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Yoga for People Living with Cancer

by Lynn Felder, RYT

Wellness image

Lynn Felder demonstrates a supported back bend in a chair.
(photo by Sally Gupton)

As you read this, you are most likely waiting to see a doctor or a specialist, or maybe you are in the midst of a chemotherapy infusion or radiation treatment. Perhaps your palms are sweaty, your pulse is racing, your thoughts are scattered.

“Don’t worry,” your well-meaning friends and family tell you. “Calm down. Relax.” Good advice, but how exactly do you do that?

Try this. Right now, be aware of the connection between your bottom and the chair you’re sitting in. Sit up straight. Uncross your legs and place your feet flat on the floor. Relax your arms on your lap or on the arms of your chair.

Rest your gaze on something pleasant, or let your eyes close softly. Gently focus your thoughts on your breath. Notice how the ribs and belly move when you breathe.

Now, inhale just a little bit deeper, and exhale just a little longer. Notice the life in your body. Let your body relax. Allow the corners of your mouth to turn up – just a little.

Feel better? It’s no wonder: You’re doing yoga.

It may surprise you to know that you can practice yoga sitting in a chair, lying in bed, or standing in line at the supermarket.
Anyone can do it.

Author of Article photo

Lynn Felder practices meditation.
(photo by David Rodwell)

Researchers are finding that practicing some form of yoga – and there are many to choose from – is helping people who are dealing with cancer sleep better, increase their energy, and feel more peaceful.

Before surgery, yoga techniques can help you relax and prepare. In postoperative recovery, yoga can help you breathe more easily. During treatment, yoga can help you sleep better. After treatment, yoga can help you rebuild your body and even find strength and flexibility that you never had before.

Yoga teaches that the body is a healthseeking organism. We cannot make ourselves healthy through force of will, but we can create conditions that are conducive to health by finding the right balance of effort and relaxation to bring the mind, body, and spirit into harmony. And the beauty of yoga is that this balance is easily tailored to each individual’s needs.

It may surprise you to know that you can practice yoga sitting in a chair, lying in bed, or standing in line at the supermarket. Anyone can do it. I first encountered yoga when I was about 15. My mother received a slim hardback book, Yoga for Perfect Health, from her book club, and we pored over it. My mother, brother, and I practiced yoga together for a few months, and then I mainly forgot about it, getting on with being a teenager.

Fast-forward about 30 years: I’m a journalist in my late 40s, at the peak of my career. The world, as they say, appeared to be my oyster.

There was just one teensy little problem: I’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, had a hysterectomy, and was being treated with chemotherapy. I was in instant menopause, exhausted, and – despite the support of friends and family and the knowledge that I was getting probably the best medical care in the world – depressed and afraid.

After weathering the initial shock, I decided to do everything in my power to survive and thrive. I started looking for ways to support my body, mind, and spirit while my doctors did their best to destroy the cancer. I was disheartened to find that I couldn’t do many of the things I had previously done to make myself feel better. I couldn’t go out dancing. I couldn’t keep up in aerobics classes. What I could do, when my energy was up between rounds of chemo, was walk a little – and practice yoga. I believe that yoga played a large part in my recovery from cancer – more than 10 years ago now.

To find yoga teachers in your area who are qualified to teach cancer survivors, search online for “gentle yoga,” “restorative yoga,” “yoga and cancer,” or “Integral yoga.” Chat with teachers before you agree to work with them, and be sure that the teacher is aware of your particular condition or concerns. The best test of whether or not a particular practice is right for you is if you feel better after class than you did before.

Sleep better, feel better, and live better – with yoga.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Lynn Felder teaches Yoga for Every Body for cancer survivors, their family members, and friends at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston- Salem, NC. She is the co-director of the Yoga Gallery, where she teaches a variety of classes, and she is the creator of the DVD Gentle Yoga for Cancer Patients: Reconnecting Body, Mind and Spirit, which she created in association with WFU/BMC. Lynn is also a writer, editor, and public speaker. She can be contacted through www.artsofyoga.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2011.