Yoga is a key piece of one’s healing journey

Behavioral Health Services
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Written by: Lauren Villegas, PsyD, psychotherapist, Outpatient Behavioral Health Services

Cancer steals your breath; yoga gives it back. As a psychotherapist and a yoga teacher, I am always trying to figure out ways that I can combine my two passions in a meaningful way. I recently began researching the impact yoga has on common side effects of cancer and feel that yoga is a key piece of one’s healing journey.

Newly-diagnosed patients often come to us angry - angry at themselves, angry at the doctors and angry at their body. In an essence, it is like their body has turned against them. Yoga helps repair this relationship with the body in many ways.

The model I use for yoga for cancer consists of several building blocks. The first foundational skill is dynamic stillness. Learning how to sit and be still in the body and mind is often a huge challenge for cancer patients. However, once they are able to gain mastery of this skill, it is also a huge gift.

The second building block is pranayama (breath work). Breathing correctly is important for all of us, but breath work - such as ujjai (deep breathing in and out of the nose) - can have a huge impact on the painful side effects of cancer treatments. The third skill is meditation. Learning how to quietly focus the mind can give cancer patients a break from the frequent worry they often find themselves plagued with. For terminal patients, it is also helpful to remind them that being aware of the present moment is something that they have control over, and is what it means to truly be alive.

The next skill is movement and how to incorporate asana (yoga poses) into their treatment. For those newly diagnosed or who have terminal illness, restorative yoga teaches them how to actively rest, and uses gentle stretching to relieve some of the aches and pains of cancer. For those in remission, strengthening yoga is beneficial. This includes balancing and other poses geared towards strengthening the bones and muscles, and empowering the mind.

The final task in this model can be the most difficult, Savasana. Savasana is the final resting pose, where the mind and body sync and soak up all the benefits of the yoga practice. It involves laying on the back, with limbs cast out, palms facing up. The goal is to be completely calm in body and mind. This is difficult enough for healthy yoga students, but those with cancer tend to really struggle with finding acceptance and surrender in this pose. For patients who have terminal illness, I like to call this “sunset pose,” with the message that everything has a cycle, be it a single breath, a life, or a yoga practice. Everything has a beginning, middle and end point. As things begin to end, the anticipation of a new beginning arises. The natural closing of each day with a sunset is necessary to make way for the next sunrise.

For more information about yoga therapy for cancer, or to schedule an appointment, call Agnesian HealthCare’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Services at (920) 926-4200.

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