Yoga for Cancer
Lois straightens up, her face distressed.
"What is it?" Virginia asks.
"My spleen is enlarged, and I feel like I'm squeezing it when I bend over."
"Does it hurt?"
"Then don't do this. Or maybe try bending just a little without lifting your arms. And stop if it's painful."
Lois tries again, frowning.
"What's going on now?" asks Virginia.
"Hurts," replies the redhead.
"Then try lying down and see what the openness will bring."
Lois sighs as she surrenders to her mat.
After a few minutes Virginia turns her attention to Lois again. "How is your breathing now?" she asks. "Is there more possibility for an inner quiet and rest?"
Virginia leads us in several more gentle postures, then has us lie on our backs. She comes to each person and covers him or her with a blanket. Draping the blanket at my feet, she unrolls it gently up over my legs and chest. Then she leans to tuck the soft cotton knit around my shoulders.
As we lie under our coverings, Virgina guides us to experience our toes, our calves, our knees, up the fronts of our bodies, then down the backs. Somewhere near pelvis level, I sink away into sleep.
When I awaken, my compatriots are chuckling and talking about the "sparkles" and tingles they had experienced in their chests and then throughout their bodies in the breathing exercises. I turn my head to see Virginia Veach smiling in the front of the room. "Those sparkles are prana," she tells us, "life energy—healing energy."
Yoga is but one component of the Ting-Sha Institute Cancer Retreat, a stress reduction, health education, and group support program for people with cancer and their family members or close friends. The retreat also provides a delicious vegetarian, low-fat diet; the participants have three massages during the week; they are encouraged to express their feelings in art and poetry; and they're given information that will allow them to make choices for their care. We gather in group sessions to explore the issues raised by a life-threatening illness and to build support for each other in the time to come.
At Ting-Sha I begin to see that disease can be "negotiable." I realize that we can learn new ways to visualize, respond to, and work with our disease and the often difficult therapies that cancer patients endure. A Ting-Sha brochure given to participants quotes Alec Forbes, M.D., of the Bristol Cancer Help Centre in England, who says that through our own efforts and with the help of professionals and our community, we can become "well cancer patients," who still have cancer but are fighting it from a state of much better health, with generally improved results.
The care given at Ting-Sha and other cancer-help centers around the country is grounded in theories of stress management derived from several decades of scientific research. A solid body of experimental studies has demonstrated that stress influences the immune system and contributes to the development and progress of immune-based diseases such as cancer and AIDS. As early as 1962, an article in the journal Cancer Research reported the beneficial effects of stress reduction on laboratory animals injected with cancer. In the 35-plus years since, the empirical evidence has piled up. A landmark 1989 study by Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel found that women with metastatic breast cancer who participated in a support group lived longer than those who did not. The group support was seen to protect against or lessen stress. Likewise, yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation can reduce stress and promote healing. Indeed, even the American Cancer Society, on its Web site (www.cancer.org), notes that yoga—which it describes as a "complementary therapy...not a treatment for any disease"—can "reduce levels of stress and bring about feelings of relaxation and well-being...[and] enhance quality of life for some patients with cancer."