Yoga for Cancer
The notion that cancer is "negotiable" offers revolutionary possibilities for a patient struggling to survive. From this perspective, life-threatening illness can become not just something to be endured and prayed about until it either goes away or kills us, but a challenge to take control of our lives. Instead of being stuck with a few grim options, in the strange and frightening territory where patients find themselves suddenly exiled at diagnosis, we can develop some self-empowering ways to meet and live with illness. And health practitioners who work with cancer patients can help us learn how not to run away from our cancer but to live with it while we must; if trained in the appropriate disciplines, they can teach us to strengthen the immune system so we can soften the worst effects of both the illness and the treatments.
Relax into Healing
Traditionally, yoga's power to bring deliverance from pain and sorrow comes as the student learns to work with his or her senses and intellect. While the practices of yoga, as codified by the Indian master Patanjali centuries ago, classically begin with ethics and self-purification, the cancer patient probably benefits initially from the asanas themselves. These poses are designed to exercise every muscle, nerve, and gland in the body. Refined over centuries, the postures precisely address the tension, holding, and sometimes blockage of energy in any particular joint or organ. When the tension is released, energy can flow more easily in the body and allow patients to experience a sense of well-being and strength—a balance of body, mind, and spirit.
Healing requires a slowing down, a relaxation of tension—both the tightness and holding of the body and the mind's incessant worrying and thinking ahead to dreadful possibilities. But this seems an almost impossible task. While acute stress has the effect of stimulating the cells that protect our system (if attacked by a lion, we would experience a very high level of tension and attendant physical changes that would promote our chances for survival), chronic stress—the kind of daily worry and pressure that a cancer patient typically experiences—markedly depresses the function of the natural "killer cells" that protect, thus leaving us even more vulnerable to our disease. The growth of tumors and other cancer indicators have all been shown to be exacerbated by stress.
Most of us are so used to being tense that we are not even conscious of our tightness. If cancer is detected in your body, the news itself raises your anxiety level tremendously. Then, in quick succession, you prepare to undergo surgery and are given a debilitating course of chemotherapy and/or radiation. What could be more frightening? How are we to relax in the midst of the most stressful thing that has ever happened to us? How can we bypass the anxiety and despair that cause us to tighten up and turn away from life, and learn to recognize and pursue more positive possibilities?
As if to answer these questions, Ann Getzoff, sitting in the garden at the Ting-Sha retreat, talks about her experience with yoga. "I consider the yoga class a life-saver. When I was sickest from the treatments, yoga was the one steady thing I could do, no matter what. When I couldn't even commit to going to a movie because I wasn't sure I could sit up for an hour and a half, still I could go to yoga and do the postures."