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Yoga and cancer

I recently spent a lovely evening with the staff and customers of M&Co in Brighouse, teaching them yoga as we raised money for Cancer Research UK, with all proceeds going to the charity. As I was prepping the session I found myself reflecting that there must be very few people who have not been, in some way, either directly or indirectly, touched by cancer.

Through my work I meet many people who are dealing with cancer. I see people currently going through treatment, those who have come out the other side and those who are supporting loved ones. As you can imagine this is an emotional time for all. The fear of the treatment and a sense of losing control are probably the most common concerns I hear about.

I know from my work over the last 16 years that yoga definitely helps, at whatever stage in a cancer journey it is picked up. Over the next couple of blogs I am going to share some of the things I have learned about working with cancer. Please share the information with anyone you know who might benefit.

There is plenty of clinical evidence as well as mountains of anecdotal feedback about how yoga can help. For me, the biggest benefit I have noticed is that it brings people back into their bodies, to loving and forgiving their bodies and bringing back a sense of peace and control. In yoga you get to choose exactly how much or how little you want to do, you have control over what postures you want to practice and you can listen to the messages your body needs you to hear. This is such an important tool when you seem to have otherwise limited choice in what happens to your body.

A wise yogi, Krishnamachayra, once said “If you can breathe, you can do yoga”. How wonderful is that?!

Breathing deeply into the abdomen is pretty much the first thing I teach, along with relaxation techniques, to a student going through cancer treatment. Relaxation is deeply healing and soothing, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn gives our body the space it needs to heal. There is much evidence about the benefits of correct, full breathing, such as we teach in yoga – improved oxygen circulation aids healing, reduces anxiety, reduces physical and emotional tension, improves digestion, to name a few.

I’ve taught regular sessions for chronically and terminally ill patients, for well over a decade and I can pretty much always tell how they are doing by how they are breathing, even easier if I’ve worked with that person for any length of time as I recognise what good breathing for them looks like. The worse a person feels, the shallower the breathing. As we progress through our yoga session, without fail, by the time we get to relaxation, breathing has deepened into the abdomen and my student reports they feel so much better.

So, in short then, start by focusing on deepening the breath (this may be easier to do, if you can include some sort of movement first, such as shaking out the limbs or doing some gentle twisting through the spine and hip circles).

  1. From lying on your back, knees bent, see if you are able to let the knees fall out so the soles of the feet come together (come out of this position if it feels in anyway uncomfortable, it is just to allow you to feel into your diaphragm better).

  2. Place your hands on your abdomen, so the fingers are just touching over the navel.

  3. Inhale, through your nose, feeling your tummy expand as the hands lift and separate.

  4. Exhale, through your nose, allowing the tummy to fall, so the hands return to their original position.

  5. Continue in this way, breathing naturally, never forcing the breath or over breathing and trying not to involve your ribs or chest, keep the breath in the abdomen, for as long as you wish.

  6. Come out slowly, bringing the knees up and rolling onto your side first.

Include some regular relaxations. Seriously, if you can at least twice a day. Learn a “routine”, something like the rotation of consciousness that I teach in class is perfect, where we systematically work around the body consciously allowing each part to relax. I know quite a few students who have used this during CT scans and chemotherapy sessions, as well as when recuperating after treatment.

I believe though that this is great advice for us all. Stress is known to negatively impact on our health, I think we could all benefit from daily relaxations.

Next time I’m going to have a look at best ways to practise yoga during cancer treatment. Take care and please do share this post. Ix


Raising money for Cancer Research UK

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