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Is Yoga for You?

by Susan A DiStasio, MS, ANP, APRN, RYT

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Research shows that yoga provides benefits in managing symptoms including depression, anxiety, insomnia, pain, and fatigue related to cancer. In order to experience these benefits, it's important to understand the different types and levels, teacher training, and safety concerns involved before you attend your first class. You should also talk with your healthcare practitioner before participating in a yoga class.

What is Yoga?
Practiced for thousands of years, yoga consists of postures (asanas) designed to exercise the body, combined with control of breath (pranayama). Many people think yoga means twisting the body into a pretzel position with feet behind the head. This is a common misconception. Poses can be simple and adapted by using chairs, blankets, pillows, blocks, and straps. For example, balancing poses can be done by positioning yourself against a wall or holding onto a chair. Yoga can be done in a chair or bed for those who can't get down to the floor. You do not have to be a Buddhist to practice yoga; it is not a religion. However, many people have a spiritual experience during yoga practice.

One of the most useful aspects of yoga is pranayama (breathing techniques). Learning the deep yogic breath promotes a sense of calm and rejuvenation. This technique can be used to calm yourself during periods of anxiety, such as times of waiting, diagnostic testing, or during cancer treatments.

Types and Levels
Although yoga philosophy and basics are similar, there are different types of yoga. If you are new to yoga or are in active treatment, it may be best to try a beginner, senior, or cancer survivor class. If you are physically active, you may enjoy a more active class in which poses are linked together in a flow. Restorative yoga consists of gentle poses, done with props such as blankets and pillows. Everyone can participate, and it is especially helpful for recovering from illness and improving fatigue.

Many people think yoga means twisting the body into a pretzel position with feet behind the head. This is a common misconception.

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Class levels differ for each type of yoga. For example, level 1 can be vigorous and involve poses that are more difficult, such as headstands. Talk with the teacher ahead of class to determine if the class type and level is appropriate for your current activity level and goals.

Choosing a Class
Prior to class, it's best to ask the teacher about his or her qualifications, training, and experience with your healthcare concerns. There is no required licensure for teachers. Some are self-taught, and others attend a 200-500 hour training course. Ask if the teacher is comfortable adapting poses by using props.

You may need to try different teachers before you find the right one for you. Inquire about class size and duration. You may be more comfortable in a shorter class with a smaller number of participants. Observing a class prior to participation is another option. If a class is not available or doesn't appeal to you, there are many yoga DVDs that allow you to practice at home. Before purchasing, read the descriptions closely or ask others about their recommendations. Private yoga instruction is also available.

Many cancer centers offer yoga classes designed for cancer survivors. The teacher is familiar with symptoms, such as neuropathy, loss of balance, dizziness, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and fatigue, that are common among cancer survivors. Survivors often begin in a cancer class and move on to a community class when they feel stronger or more confident.

What to Expect
While practicing yoga, it is up to you to listen to your body and practice safely. Many centers provide mats; however, you may want to bring your own mat or disinfecting wipes to prevent infections. Arrive early to set up your space and relax. Class begins with meditation and warm-up stretching. You?ll progress into different poses in sitting, standing, or lying positions. Some poses are held for longer periods, and others are held only briefly while focusing on your breath. If you feel lightheaded, dizzy, fatigued, nauseous, or not well, stop the pose and come into a resting position. Pain should never be part of yoga. It?s okay to skip a pose if it feels uncomfortable or to ask for help in modifying a pose. All classes end with a deep relaxation pose, Shvasana.

Participation in yoga should leave you feeling relaxed, yet energized. These guidelines can help you benefit from yoga while reducing your risk of injury. Only by participation will you know if yoga is right for you.

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Susan DiStasio is an oncology nurse practitioner and registered yoga teacher at Connecticut Oncology Hematology Associates in Litchfield County, CT.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2008.