Keeping Life in Balance: Yoga for Breast Cancer
I recently attended the Image Reborn Foundation Gala in Park City, UT where I volunteer teaching yoga at their breast cancer renewal retreats. It gave me the opportunity to reconnect with a number of women I taught and listen to one of them, Melissa Cassino Keshegyi, give an inspiring speech about her experience at a retreat. Melissa is a young mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago while pregnant with her second child. She continues to be challenged by the ongoing effects of treatment. At the retreat, she learned how to take an active roll in her wellness by connecting with others, nurturing the body with healthy food and keeping life in balance with yoga.
In my own experience with breast cancer I am grateful for my yoga and meditation practice. It helped me face the uncertainty and anxiety of a cancer diagnosis by practicing present moment awareness. Following mastectomy and reconstruction, physical poses that were effortless became unavailable to me so I shifted to Restorative Yoga. This style, developed by B.K.S. Iyengar, uses bolsters, blocks and other props for support in active relaxation. Poses are held for longer periods of time with focus on breath work and meditation. Restorative yoga allowed me to connect with the breath, feel deep relaxation and experience an expanded state of awareness. This approach was essential in recovering my vitality, managing my stress and improving the quality of my life.
Through my work with breast cancer survivors I see how fatigue, stress, lack of sleep, nausea and lymphedema impact quality life. A small, 2009 pilot study on Restorative Yoga for ovarian and breast cancer patients undergoing treatment showed encouraging results. Suzanne C. Danhauer, et al concluded that depression, mood and anxiety all improved with Restorative Yoga. A later study, the largest randomized one to date on yoga and breast cancer, was published in 2014 by Ohio State University. The study, led by Jan Keilcolt-Glaser, enlisted 200 women; half practiced yoga and the other half were put on a wait list. Participants were surveyed throughout the study and blood work was drawn to determine inflammation markers, a known risk for breast cancer. Six months into the study the yoga group had a 57% decrease in fatigue symptoms and 20% lower inflammation. The yoga group also had improvements in mood and sleep. Home practice was encouraged and researchers felt that the more the participants practiced the better the results. "Yoga has many parts to it-meditation, breathing, stretching and strengthening. We think the breathing and meditation components were really important
in terms of some of the changes we were seeing," says Keicolt-Glaser.
As I observe students like Melissa, I often witness an immediate shift from tension to relaxation as we work on deep yogic breathing techniques. The integration of physical poses, breath work and meditation foster a sense of well-being, and if consistently practiced over a period of time can improve the quality of life for breast cancer survivors. Below are some resources to help develop a regular yoga practice as part of your wellness plan:
1. Inquire at your medical center, hospital or wellness clinic to see if they offer Yoga for Cancer classes. Many times these classes will be free of charge.
2. Explore local yoga studios, often they offer Restorative Yoga, Yoga for Cancer and Meditation classes.
3. Attend a retreat like Image Reborn to kickstart your recovery and connect with others.
4. Utilize books, DVD's and online websites to develop a consistent home practice.
Ross, Diana, Yoga for Breast Cancer Recovery: Gentle Flow Yoga for Breast Health, Breast Cancer Related Fatigue and Lymphedema Management, Picture Book, July 18, 2014.
Kittrick, Camille, “Gentle Yoga for Recovery and Beyond”.