Yoga for Cancer Pain

This morning I woke up and went through my regular routine of getting dressed, eating a light breakfast, packing my yoga mat, driving along the beach, and teaching my 630am Yoga Class at Easton Gym Co. in Manhattan Beach.  I love teaching at this gym because it overlooks the Pacific Ocean with 180 degree views of the beach from Palos Verdes up to Malibu.

The classroom was dark and the windows were open allowing the onshore breeze to flow into the class.  As I walked into the class, I could see the shadows of students stretching and preparing for their practice.  Because it is an early morning sunrise class, the yogi’s like to practice in the dark for the first half hour as the sun rises.  Earlier in the week I had been inspired by my mentor and dear friend (Thomas Taubman) to teach a themed class on shoulder openings.  As I started to guide the class through their warm-up and breathing exercises I noticed that I was no longer teaching the class that my mentor had taught.  My eyes began to welt with tears, and voicing my cues became more difficult without having to clear my throat repetitively.  I was experiencing a flash back to when I was 16 years old.  Subconsciously, I was teaching a class based on the experience of watching my mother recover during her remission of Type 3 Metastatic Breast Cancer.  My mother had a mastectomy when she was 48 – as a result, the doctors pulled a flap of muscle from her abdominal wall and reattached it in her shoulder.  I can’t image the pain and discomfort she must have felt – in addition to the psychological effects of losing a breast.  My personal awareness level has changed significantly as I move forward with my practice.  I was able to pinpoint where these emotions swelled up from.

Whether we are the instructor or the instructee – we are always working through our own stuff.  Often times we may not even realize we have triggers that bring up emotional responses in our own bodies until we are in the moment.  Because I was the instructor in this particular situation – I was thankful the room was dark.  I quickly wiped the tears out of my eyes, walked to the back of the class and made minor adjustments on my students.  Although this emotional experience was about me and my relationship with knowing a loved one with cancer.  I wanted to take a broader stroke with this article because the intensity of feelings and emotions that were brought up help me reaffirm as to why I became a yoga instructor.

My mother was a drug and alcohol psychologist, a scholar, a Christian, a meditator, a yogini (female yoga practitioner), lover of life, and most of all an unconditionally loving and accepting spirit.  Her struggle, fight, and final acceptance of cancer has been a rallying point in much of my life and it quite honestly has helped me to find my purpose or dharma.  Throughout my mother’s fight with cancer, she practiced yoga regularly.  After her surgeries and mastectomy she was given a lot of physical therapy exercises as well as breathing exercises (pranayama) to compliment her recovery.  I know that if it weren’t for her daily practice of breathing, meditating, and yoga poses (asanas) she would have had a much more difficult time working through her pain and maintaining a positive attitude.  With that said, I am a firm believer that our lives are built from the ground up of collective experiences.  Experiences like my mother, although difficult to discuss, are important to talk about because we are all affected in one way or another by sickness, ailments, and in my case: a mother diagnosed with cancer.

Nearly 1,500 (1) people a day die from cancer – that’s nearly 550,000 people a year.  With that said, there are over 100 (2)  different types of cancer.  So what is cancer?  Cancer is labeled as a disease that manifests as a result of abnormal cell growth within normal cells.  Typically during cellular replication there are measures in place that allow the cell to copy itself identically.  However, in a cancer cell, there was a misprint on the microscopic level of some basic cellular information.  The cancer cells then continues to replicate itself because it does not recognize itself as a cancer cell – it simply is doing what is in it’s DNA code to do – replicate.  Sometimes the body recognizes this immediately and is able to combat the cancer cell, other times, the cancer cells will continue to grow…uncontrollably.  As the cancer grows it begins to causes changes in the surrounding landscape of the area that it is attached too.  This can manifest into a number of symptoms, chemical responses in the body, pain, emotional changes, digestive problems, etc.  Sometimes it stays in the same location, sometimes it spreads.  Billions of dollars of research have gone in to try to figure out this pattern and find a cure.  Often times the cures are harsh medications, invasive procedures, radiation treatment, chemotherapy, bones marrow transplants, strict dieting, and changes in behavioral patterns.  My mother went through all of these.  She lost her hair, she was bed ridden, there were days that she couldn’t get off of the couch.  The pain would be so great that she sometimes had to be fed.  I feel like this was one of many lessons in my life about compassion.

So why discuss my mother, her battle with cancer, my relationship with her, and tie it into yoga?  Because yoga helped.  The more I learn about yoga – the more I realize just how much of a misconception I had of the practice.  The practice of yoga itself has been around for over 6,000 years!  We often times choose ignorance over understanding – yoga was one of those things I chose to remain ignorant over for a long time…at least until I was ready.  Yoga helped my mother to cope with the pain.  Yoga helped her to breath.  Yoga has helped me to dive deeper into my own mind and understand why I feel how I feel sometimes.  Yoga needs to be studied more as a positive alternative for diseases such as cancer.  As I continue to move through my journey from a daily practitioner to a daily instructor, I find it is crucial to bring into light the benefits of a consistent yoga practice.  There are numerous studies in the U.S. National Library of Medicine that discuss the benefits of yoga for cancer patients mainly – that of depression, stress, and anxiety.  However, there are controlled randomised studies that show a decrease/leveling-off of the development of cancerous tissue.  One such study is a pilot-study published July 1st 2014 discussing “Yoga Management of Breast Cancer-Related Lymphoedema: A Randomised Controlled Pilot-Trial.” (3)  Although the pilot-study was small – participants in this study showed improvement of drainage in lymphatic tissue without exacerbating the lymphoedema.  I am not going to go so far as to say that yoga can cure cancer, but it can help with symptoms, coping, breathing, lowering anxiety, decreasing fatigue, and decreasing levels of depression.

At the end of the day, we all come to the mat, go to the gym, surf, run, cycle, participate in various exercises because more often than not we are working through things in our own lives.  Perhaps its work, our relationships, sickness, or in my mothers case: cancer.  As I have transitioned throughout my life and witnessed my own evolution, the sanskrit word “yoga” takes on even a deeper meaning.  The word yoga comes from the root word “yuj” which means unity or yoke.  A yoke is a harness used to couple two animals with carts, plows, or farming tools.   With that said, metaphorically speaking – yoga is a tool to help harness the physical body, the mind, and the external world in an effort to perhaps keep ourselves together – moving as one.  If we can hold ourselves together, we can then begin to cultivate our own fields, we can pull our own weight or “cart”, and we can create a space around us for us to thrive in.  However, to have a strong yoke that can hold ourselves together, takes maintenance and a daily practice.  The minute we give up the practice all is not lost, but we lose the integrity that the continued practice we had previously established.  Keep practicing.

I will continue to research more on this topic as individuals suffering from chronic pain, cancer pain, and various other ailments hold a space that is near and dear to my heart.  The information for helping individuals is out there and we need to live from a selfless space to try to get this information available for others to make positive decisions in their lives.  I thank all of you for love and support as we collectively try to find solutions to the things that impact our lives the most.  Namaste!

  3. Yoga management of breast cancer-related lymphoedema: a randomised controlled pilot-trial Annette Loudon,1 Tony Barnett,1 Neil Piller,2 Maarten A Immink,3 and Andrew D Williams4

David and Mom

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