Yoga for Cancer
"It would be wonderful if someone had a little traveling yoga practice, and went around to people's homes, for people with multiple sclerosis, cancer, chronic fatigue, or AIDS. It would have to be somebody who knew enough about physiology to say 'Okay, here are some things that you can do.' It could be such a service, because people living with physical limitations need to be empowered by being shown what they can do."
A number of physician-directed programs, like Dr. Ornish's Prostate Cancer Lifestyle Trial and the Breast Cancer Personal Support and Lifestyle Integration Program in San Francisco, train patients in yoga postures, breathing, and meditation techniques.
Cancer-help retreats offer intensive contact and support. In addition, some individual yoga instructors are adapting their teachings for patients limited by illness or disability. In these settings, yoga teachers work individually with their cancer-patient students. They have learned to be extremely sensitive to special needs, to maintain strong, open communication with the patient, and to creatively adapt postures and other yogic elements.
Perhaps the most compelling reason cancer patients are turning to yoga is this: It shows us how a person stricken with a serious illness, instead of "running away" from their threatened body, can connect more strongly to that body and begin to experience self-empowerment and well-being. As we engage our physical selves in the precise body gestures of yoga, our minds come along, growing accustomed to focusing on the affairs of this moment and leaving worries and future-thinking behind. As we breathe and meditate, our minds grow more clear and steady.
The physical benefits of yoga seem obvious to a cancer patient. Range of motion, flexibility, strength, relaxation, and a sense of bodily well-being are enhanced by practicing the postures. But there is an additional, more mystical, benefit of yoga.
Waz Thomas calls this an experience of one's "essential nature," and uses the language of the great spiritual traditions to characterize it: "A stillness, a oneness, a unity; the void, the great ground of being." Another yoga therapist speaks of the "life force."
Gary Kraftsow, of the Center for Viniyoga Studies in Hawaii, speaks of helping patients "connect with their hearts," achieving a deeper union with themselves and something larger than themselves. These practitioners are attempting to put words to an experience that is subtle but unmistakable, and precious to anyone who has experienced it.
Managing one's cancer can be a difficult, demanding task. Even with consistent support from family and friends, each day can be a struggle to assess one's failing energy, to change or sometimes just endure the uncomfortable, often painful side-effects of treatment, to struggle against depression at the thought of further weakness and death. I remember, at the worst times, thinking that my life energy—I could feel it somewhere inside my chest, like a little pilot light—was burning very, very low. I was miserable. One cannot overestimate the value, to someone in that condition, of a moment of ease, joy, and well-being.