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.

Sweet Dreams: Yoga for Better Sleep & Daytime Energy

“When sleep escapes you and drowsiness and fuzzy thinking are your daytime companions, it’s time to evaluate what action you can take to improve sleep.  Mind-body practices, including yoga, can improve sleep and daytime energy.”  

The roots of sleeplessness may be related to age, stress, hormonal changes, pain, digestive distress, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, other health issues, treatments, medications, exercise (lack of or timing), diet, or lifestyle.  Yoga is especially helpful for reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, digestive distress and menopause that often make it difficult to fall asleep or interrupt sleep. In addition, yoga can be used to reduce daytime fatigue caused by poor sleep.

The tools of Yoga Therapy are skillfully applied based on the characteristics of sleeplessness and resulting fatigue.  Some people have trouble falling asleep.  Others wake in the middle of the night.  A common pattern that arises with age is early waking.  And some individuals sleep for 8 hours yet never feel rested and refreshed.

Yoga Therapy tools that may be used for sleeplessness include yoga postures, breath adaptation in the postures, breathing practices, guided relaxation, meditation, or sound.  The tools of yoga can be applied for your particular pattern of sleeplessness and might include:

  • Setting the stage for better sleep with exercise, nutrition and yoga techniques
  • Yoga techniques for falling asleep
  • What to do when you wake during the night
  • What to do if you experience waking early
  • Quick and easy techniques for dealing with daytime fatigue
  • Changing your relationship with your sleeplessness.

An important aspect of Yoga Therapy is to better understand what helps and what aggravates a particular condition.  Through newfound awareness, we can apply the highest value yoga tools in efficient and effective ways to improve your life.  Being able to fall asleep or having better daytime energy can drastically transform productivity and overall enjoyment of life.

One of the most common experiences of sleeplessness is not being able to fall asleep because of stress and repetitive negative or worrisome thoughts.  Some movement with adapted breathing may be helpful right before bed.

Try Apanasana (Gas-Relieving Pose) right before bed to relax, relieve any digestive distress and stretch your low back.  You can do it on your bed or on the floor.  Repeat the posture 6 times, lengthening your exhale every 2 repetitions.

Try Yogic Sheep Counting Method right before bed or if you wake during the night. Do the technique either in a seated position or relaxing on your back in bed:

Inhale 1 second, Exhale 1 second X1
Inhale 2 seconds, Exhale 2 seconds X1
Inhale 3 seconds, Exhale 3 seconds X1
Inhale 4 seconds, Exhale 4 seconds X1
Inhale 4 seconds, Exhale 5 seconds X1
Inhale 4 seconds, Exhale 6 seconds X1
Inhale 4 seconds, Exhale 7 seconds X1
Inhale 4 seconds, Exhale 8 seconds X1

Repeat this exercise for several rounds until you feel sleepy.

Whether you need better sleep, more sleep, or better energy during the day, your yoga toolbox has options for skillful action. You can learn how to use the tools for sweet dreams at night and vitality and clear thinking during the day.

Stick figures by Sequence Wiz

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.

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!

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!

Why Do Yoga During Pregnancy

Yoga has many benefits for mom and baby.  It’s a body-mind practice that promotes wellness in the 5 Koshas (layers of being):  Body, Vital (Physiology), Mind, Character, and Heart.

The Mayo Clinic has looked at research studies on yoga for pregnancy. They list some of the benefits of yoga for pregnancy as:

  • Better sleep
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • An increase in the strength, flexibility and endurance of muscles needed for childbirth
  • Less shortness of breath and nausea
  • Less back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and headaches (all common during pregnancy)
  • Decreased risk of preterm labor and pregnancy-induced high blood pressure.

Wow, that’s a long list of really positive benefits!

Should you start yoga for the first time during pregnancy?  It depends!  Look for classes that are adapted for pregnancy and open to beginners.  Talk to the teacher in advance.  Another option is to participate in a class that is open to beginners where the teacher is comfortable adapting for you.

Prenatal yoga classes are specially designed to avoid contraindicated positions, temper how physically hard you work, keep the room temperature in a safe zone, help you get what you need to be as comfortable as possible through your pregnancy, and get ready for the delivery.

Prenatal classes are often a celebration of the journey of birth. You’ll typically find the support a circle of women who share the experience, an hour of “Me” time, and an inoculation of stress relief.

If you participate in yoga during pregnancy, it’s really important to let your Yoga Teacher or Yoga Therapist know if anything has changed for you from class to class.  Any change in blood pressure, breath capacity, pain, swelling, or spotting/bleeding is important to report so that modifications can be made to keep you and your baby safe.

If you’re pregnant and interested in using yoga to feel good and get ready to deliver your baby, learn more about the class options or individualized practice options that are available in your community.

 

 

Feel Your Best with Yoga: Cancer Treatment and Recovery

Life changes in an instant with a diagnosis of cancer. It’s like a big wave crashing through the house rearranging everything. How do you manage the big wave? The ancient science of yoga provides useful tools for coping with the diagnosis and treatments and supporting optimal health in recovery.

How Yoga Helps
Yoga therapy (the therapeutic application of the tools of yoga) can help increase energy, reduce fatigue, reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep, manage pain, and improve psychological health, including depression.
One of the most important self-care strategies for cancer 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.

Yoga Adapted for Your Needs
A yoga practice for cancer treatment and recovery is adapted to the person to help with their unique and very individual experience. Yoga practice might include yoga postures, breathing practices, guided relaxation, sound, meditation or other practices. The tools used are always tailored to the person’s interests and needs. There is no “one-size-fits-all” yoga approach when it comes to the type of cancer, the treatments or the recovery.

Short, Simple and Practical
My clients often find that short, simple practice tools tailored for their specific needs are the most beneficial. Many people with cancer find that simple breathing practices are extremely helpful in managing nausea, stress, fatigue and sleep. Yoga breath practice (pranayama) can be tailored for managing specific symptoms.

One of my yoga therapy clients, a woman with breast cancer, found that her yoga practice helped her throughout her day. She did a short breathing practice in bed in the morning to increase her energy, a short mid-day practice of 4 gentle postures to help manage stress and pain, and a walk outside before dinner to connect with nature, something that brought great meaning to her life and helped her feel better. She was also equipped with other yoga tools to use as needed to manage fatigue and improve sleep. Through our work together, she was able to better understand the relationship between stress, anxiety and pain and how she could control stress and anxiety through her breath, rest, movement, and other yoga tools.

If you are interested in yoga as a tool for managing cancer treatment and recovery, seek out the services of a Yoga Therapist or a yoga teacher with specialized training in cancer. It’s usually best to work one-on-one, especially while undergoing any treatments, so that the practice is adapted to your needs.

A Yoga Tool: The Calming Breath
Sit upright in a chair with your feet firmly placed on the floor. Begin to notice the flow of your breath and make your breath smooth through the inhale and exhale. Control the flow of your breath through the throat area so that you can hear your own breath. Then progressively make your inhale and exhale longer, keeping your inhale and exhale equal in length. Do this for 6 breaths. Then make your exhale 2 – 3 seconds longer than your inhale. Do this for 12 breaths. Then gradually allow your breath to soften back to a normal. Notice the effects of the breath practice for you.

Why Eat Fermented Foods?

Did you grow up with grandparents or parents who made sauerkraut in the old-fashioned way where the cabbage was shredded, salted, pounded and stored in a huge crock to stink up the basement or garage for a few weeks?  It turns out that your ancestors were culturing a healthy batch of bacteria, nutrients and flavor.

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