Yoga for Cancer Treatment and Recovery

The ancient tools of yoga can help you feel your best through cancer treatment and assist in helping you reclaim your life after cancer.  Yoga can help with side effects from medically essential and life-giving treatments.  Yoga can be adapted to provide relief for nausea, fatigue, constipation, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, “chemo brain”, and neuropathy.  Feeling more like yourself after treatments is often a side benefit of developing a personal yoga practice.

Yoga for YOU

Yoga therapy uses therapeutic application of the tools of yoga to help you address issues that are especially problematic during treatment and post-treatment.  Based on your interest and need, simple practices are developed to help you address specific issues.  Yoga practice might include yoga postures, breathing practices, guided relaxation, sound, meditation or other practices.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” yoga approach when it comes to the type of cancer, the treatment side effects or the recovery.  Let’s address a few common concerns.

Nausea

Nausea is a common side effect of chemotherapy treatment.  A therapeutic yoga practice might be very simple in the days following a treatment.  Prop your head and chest up with pillows or cushions in bed or on the couch.  Breathe in and out through the mouth, focusing on a long exhale.  On the inhale, direct your attention into the navel area.  On exhale, focus on directing your attention down through the pelvis, legs, feet and toes.  You might even try a quiet sound on the exhale such as “haaa”.  Some patients benefit from a curled tongue inhale and a long sighing exhale.

Anxiety Tool: The Calming Breath

Breathing techniques are especially helpful for many treatment symptoms.  Anxiety around the diagnosis or treatments is very common.  Here is a simple breathing technique to try to create some calm when thoughts and emotions are taking away your calm.

Sit upright in a chair or rest back on the couch or in bed.  Inhale with ease, pause for 2 – 3 seconds and exhale smoothly. Do this for 6 breaths.  Continue the same pattern and make your exhale 2 – 3 seconds longer than your inhale.  Do this for 12 breaths.  Then gradually allow your breath to settle back to normal.

Care and Tending of the Immune System

One of the most important self-care strategies for cancer treatment and recovery is caring for your immune system.  A tailored yoga practice does this by reducing stress, improving sleep and promoting better digestion.  Yoga, along with nutritious food, adequate sleep, regular exercise, social support and other therapies, promotes the optimal functioning of your immune system during and after treatment.

A Yoga Therapist or yoga teacher who specializes in cancer care can help you through different phases of treatment and recovery that may present different symptoms that keep you from feeling your best.  Seek out specialized help to feel your best and integrate all that’s happened to you.

Still the Mind, Find Your True Self

By Pauline Zweck, RYT-200, Certified Viniyoga Wellness Instructor, 5 Koshas Yoga & Wellness

 “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the end of strings that somebody else pulls.”     –      Howard Thurman

1.3 Tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe ‘vasthānam

Then the Seer (Self) abides in His own true nature.

1.4 Vṛtti sārūpyam-itaratra

At other times {the Self appears to} assume the forms of the mental modifications.

We humans are constantly letting our thoughts define our world and ourselves. We cannot get in touch with our true Self until we learn to clear our mind. Patanjali reminds us that we are all divine expressions of the universe. Behind the different forms of energy is one unchanging Self.  A still mind understands this and sees their neighbors as themselves.

When I was young, I felt connected to Self. Growing up on a farm afforded me many opportunities to just be one with nature; a creek, tall grasses, a woods with wildflowers and raspberries, a 360 degree expanse of the horizon, witnessing skies before they had to compete with manmade light.  Utter and complete freedom. There was a oneness in my small world of nature and family.  My mind had yet to start carrying on conversations with me, or if it was, I was too pure and innocent to know I should be listening.

Then the layers came. I’ve often contemplated on when this first occurred. A time comes in one’s life when you realize other people have expectations of you. This repeats and repeats many times over.  I dutifully lined up to accept the layers and identities. Even when these are positive, the separation begins. I am this, you are that. Many of us relish and foster our uniqueness, voraciously adding to our collection. Until we experience a burden.

All the things we identify with sometimes gang up and clutch at our true Self like heavy armor that is a few sizes too small and it becomes necessary to step back, breathe and let the armor fall away lest it smother us. Once we remove the years of labeling, we can discover that we all exist from the same source of energy.

Pauses are necessary. I connect with my true Self by meditating, or resting in my hammock. Taking time to watch a leaf, the sky, a bird, brings the oneness back. I give over. The armor drops away. With the Self there is no effort. It just simply is.

Pauline Zweck, RYT-200, trained at the 200 level in 2007, studying a blend of yoga disciplines with a focus on modifications and moderation to make the practice available to all. In 2015, Pauline became certified to teach Viniyoga, a style of yoga that is adapted to support your physical and emotional needs throughout the various stages of life.  Pauline teaches at 5 Koshas Yoga & Wellness on Tues at 5:30 pm (Yoga for Beginners & Beyond), Wed at 12 noon (Mental & Physical Balance) and as a long-term sub from Nov – April for Mon 8:30 (Senior Yoga Therapeutics-Mat) and 10:00 am (Senior Yoga Therapeutics-Chair).  She is also faculty with the 240 hr. River Flow Yoga Teacher Training.          

 

 

 

 

Mental and Emotional Ease

Tame the Anxiety & Worry Monkeys

Mental and emotional ease are states of being that we can all appreciate.  We put our best selves forward when we are peaceful, calm and focused.  We need fast, easy and accessible tools to bring us back to order and calm when fear, anxiety, stress or worry monkeys knock on our door and enter our inner sanctum, wreaking havoc.  The ancient practice of yoga therapy has tools that can be tailored for working with the monkeys.

The journey of life brings difficult changes, losses and transitions that create disturbances of thought and emotion.  It’s like an entire jungle of monkeys vacationing in our home.  We may also be “hardwired” genetically or through family or other conditioning to be more anxious, worried and fearful.  In other words, you bought the house with monkeys included.  Ultimately we have to accept innate tendencies, process life experiences and learn tools for cultivating awareness and changing the inner sanctum when the monkeys take over and create a mess of our minds, emotions and physiology.

Yoga can work in the short term by soothing the stress response, quieting the mind and balancing emotions.  Over time, regular practice that is tailored to your needs can help to reduce or prevent stress and anxiety symptoms, panic attacks and side effects of stress and anxiety such as distraction, insomnia, digestive distress, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and high blood pressure.

My teacher, Gary Kraftsow, a master level Yoga Therapist and trainer, says that “one of yoga’s most important gifts is an inner connection to the reality that you are not your diagnosis” or your monkeys.   Working with the monkeys of anxiety, stress, worry or fear requires cutting through the physiological stress response to connect to something deeper within ourselves, that inner aspect of ourselves that is unchanging, even in the face of our genetics, family conditioning or external life changes.

5 Steps to Soothing Anxiety, Worry and Fear

Step 1:  Move your body.  Engage in some exercise.

Step 2:  Breath in coordination with movement in a yoga posture, adapting the breath in a unique way to soothe the stress response.

Step 3:  Do at least 12 – 18 breaths of a specialized anti-anxiety breathing technique.

Step 4:  Use a mantra (word or phrase) with awareness of your inhale and exhale whenever you feel that inner quickening feeling that arises before worry, fear, anxiety or stress kicks in.  We can prevent the monkeys from getting in the house.  A simple mantra might be Inhale – “Peace, Peace”, Exhale – “Peace, Peace, Peace”.

Step 5:  Connect to a source of inspiration or faith that gives you courage and strength for all that is ahead in the journey of life.   This shortened version of the Serenity Prayer is an example.  “Help me accept the things I cannot change, courage to change those that I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The nature of our mind is that tendency toward monkeys repeatedly showing up and taking over.  By doing regular yoga practice we place the bananas outside on the lawn for the monkeys, keeping our peaceful inner sanctum.   If the monkeys do get in, we can use our emergency tools of movement, breath, mantra and sources of inspiration and strength to calm the monkeys and gently evict them.

 

Grounding During Grief

Grief is a unique combination of sadness, memories, fog, strong emotions, bodily experiences and occasional moments of peace and clarity. This simple quote reveals so much about what we are just beginning to understand about the science of chronic stress and the effects of grief. Dr. van der Kolk, a researcher who studies the effect of yoga on stress and trauma, is reminding us that the body stores up life’s most difficult moments and stresses.

“The body keeps the score.” Bessel A van der Kolk

Our senses (what we hear, see, smell, taste and feel) provide input to the brain through sensory pathways or nerves. All that we perceive is processed through the brain. The brain is then involved in little or large reactions that are physical, physiological, mental and emotional.

Our day-to-day life stresses may not create a very big reaction because we build up experience and resilience. “Been there, done that, got it!” Grief is different. The physical, physiological, mental and emotional reactions are larger and often unrelenting for a longer period of time.

It is a difficult journey. It’s hard to discharge and unwind. The body runs on “reaction overdrive.” You might experience body tension and pain, headaches, sleeplessness, fatigue, mental fog, increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, depression, anger and overwhelming sadness. There are a few key tools that may help you.

  • Yoga or any type of gentle movement or exercise can ease some of the symptoms. It provides a discharge for what builds up and gets lodged in the tissues. It can help you feel as if you are present in your body and a little more grounded.
  • Breath practices may help soothe and tune the nervous system and help you feel grounded, stable and a little more peaceful and calm. Breathing is also a mood stabilizer. It’s invisible and can be used anywhere and at any time.
  • Creating space for meditation, reflection, inquiry or prayer can be helpful. Most people need more solitude for a period of time. I have adapted a meditation that I learned from one of my mentors. The inquiry is simple: What has been lost? What remains? What is changing as a result of this loss? This inquiry changes over time and provides a way to measure how you are processing all that is a part of this journey.
  • Sound or music or chanting can be calming to the nervous system. It also settles the mind. Use something that speaks deeply to you. It might be relaxing music, a spiritual song, or a chant.

Every grief journey is different. No two people will experience and process the same grief experience in the same way. It’s an important time to take it on your terms. Watch for increasing moments of clarity and peace. That will be a sure sign that you are finding your way.

GroundingThroughGriefShortSequence

Yoga for the Winter Blues

The crispness and color of fall quickly leads into the dark days of winter. As Henry Adams said, winter can still “grind the very soul” out of us. Most people who live in northern latitudes experience some seasonal changes. Winter blues and seasonal affective disorder are terms used to describe the spectrum of more problematic and serious symptoms experienced as the hours of daylight grow shorter. Having a plan to manage mood, energy and other seasonal symptoms can help you feel more confident in navigating through the dark days.

Seasonal changes may include difficulty concentrating and processing information, overwhelm, irritability, anxiety or a depressive mood. Pain, an achy flu-like feeling, exacerbation of fibromyalgia symptoms, fatigue, disturbed sleep (too much, too little or poor quality), sweet cravings, lowered sex drive and less desire to socialize are all part of the change in brain chemicals that can occur with changing light.

Yoga practice for seasonal changes can be tailored to increase energy, cultivate focus, and lift mood as well as soothe anxiety and improve sleep. Yoga tools might include breath-centered movement, breathing practices, relaxation, meditation, sound and community.

An early morning yoga posture practice that emphasizes lengthening inhalation can help change symptoms of low energy, lack of focus and depressed mood. The addition of sound (chanting a mantra, a passage from the Bible, or an inspirational phrase as you Exhale) provides even more potency to a morning practice.
Are anxieties and sleep issues a problem for you during the winter? A practice later in the day that emphasizes gentle, soothing postures, lengthening exhale, and relaxation or meditation may soothe irritability, anxiety and stress.

A variety of short practices specifically tailored to the individual often helps in managing the complexity of different symptoms with seasonal changes.
Exercise, preferably earlier in the day in natural light, a strong cup of coffee in the morning, a diet that is rich in omega 3 fatty acids (flaxseed oil, salmon, sardines, etc.) and low in sugar, stress management, good habits around sleep (no late night electronics!) and social outings with friends and family can also help manage seasonal changes.

It’s important to work with your health care provider if symptoms progress beyond what feels manageable. If you have trouble functioning at work, home or in your volunteer work, your personal relationships suffer, and you have significant feelings of depression, including suicidal thoughts, it’s time to talk with your doctor. Light therapy, medication and therapy may be recommended to help you get through the winter.

If you can’t escape to a sunny location, get a prevention plan in place. Manage symptoms that come up and seek the advice of your doctor if symptoms get overwhelming. Explore the tools of yoga to awaken your inner light!

5 Ways to Use Yoga to Awaken Your Inner Light in Winter
1. Move – Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Sweep your arms wide and up on INHALE in a sun-like movement. Lower your arms in a sun-like movement on EXHALE. Repeat 6 times.
2. Breathe – Close your eyes. Sense the center space of the chest. As you INHALE, try to feel an expansiveness in the chest. As you EXHALE, hug the navel inward. Do 12 full deep breaths.
3. Use Sound – Use the seed mantra of the heart cakra (energy center), YAM. Inhale, then sound the word on Exhale. This sound creates vibration in the center of the chest. Repeat 6 times.
4. Visualize – Focus your attention on the center of the chest, the cave of the heart. Visualize light, perhaps a beautiful sunrise, the light of a flickering candle, a lighted star atop a Christmas tree, or a sunset. Spend 5 minutes focused on that light. Feel as if the light grows more expansive within and around you.
5. Be Present – Linger longer with the good that comes your way through friends, family, community connections, pets, nature, and faith.

Free

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into treesThe winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

-John Muir

Free yourself from winter hibernation +

Free yourself from cold weather tension and stagnancy +

Free time to be outside, breathe, move and participate +

Free outdoor yoga classes in the best ‘green spaces’ of Central Wisconsin =

Better physical and mental health!

Your outdoor ‘green space’ yoga practice invites you to reconnect with the earth, stretch to the sky, inhale fresh oxygen and exhale the doldrums of winter.

Sip in the sweet benefits of outdoor yoga:

  • Be a Kid Again – stretch on the ground and look up at the sky
  • Practice Concentration – foster one-point-concentration as life happens around you
  • Hone Your Proprioception – that advanced sense of your body in space that helps you with stability, balance and movement
  • Plug in to the Totality of the Experience – be one with the beauty as well as the bugs
  • Engage Your 5 Senses and Be Inspired

For a personal practice, rolling out your mat on your patio, in the grass or beside your favorite water provides a familiar space to take 10-15 minutes to breathe and stretch into your favorite postures.

Group classes in ‘green space’ invites you to find balance with/between your heightened five senses and the ease of tranquility and calm.

The grass that tickles your hand, the birdsong that makes you look into the trees and the bug that wants to join you on your mat also provide you the opportunity to stop, breathe, observe and be present.

Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, author of ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ shares, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything.  In the beginners mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Be free, be curious, be open to your beginners mind this summer.

Learn about all the Outdoor Yoga Classes 5 Koshas will be sharing this summer HERE, pre-register for classes: HERE.

Yoga for Gardening

The deliciousness of a sweet heirloom tomato, the snap of fresh green beans, the tangy sweetness of a fresh strawberry, the heady scent of a blossoming peony…it’s within reach now that the sun graces the sky for long days.  Gardening has approximately equal parts science, weather, faith and hard work.   The hard work can lead to a sore back, cranky knees, a stiff neck, aching shoulders and repetitive movements for the wrists and elbows.  Yoga is a wonderful addition to your self-care for the gardening season.

Here are some tips for your yoga self-care program.

  1. Gently warm up your upper back, shoulders, elbows and wrists with wide sweeping arm movements and wrist circles.
  2. Raise and lower heels to cultivate balance.
  3. Do some gentle back bending to strengthen the back and counter all of the forward bending that is done with gardening.
  4. Do some gentle forward bending with bent knees to warm up the low back but not too much since you’ll get plenty in the garden.
  5. Gently twist the upper back and turn the head/neck to warm up the upper back and neck muscles.
  6. Keep the muscles that support your spine and major joints (elbows, wrists, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles) strong, stable and flexible so that you have more optimal alignment in the spine and joints (which means less nerve impingement and pain).

See the attached short yoga practice that can be done in the garden before or after gardening:  Yoga for Gardening handout.  Enjoy the gardening season!

Evolve!

Cakra-s as a Map for Energy, Personality, Potential & Transformation

As we navigate the journey of life, there are times of re-evaluating our priorities and values, our challenges and their impact on our relationships, our goals, and how we derive the most meaning in life.  Most of us have a deep calling to continue to evolve, to grow and to reach our fullest potential.  The cakra model, derived from the ancient teachings of yoga, provides a roadmap for esoteric anatomy, energy, personality and spiritual consciousness.

Cakra means “wheels” or whirling vortices that take in, process and organize energy.  In Western medicine, the cakra-s might be viewed as the nerve plexus in the physical body.  In Western psychology, cakra-s might be viewed as a map to the development of the personality and self-actualization.  In yoga, cakra-s are a model for human potential and spiritual consciousness.

“Cakra-s are a map of our disposition or character (svabhava) and a path to actualizing svarupa (true or essential self).”

– From Gary Kraftsow, author of Yoga for Transformation

Consider your spine or the space in front of the spine as the central power line or central channel of your body.  Starting at the base of the spine is the 1st energetic area, one associated with the qualities of stability and strength and the earth element.  The following chart provides more detail about the cakra-s, their approximate location, the main associated personality quality and the associated element:

 

Approximate

Location

Personality Quality Associated Element
Cakra 1 Base of spine Stability Earth
Cakra 2 Center of the lower pelvis Enthusiasm Water
Cakra 3 Between navel and back waistline Empowerment Fire
Cakra 4 Center of the chest Love Air
Cakra 5   Center of throat space Expression Ether
Cakra 6   Center of the space of the brain Discernment

All Elements

Intelligence

Cakra 7    Crown of the head Inspiration

Universal Consciousness

The good news for our journey through life is that we can evolve.  Within the ancient teachings are tools, methods, and practices for working with each cakra.

The heart of cakra practice is pranayama (breathing practices), chanting, and meditation.  These are the most potent yoga tools for working with prana and for seeing and transforming our challenges and maximizing our potential. It’s hard to “down dog” your way into a better attitude or a more positive relationship with people you love.

While asana (yoga postures) may be integrated into cakra practice, the purpose is to create circulation in certain areas of the body, stimulate the flow of prana (life force) through the central channel, prepare the breath for pranayama (breathing practices), and prepare the body and mind for meditation.  In other words, you “down dog” yourself into getting ready for the inner practices of yoga that have the most potential to transform obstacles and maximize potential.

A potent form of cakra meditation is bhuta suddhi.  It is an ancient technique of cakra meditation that includes sustained focus on the elements.  The goals of this type of meditation are to purify the elements, encourage the flow of prana (life force) through the central power line of the body and transform our samskaras (deep patterns and grooves).

Changing patterns of how we see ourselves and interact with others and developing a spiritual consciousness about all that we need to navigate in this human existence is evolution, the end result of cakra practice.

Inviting Transformation with Sound

We know the power of sound and how music can energize, or calm us. We know how good it feels to laugh, cry, and to feel the vibrations we make with our own voices resonating deeply within our own chest or throat or head. Science tells us  these vibrations stimulate the vagus nerve, that nerve that wanders throughout our organ systems, and regulates our internal energy systems. This has a positive effect on our physical and energetic structures.

We also know the power of thoughts. Thoughts lead to emotions, actions, behaviors, habits, values, and destiny. If our background thoughts are not positive, they color our perception of our world, our relationships and ourselves. Replacing those faulty background thoughts with intentional chant or mantra can bring transformation, and help us bring life-giving clarity to ourselves and our world. This clarifying effect on our mind and character enables us to realize the bliss that is at the core of our being, deep within our heart.

We can bring these two threads, the physical/energetic effect of sound and the clarifying intention of  chant or mantra on our mind and character, into our regular practice.  In the yoga tradition, there are many chants that help place the person, the true self, in healthy relationship to others and to the world. One such chant is the Laghu Nyasa, juxtaposing  the cosmos and the individual. Internalizing this chant places us in healthy relationship to ourselves, others, and the world. This Sanskrit mantra makes a beautiful sound, and resonates throughout the physical and energetic body. It’s meaning resonates in our mind as it changes our character and connects us to the universe. The refrain to this chant can be translated as:

“My heart is my true Self.

My true Self is immortal and one with Universal Consciousness”

The person who lives with this mantra becomes open-hearted, capable, and sees unity in all that is.

Jay Coldwell,FSA, MAAA, RYT-200, is certified as a 200 hour Viniyoga Wellness Instructor from the River Flow Yoga Teacher Training School and the American Viniyoga Institute.  He is a Registered Yoga Teacher at the 200 hour level with Yoga Alliance.  He has studied at the Vedic Chant Institute, where he continues to take regular lessons.  Jay is also studying Kirtan leadership with Mike Cohen.

Taking Care of Your “Backbone”

We go through the middle years of life stressing our “backbone”. There are many responsibilities that require stamina in our metaphorical backbone– work, raising children, being active in the community, and taking care of aging parents to name a few.

It’s also a time when we may be engaged in repetitive movements (computer work, sports, and work- or hobby-related activities) that stress our real backbone or spine! The wear and tear of the middle years often surface as stiffness, pain, and spinal pathology.

No matter what your age or stage in life, yoga has positive benefits for the spine. Yoga helps the spine by:

• Improving strength and flexibility in the muscles that support the spine
• Developing healthier patterns of movement
• Improving posture with the goal of reducing or preventing low back, upper back, and neck pain
• Cultivating awareness of what helps and what hurts the spine.

Not all yoga is the same. “Early data has shown that yoga, specifically Viniyoga, can be as effective as regular physical therapy for back pain. Combining yoga with other treatments for low back pain is likely to yield even greater results, and yoga therapy should be considered a great tool for spine problems in general,” according to Dr. Andrew Beaumont, PhD, MD, Neurosurgeon.

A preventative or therapeutic approach to yoga typically includes:

  • Breath-centered movement in and out of some simple yoga postures (not necessarily the advanced or pretzel poses!)
  • Staying in specific postures to create a deeper impact on the fascia (the connective tissue that surrounds the muscles)
  • Specific sequencing of postures for safety as well as impact
  • Adaptation of the postures for your needs
  • Breath techniques to help you access your core muscles as well as to reduce stress that may cause muscle tension
  • Deep relaxation for release of tightness, pain control, and decompression of the spine.

Prenatal yoga classes include approaches adapted for the common spine and posture concerns seen in pregnancy such as low back pain, sciatica, and upper back and neck tension.

Find a yoga teacher or yoga therapist who understands how to develop, teach and adapt yoga classes for the spine. If you are new to yoga and have back pain or a spinal condition, find a therapeutic, gentle, or beginner class that can accommodate your needs. If you’re motivated to practice at home, consider working with a yoga therapist one-on-one for a practice designed for your specific condition or needs.

Our spine or “backbone” is important to our overall health, productivity and enjoyment of life. Take care of yours with a little bit of daily yoga!

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