Yoga for Cancer
Yoga postures require us to hold still and to be aware of our bodies. Asana, pranayama, and meditation begin to break down that distance from ourselves and bring us into close contact with our sensations and feelings. Knowing how our bodies really feel, we can notice when we are stressed and can make decisions about our activities and our attitudes that can change our relationship to our cancer healing. That is, yoga can help us open up to different ways of integrating our experience. For example, when faced with a challenging medical procedure, rather than tensing ourselves against it or going away mentally, because of our yoga practice we may be able to relax and welcome the procedure, thus minimizing its stressful effects.
Eileen Hadidian, a professional musician and music professor, responded to her own difficult medical experiences by urging oncologists at local hospitals to enlist the aid of nutritionists in helping patients mitigate the effects of cancer treatments. A slender woman, bald from chemo, Eileen looks at me with large, alert eyes. As we talk in the comfortable living room at the Ting-Sha retreat, she smiles often. She leans back gratefully into the couch cushions. Her cancer now infiltrates her spine, and she has told me that her back hurts most of the time. But yoga, which she studies in classes at a community center near her home, helps her tolerate this pain.
"I went back to doing yoga a month after surgery—lumpectomy and lymph node dissection," she says. "I was sore, but within a half hour of going back to my yoga class, my arm went from being able to go this far"—she holds her arm just a few inches away from her body—"to going up [higher]. And so I said, 'Bingo!' The class caters to all levels. What I did was I just tailored it to what I could do, and then week after week I was able to do more and more."
"The instructor was aware of your condition?" I ask. "She was trusting you not to push yourself beyond where you needed to go?"
"Exactly. She was very good about saying to me, 'Just do what you can. Follow your body, follow your intuition.' So that's what I did. And it felt great. I breezed through radiation, had minimal side effects. The fatigue that comes with radiation set in just during the last week. So my recovery was relatively easy. And I attribute a lot of that to the yoga. Along with meditation, visualization, acupuncture, and herbs."
Three years after the radiation treatments, when she began to experience severe back pain and discovered her cancer had metastasized to her spine, Eileen had to stop going to the yoga class. But then a chance experience allowed her to adapt her yoga practice to suit her changed condition.
"I had a one-time yoga session with a woman, the mother of one of my young music students, who is training to be a yoga teacher. We had a very gentle session where she gave me about four different postures that I could do. This was back when I had a lot more pain. She propped me up with pillows so when I did Child's Pose it was not the regular Child's Pose but one that was supported. I've been doing those postures ever since.