As a yoga instructor and yoga therapist, I have long been strong believer and proponent of the healing aspects of yoga. Whether it be a new lightness in expression, transformed posture, or a newfound physical strength, time and time again I have watched yoga transform my students. However, it has been the experience of teaching yoga at WeSpark Cancer Support Center that has solidified my faith in yoga’s incredible ability to heal, uplift and transform.
There is no question that facing down a cancer diagnosis and its ensuing treatment is one of life’s greatest challenges. Most everyone at We Spark is familiar with the staggering variety of physical, mental and even spiritual ailments and imbalances that can accompany cancer. Though yoga may not be a cure for this, its holistic approach to health can help to soften the edges of the disease and its treatment, providing one with a greater sense of physical and mental well being.
The philosophy and practice of yoga is holistic -- in that it takes into account the health of the entire person - body, mind and spirit. Yoga treats a person as a whole, rather than a collection of problems and ailments. Indeed, Yoga takes the view that we are essentially whole and perfect, even if we are having an experience of disease or pain. Yogis believe that underneath all of our pain and suffering, there is a radiant light of health, wholeness and truth. Like the sun, it is always shining – even if it is sometimes covered by the clouds.
On a physical level, yoga incorporates stretching, bending, twisting and balancing movements. These postures help to stretch and strengthen the body and increase stamina, flexibility and circulation. A skilled yoga therapist is well versed in anatomy and physiology and will understand which postures can help a student. Utilizing that base of knowledge along with a healthy dose of intuition, a yoga therapist can design a simple series of postures and breathing techniques specific to their students’ needs.
Yoga provides a tool-kit for all kinds of situations. Someone who is recovering from a mastectomy may need gentle heart openers, or to simply lie supported on a bolster to open the heart, break up scar tissue and increase lung capacity. Meanwhile, someone who is struggling from chemotherapy fatigue might benefit from energizing right nostril breathing or a mild inversion. A person with digestive troubles may benefit from a simple knee-to-chest stretch. However, some students may need to simply lie down and rest, feeling nurtured and cared for by their yoga instructor. The psycho-physiological value in feeling relaxed and cared for cannot be underestimated. As the physician Francis Peabody once remarked, “The secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient”.
These days, the detrimental effects of stress on the nervous system and immune system are well known. It is evident that we all must practice self-care and self-love. In many ways, yoga can be an antidote the continual stress and strain that occurs while experiencing cancer. Yoga’s holistic approach engages the practitioner on a physical, emotional and spiritual level and helps to facilitate deep rest and relaxation, providing opportunities for greater health and healing.