As Ingrid Yang was beginning a new type of yoga teacher training in 2005, her aunt was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Dr. Yang offered to stay with her and forgo the training, but her aunt insisted she continue. “She said, ‘Please go, you need to teach me how to breathe. It’s so hard for me to breathe,’” Yang recalls. Her aunt had developed pulmonary fibrosis, and Dr. Yang’s training included an in-depth study of pranayama, a formal breath control practice.
Dr. Yang’s aunt passed away before she was able to benefit from her niece’s training. But her battle changed Dr. Yang’s path. She quit her law practice and opened a yoga studio. “For me, teaching yoga became a very personal pilgrimage to help cancer patients in homage to her memory,” she says. “One of my promises was to open doors to the cancer community and try my best to reach out to cancer patients and survivors.”
Dr. Yang completed training specifically geared toward working with cancer patients and survivors, and also worked closely with oncologists and nurses to develop her teaching practice. Now a medical doctor and resident physician in rehabilitation medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Dr. Yang continues to teach yoga at Moksha Yoga Center in Chicago as well as provide teacher training around the world to yoga teachers who wish to work with cancer patients and survivors.
While asanas, or poses, are integral to any practice, Dr. Yang notes that cancer patients and survivors often benefit most from meeting others who are, or have been, in treatment and learning how to breathe to calm their anxieties. She points out that yoga could never replace traditional cancer treatment, but it can provide a good complement.
Finding the Right Practice
For breast cancer patients, a yoga practice will vary based on stage and treatment—and it’s important to talk to your doctor before beginning a practice. For example, extensive stretching is not recommended in the immediate post-operative stage for patients who have undergone a mastectomy, but is recommended after all the operative healing is complete. Meanwhile, the chest region is a very emotionally charged area for breast cancer patients, Dr. Yang says. “To a large degree, it’s about making friends with your body again. It’s about truly reconnecting with your heart space.”
To find an instructor who is right for you, do your research. Look for teachers who have been certified in instructing cancer patients and survivors. Ask questions about a teacher’s training and experience, including whether he or she has worked with someone with breast cancer.
STRIKE A POSE
Check out Dr. Yang’s recommended poses for breast cancer patients and survivors. As always, be sure to check with your doctor before trying a new exercise.
MEDITATION (easy sitting pose)
POSE: Sit comfortably upright. If sitting on the floor, consider sitting on a pillow, block or bolster to lift the hips and take strain off the lower back. Sit in a chair if you like. Close your eyes, place your hands comfortably and relax. Don’t worry about “clearing your mind.” As thoughts come in, just try to let them pass through. There’s no wrong way to meditate!
Start by committing to five minutes a day for a week, and add five minutes per week until you reach 20 minutes of sitting quietly. This is the most important pose for cancer survivors, Dr. Yang says.
BENEFITS: Anxiety relief and stress reduction
LEGS UP THE WALL (viparita karani)
POSE: Place a mat under you or lay a blanket under your buttocks before you place your legs up the wall. Scoot your buttocks as close as you can to the wall and turn to slide your legs up. Close your eyes and take slow, deep breaths. This can be practiced for between five and 20 minutes. Rest with your feet flat on the floor before standing after you practice this pose.
BENEFITS: Relaxation and reduction of swelling in legs and feet. For those who are dealing with lymphedema in the legs, this pose can be a relief.
FLOATING BODY REST
POSE: Place a bolster or pillow under your knees and lie back on blankets. Place an additional folded blanket under your head for back support.
BENEFITS: Rest and relief from back pain. Back pain is a common concern, and this pose allows you to lie comfortably without strain on your back. It also allows you to rest, without straining your chest, especially if you have had recent surgeries or have expanders placed.
MEDITATION FINGERS (jnana mudra)
POSE: Gently and mindfully touch the thumb and forefinger of each hand together. Close your eyes and take slow, deep belly breaths. This can be done anywhere—in a chair, standing in line at the grocery store or even in the waiting room of your doctor’s office.
BENEFITS: Stress relief
RECLINING COBBLER’S POSE
POSE: Sit on your mat, place a bolster lengthwise at your lower back. Lay down on the bolster with your arms rolled out to the sides, palms up. Optional hip stretch: Bring the bottoms of the feet together and let your knees fall out, making a diamond shape. You can also place blocks under your knees for more hip support. If the addition of blocks is still uncomfortable for your back or knees, straighten your legs and place a rolled blanket underneath your knees. Because this pose stretches your pectoralis (chest) muscles, make sure any surgical scars are healed.
BENEFITS: Breaks up adhesions from lumpectomy or mastectomy scars
Additional Reading: Exercise Improves Quality of Life in Cancer Survivors