Yoga for Cancer
"When you have cancer," he says, "anxiety eats on you. But when I meditate, I'm able to put things in perspective. No one lives forever. The time I have left—how do I want to spend it? This is what I asked myself." His yoga and meditation practice, along with the support of his family, allowed Dr. Fair to make the decision to refuse conventional treatment. Now, as described in the New Yorker article, he treats his tumor with Chinese herbs, and continues his yoga and meditation sessions.
"How are you doing?" I ask.
"I'm doing fine!" And he tells me what a good decision it was. "If I had accepted the chemotherapy treatments, I would have spent last year sick and miserable." Instead, he went trekking in Patagonia, learned to scuba dive, and pursued a full professional and personal life.
Another important dimension for cancer patients is breathwork, or pPranayama. "Many people who are going through the distress of an illness don't breathe very efficiently," Waz Thomas points out. "But when we optimize breathing, we are bringing into the body not just oxygen, but a much more subtle force. Prana, air, breath—the essential life force. Even if you can't do the postures, you can still benefit from breathing practice."
The term pranayama combines prana, breath, with yama, meaning extension or control, and describes a crucial practice in yoga. This "science of the breath" involves attention to inhalation, exhalation, and retention or holding. Through pranayama, one learns to breathe slowly and deeply, in rhythmic patterns. These patterns strengthen the respiratory system, calm the nervous system, and can reduce our craving for something more to fill our needs.
When we are frightened, we hold our breath or breathe shallowly or raggedly. To open up the chest again, one can practice breathing techniques based on pranayama, such as abdominal breathing, deep breathing, bellows breathing (with forceful abdominal exhalations), and alternate-nostril breathing. (As breath practices can have powerful effects on the body, they should be learned from a qualified yoga instructor, for safety's sake.) Done properly, they can dissolve stress and emotional excitation, freeing the mind from anxiety.
Dr. Fair's breathwork regime includes an exercise in which the belly and chest are expanded, filling the whole torso with air. In another innovative exercise combining breath and visualization, he starts at the base of his spine. As he inhales he visualizes a light moving up his back, vertebra by vertebra; as he exhales, he sees the light coming down the front of his spine; and when it reaches the level of his tumor, he sees the tumor going away.
Breathing practices can have another benefit, Waz notes. "Prana not only sustains life, it also acts as a cleanser. With cancer and chemotherapy, our bodies are quite polluted. You're putting in industrial-strength toxins. A very simple way to help the body's natural cleansing system is to put more oxygen in it, because oxygen goes into the bloodstream and helps eliminate toxins. So if someone here at Commonweal can't do asanas, I give them breathing exercises. They're going to feel better just opening the chest and inhaling."