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How Mindful Yoga Can Ease a Cancer Journey

May 16, 2019

By Kimberly Carson, MPH, C-IAYT

Mindful Yoga is a well-defined program that focuses strongly on cultivating a mindful perspective during asana practice, in conjunction with substantial time engaged in the practice of meditation (dhyana), breathing exercises (pranayama), self-study (swadhyaya), and practitioner meetings and interchange (satsanga). This program is “evidence-based” in that it has been studied in a series of clinical trials with cancer patients and individuals suffering from other difficult conditions. In this blog post, we will describe some of the specific ways this program has been applied to cancer patients.

Tailoring asanas to cancer-related symptoms

Choice of postures is a very important consideration when working with this population. Given the disease process, stage, treatments and the profile of side effects, keen attention must be given to the selection of postures for the safety of each patient. However, based on our experience teaching in oncology settings for over 10 years, we do not subscribe to the perspective that a prescription of specific postures exists for specific symptoms. Gentle postures should be chosen that are appropriate to the student and taught as a forum for developing mindful awareness of bodily sensations and related thoughts and emotional currents.

Students with various stages of cancer

Working with students with active cancer—and especially those with metastatic or other forms of advanced cancer—calls for distinct perspectives and unique challenges, relative to working with “cancer-free survivors.” Students living with active cancer are often very worried about their prognosis and are struggling to maintain quality of life in the context of pain, poor sleep, nausea, fatigue, and other symptoms related to both their cancer tumors and cancer-treatment side effects. So it is best to approach such students with a focus on living well through this chapter of life.

One of our students with metastatic breast cancer who was her early 60s experiencing a great deal of physical pain. After about six weeks of working with the Mindful Yoga practices, she described a weekend at the coast with her family in which she had a pain crisis. Her usual response to these pain levels had been to scream out in pain. Using the skills of riding the waves of sensation and resting into Simple Being, she was quite pleased that this time she was able to stay with the experience until it lessened in such a way that it didn’t scare her family or detract from their precious time at the ocean.

Appropriate guidance for working with stress and our mind

Yoga poses offer a context for becoming aware of, and freeing oneself, from patterns of stress reactivity, such as anxious or fearful thoughts, shallow breathing, excessive muscle tension, and guarding patterns that prevent fluidity. By learning to practice while attending to and accepting more subtle aspects of experience during and between movements, students can begin to skillfully engage with their sensate, affective, and cognitive patterns. For example, the range of motion in a joint may be diminished due to cancer disease or cancer treatment effects, which may stir frustration or sadness). Learning to be present with all of those experiences as they are (e.g., the sensations, the emotional responses, and the mental commentary) creates the conditions for students to allow those experiences to move through their system without either resisting them or clinging to them.

Mindful Yoga practices provide students navigating the cancer journey powerful, transformative tools to support their healing. However, refined teaching and therapeutic skills are essential for maximizing the potential benefit for these students.

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