Menses, pregnancy, breastfeeding, perimenopause, and menopause are some of the shape shifts women face in a single lifetime. And the breasts, intimately connected to a woman’s health, relate to these physical passages in profound ways. One in eight American women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime. Cysts, myofascial issues, heart disease, and hypertension, which can result in cardiac arrest and open-heart surgery, are also common. Yet, aside the recommendation of a monthly self-exam American women, don’t get much in the way of tips for maintaining breast health. The good news is yoga practice can be a powerful tool for healthier breasts.
What Yoga Can Teach American Women About Their Breasts
American cultural attitudes about breasts careen wildly from festishization to repression: while we are accustomed to seeing women’s breasts objectified on the covers of magazines and advertising, breastfeeding women often need a place to retreat and hide just to nourish their babies. But around the world, Goddess images attest to a more reverent and profound connection to this important area of the body. In Tantric art and Hindu iconography, bare-breasted goddesses such as compassionate Tara and Ferocious Protector Kali embody a more sacred view of the breasts. These deities are open-hearted, brave, and courageous, as their physical language shows in paintings, sculptures, and modern-day posters and advertisements. The chest has long been associated with love, courage, and confidence in many cultures. In Ayurvedic medicine, the 5,000-year-old wisdom and healing tradition of India, the heart and chest are viewed as intelligence centers, “The heart is the seat or root of the brain,” as Dr. Sheila Patel, medical director of the Chopra Center explains. So how can you better nurture these important parts of the body?
How Yoga Practice Can Boost Breast Health
“A well-rounded yoga practice will benefit the breasts,” notes Bobby Clennell, Iyengar Yoga teacher and author of Yoga For Breast Care: What Every Woman Needs to Know. Expanding the heart center in backbends and twists suffuses the chest and lymphatic system with circulation, facilitating optimal immune function. Although inconclusive, research from several studies suggests that tight or ill-fitting bras may contribute to breast cancer risk by limiting circulation and blocking the flow of lymph. Asana can also counter the postural issues—hunching, tightening and closing off of the chest—modern devices pose. The deep breathing (like Sama Vritti and Kapalabhati) and retention (Kumbhaka) yogis practice in pranayama enable oxygen to reach the upper lobes of the lungs, facilitating the release of more oxygen to the upper chest and lymphatic areas, boosting immune function.
According to a study published in the International Journal of Yoga, yoga poses and practices reduce stress and boost immunity. Some research studies show a positive correlation between the stress response and breast cancer, particularly in resurgence or relapse and the relaxation response and survival rates. Forward folds and resting poses, especially, soothe the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates the fight-or-flight stress response, and switch on the the parasympathetic system, which enables optimal immune function.
Additionally, Yoga Journal’s 2016 Yoga in America study found people who practice yoga are more inclined to engage in cardiovascular exercise, which is known to reduce heart disease and cancer risk. Yoga’s mindfulness component also fosters an intimate connection with the body, which can heighten one’s awareness of changes and aid in early detection of disease.
See also How to Use the Body Affect the Mind
The Anatomy of the Breasts
To understand how yoga practice can impact this important area of the body better, let’s briefly look at its anatomy. Mammary glands, or breasts, are made up of lobules, glandular structures that produce milk in women. The lobules drain into ducts, connecting to channels that transport milk to the nipple. Between glandular tissue and ducts lie fat cells and tissue. (Male breast anatomy is nearly identical to females’, except for the milk lobules.) Breasts do not contain muscle, but are adjacent to the pectoralis muscles of the upper chest. Blood vessels and lymph gland and lymph node networks for draining and detoxifying impurities run through the breasts, the surrounding armpit, upper chest, and groin areas.
The Energy of the Heart Center
Energetically, the Anahata Chakra, or heart center, the seat of wisdom in Ayurvedic medicine, lies at the sternum, between the breasts. Opening this energetic and physical area results in feelings of expansion, vulnerability, joy, and sometimes pain, as grief resides here, too. It seems appropriate then that the breasts and heart are so intimately connected. The classic bare-breasted icon of Green Tara, goddess of Compassion, typifies this view of sacred feminine power. And open-hearted, bare-breasted Kali, the ferocious but compassionate manifestation of the feminine divine, reminds us it takes courage to live from the center of one’s heart.
Use the following practice to boost circulation, lymph flow, and energy through your heart and chest for healthier breasts.
A Yoga Sequence for Chest & Breast Health
Daphne Youree is a freelance fitness, lifestyle, and event photographer. She resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two sons. Daphne is currently working on a project called Fem Forward, documenting women in the sports and fitness world.