Updated: Aug 10
Yoga can help alleviate the side effects of cancer treatment. Yoga helped me rebalance my body after breast cancer.
“I knew I needed to rebalance my body both physically and emotionally.”
My personal experience of breast cancer, at the age of 32, left me feeling shell-shocked and overwhelmed by what I’d been through. Moving forwards with life was not as easy as I’d imagined; I felt on the verge of tears most of the time and was short-tempered with my two young children. I knew I needed to rebalance my body both physically and emotionally, so I decided to try yoga. From that first class I was hooked; I didn’t know how this ancient practice was helping me, I was just grateful that I’d found a way to allow myself to heal from the inside out. That was over 25 years ago. I’ve since trained as a yoga teacher and now specialise in teaching yoga for those diagnosed with breast cancer. Here are just five ways that yoga can help breast cancer recovery.
1. Reduces Stress & Anxiety
“Yoga helps to calm and balance the nervous system.”
Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer is devastating; the shock of having a life-threatening disease can leave you with a whole host of emotions: numbness, shock and disbelief to feeling stressed at the disruption of normal life and worrying about the future. Even when treatment is over, you can be left feeling anxious about the cancer coming back and be overly tuned into every little ache, pain, lump or bump you might feel in your body – this is perfectly normal. But this stress and anxiety can take its toll on the body, triggering stress hormones and putting the nervous system into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode. This can affect sleep and the body’s natural ability to heal. Yoga helps to calm and balance the nervous system through a combination of breathing techniques (pranayama), poses (asanas), as well as mindfulness and meditation, which stimulate the ‘rest and digest’ part of the nervous system, enabling us to feel calmer. Lengthening the exhalation is helpful to calm the heart rate and supine poses, using props to support the body, are calming and restorative.
Reclined Bound Angle Pose
Calms the body & mind
Gently opens front body
Releases hips & groin
2. Alleviates Fatigue
“Practising yoga regularly reduces fatigue.”
Fatigue is a common side effect of treatment for breast cancer and can continue for some time after treatment has finished. Many studies have shown that practising yoga regularly reduces fatigue. The solution for fatigue isn’t necessarily rest; moving the body through a sequence of yoga poses in time with the breath can draw fresh energy (prana) into the body and leave you feeling uplifted and energised. Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani) is both restorative and energising – all you need is a wall or door! The practice of Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) guides the student through 61 points throughout their body. This promotes a state of deep rest and relaxation by shifting the brain waves to a more restorative state, allowing the body to rest and heal. Meditation also helps to calm the nervous system and is a useful tool that can be practised without a teacher at the beginning and end of the day.
Legs Up The Wall Pose
Improves circulation in legs
3. Strengthens Muscles & Bones
“Yoga can build back strength safely and gently.”
Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy can affect healthy bone and muscle cells causing them to weaken. Lack of movement and periods of inactivity, due to cancer-related fatigue, add to loss of muscle tone. The two main muscle groups that are affected tend to be the gluteus muscles (buttocks and hips) and the quadriceps (thigh muscles). Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormonal treatment can cause loss of bone density (osteoporosis) and bone volume (osteopenia). Yoga can build back strength safely and gently. Weight-bearing poses such as Tree Pose, where weight is balanced on one leg, stress the bones in the leg and help them to strengthen. Moving dynamically in and out of standing poses, contracting and releasing muscles, stimulates blood flow to the joints and builds muscle in the legs and hips.
Builds leg strength
Strengthens feet and calves
Focuses and calms the mind
4. Improves Flexibility & Range of Movement
“I remember, after my breast surgery, how I just longed to be able to do the most mundane everyday chores again.”
Breast cancer surgery can leave you with limited mobility in the upper body, especially around the area of surgery and radiation where scar tissue is present. All of this, along with periods of inactivity, due to treatment fatigue, can leave you feeling stiff, weak and unable to go about your daily tasks with ease. It’s important to regain good functional movement throughout treatment so that reaching up to hang washing on the line or making the bed can be done with ease. (I remember, after my breast surgery, how I just longed to be able to do the most mundane everyday chores again.) A yoga sequence that focuses on stretching and releasing tight muscles, particularly around the upper body: shoulders, chest, armpit and side body can help bring back mobility to these areas. Child Pose is a good pose as it improves flexibility and is calming at the same time.
Stretches shoulders and armpits
5. Enhances self-empowerment and well-being
“Yoga helps you take back some control of your body.”
Treatment and surgery take their toll on the body in a variety of ways and it’s not uncommon to feel a sense of loss of control over your own body. From the moment of diagnosis, you entrust your body to a team of medical professionals: surgeons, oncologists, radiographers, nurses, and resign yourself to get through whatever you need to in order to survive. Life is ruled by one hospital appointment after another. Yoga helps you take back some control of your body because it promotes well-being, allowing you to feel a sense of self-care and nourishment through the techniques of breathing and moving your body with awareness.
Cat / Cow Pose
Builds strength and flexibility in shoulders
Mobilises the spine
Connects breath to movement
Builds awareness of whole body
These are just a few of the key benefits a regular yoga practice will foster, allowing the powerful healing effects of yoga to permeate the whole body from the inside out.
Marcia runs classes for Get Mer Back online every other Thursday at 1pm.