Recovery can bring with it a panoply of mixed emotions, bouncing from a deep sense of relief to fear of recurrence as every ache and pain become suspect. Many survivors speak of the distrust they feel for their bodies, and the sense of always being “on guard.” Their cancer may be gone—excised through surgery, chemo, radiation, holistic therapies, or any combination of those—but the residual scars remain, and they are often left with a sense of loss and a constant reminder of how their bodies betrayed them.
On a physical level, yoga can help cancer survivors get their strength back, regain flexibility, improve endurance, increase muscle tone, and restore balance.
On a physical level, yoga can help cancer survivors get their strength back, regain flexibility, improve endurance, increase muscle tone, and restore balance. For breast cancer survivors, lymphedema—a pooling of fluid in the soft tissue under the arm—can be quite painful. Restorative poses as well as lateral movements, supported inversions, and gentle stretches—like half-downward-facing dog at the wall—can help get the fluid moving through the body instead of getting stuck in one place.
On a deeper level, yoga can help a cancer survivor recover a sense of self, or perhaps discover it for the first time. Ellen Frohardt, who recovered from a very rare form of cancer—chondrosarcoma of the cricoid cartilage, which resulted in surgical removal of her larynx—found yoga to be both her ally and her nemesis. She came to yoga because she knew she had to face her illness from the inside out. Yoga gave her a new way to relate to herself, but it wasn’t always that easy to do. “Mentally and emotionally, yoga has slapped me upside the head for my lack of patience,” she says. Her MO has long been to push through pain and do it faster. “It’s not the physicality of the practice that challenges me,” she says, “but what it reflects in my nature that is so profound and sometimes so difficult to bear.”
They hate what they look like—an ever-present reminder of their illness—and their posture and downcast faces reflect that.
Each time a new group gathers at Shambhala, women sit with wigs on, and oversized clothing disguises their bodies. They speak of the shame they feel when they see their bald heads in the mirror or take their clothes off to expose what one woman calls her “bloated, scar-riddled body that obviously belongs to someone else.” Others complain that they can no longer move, run, dance, or even walk like they used to. They hate what they look like—an ever-present reminder of their illness—and their posture and downcast faces reflect that. But stepping onto their mats they begin to understand yoga’s power to change their relationship to themselves. Yoga asks them to approach their practice and their bodies (just for that day, that moment, or that breath) with compassion, nonjudgment, and gentle humor. Their new mantra becomes “Isn’t that interesting?” as they notice how they feel when they can’t balance; when they have to take child’s pose and everyone else looks strong in warrior pose; when they reach for the wall, a chair, an outstretched hand for support when they can’t go it alone. Slowly they begin to practice not from a place of ego but from a sense of devotion. Not from an adversarial place, but a place of patience, kindness, and forgiveness. They learn, as Ellen did, to “kiss and make up” with the being they’re in conflict with.
A yoga and meditation practice can be a powerful means for self-reflection, a laboratory of loving experimentation, and an opportunity to let go—of judgments and expectations. For Vikki Wagner, a two-time breast cancer survivor, asana and pranayama gave her permission to be gentle with herself. And as she moved through the classes, she found herself surrendering, releasing what she had been holding so rigidly. Almost immediately, she says, “I found my energy level increasing. Joints that had been frozen from immobility became ‘juicy’ again and I began to feel as though I would be OK.” Through yoga and meditation, she learned what she gave power to—in her case, thoughts and fears of physical limitations—was what was holding her back. “When I was able to release those thoughts, focus on my breath and my miraculous body,” Vikki says, “I was able to reclaim my power and my courage.” Yoga teaches all of us that we are perfect just the way we are. No one can promise that yoga or meditation will cure cancer, but for the countless men and women who have made a commitment to show up on their mats and their cushions no matter what, these practices have changed their lives.
Resources: Healing Mind-Body Retreats
Arts and Healing Retreat for Women with Cancer or Chronic Illness
This annual retreat, offered by Creative Healing Connections, gives women with chronic diseases the opportunity to come together and share their stories in a lovely Adirondack mountain setting.
Commonweal Cancer Help Program
The oldest and most respected integrative program for people with cancer, this seven-day retreat combines yoga, meditation, massage, and guided imagery with talks on death and dying, holistic oncology, and treatment choices. The program hosts six retreats annually.
Courageous Women, Fearless Living
Led by a team of experts in the field, this program includes meditation instruction, healing visualization practice, yoga sessions, whole-being health care and nutrition tips, art therapy, ritual, sacred dance, and community building.