatient to get back to your “normal” life, you may need to create a new normal that fits you own individual needs during your cancer recovery process. For some Yoga practitioners, this may mean a time period of practicing only supported, restorative asanas and breathing exercises, rather than a vigorous, vinyasa-based practice.

For other Yogis and Yoginis, it may be necessary to abstain completely from practicing asanas for a period of time while you are healing, and to focus instead on calming breathing exercises and contemplative meditation practices. Simply maintaining your regular time on the Yoga mat, even if all you do is ten minutes of pranayama and five minutes of meditation, will help you to carve some time out for yourself that is focused on health and well-being, instead of disease.

Yin Yoga classes are a wonderful way to receive many of the benefits of a regular practice, while still allowing your body to deeply rest and restore its vital life force energy. Yin poses are usually practiced at a much slower pace and allow your body time to settle into the postures and feel supported by the earth. The underlying mechanism of the stress relieving benefits of Yin Yoga is the passive action of gravity on the muscles and connective tissues, as deeply held tension and stress begins to melt away over the course of several minutes.

The relaxing benefits of Yin Yoga postures can be further enhanced by the use of props, such as bolsters, blocks, folded blankets, and aromatherapy eye bags. All of these props allow your body to feel supported and free to release the tension that accumulates over time, due to stress and anxiety. For many cancer patients, surgical procedures, chemotherapy and radiation treatments can cause a great deal of physical and emotional discomfort, fear and pain. Yin Yoga postures are quite effective at releasing this physical and emotional tension, which is frequently held in the connective tissues of the body.</