Eighteen years ago, on a cold and rainy day, I was frustrated. It had been three weeks since I made the discovery. Yes, the ultrasound declared it a solid mass and not a cyst. No, the mammogram didn’t know exactly what it was. I agreed to wait eight weeks to see if my body would absorb this foreign object. My medical provider declared this would be the most likely scenario. Five more weeks...
Sitting in stillness to simply find the breath was challenging. Each time was the same. I would begin with good intentions to find calm. Then, my monkey mind would jump from vine to vine with commentary of worry and not knowing. I needed something more and remembered this ancient practice that I had studied during mindfulness training. I had practiced the very basics but hadn’t committed myself. My instinct told me that this is exactly what I needed.
Yoga traces its roots back to over 5,000 years ago. Some research indicates that it could be twice that age. Regardless, Hatha Yoga is the physical form of yoga that is most often practiced in the West. It means the union of the sun (ha) and moon (tha). Isn’t this fitting? My name means solar, lunar, sky. My parents must have known what they were doing! Yoga moves the physical body and prepares us to sit in stillness. I was ready!
Yoga strengthens and lengthens the muscles while breathing quiets the signaling pathways in the brain helping us become more relaxed and less reactive. I discovered I could marry the body with the breath and sit with less mind chatter and more awareness. Of course, there were days over the five week span of uncertainly that were more difficult than others. For the next two decades, there would be additional scares, family genetic findings, heightened surveillance and anxiety, difficult decisions and family deaths where yoga would assist me both mentally and physically.
After discovering the benefits and leaning on this ancient practice, I wanted to share with others, especially those experiencing stress and health concerns. I started taking workshops and my first round of teacher training. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to study with some amazing yoga instructors. There are many who come to mind, but two who emphasize balancing the immune system and nurturing peace. I trained in Yin/Yang Yoga and Mindful Meditation with Sarah Powers. This balance of yoga is a wonderful practice to wring out the body, massage the internal organs, improve the lymphatic system (which we discussed in part 1) and calm the mind. Therapeutic Yoga was also a powerful training that educated me in so many ways. It blends gentle and restorative yoga with breathwork, hands-on healing and guided meditation. Cheri Clampett, the founder and director of this training, taught this compassionate and revealing week of wonderment and shared her story of cancer survival. She is a testament of what yoga can do for the body, mind and spirit.
We discussed the breath in part 1, so let’s talk about movement. We need it!! Our body is growing and breaking down and trying to create constant balance. If we are on bed rest for a long period of time, we witness this place of imbalance through muscle atrophy and bone thinning. One form of exercise that can be beneficial to anyone is yoga. Matthew Sanford is an inspiring person who happened to share this message locally in 2012. He is a yoga teacher who has been a paraplegic since his teens and is committed to making yoga accessible to everyone. He’s such an inspiration and shares his design for transforming obstacles into opportunities. Here’s a wonderful look into his world.
There’s nothing magical about moving. It’s simply motion that involves position changes with the body. Because of this movement that involves the skeletal system and muscles, the heart beats faster, bodily fluids move more freely and our breathing rate increases. Our circulation increases and this helps our lymphatic system which is a vital part of our immune system.
The lymphatic system (this is a refresher from part 1) needs physical movement (and gravity) to release toxins and other waste from the body. Yoga provides the basic extension and flexion of hands, feet, extremities and body while performing poses. By using the breath while the body is expanding and contracting, things work in unison. Adding twists to a sequence of movements is simply the icing on the cake. Twisting massages and cleanses the internal organs and creates compression in the body. This has an impact on circulation and assists our lymphatic flow. Across this super highway of the lymph system, the fluid moves into the circulatory system through the thoracic duct and integrates with blood and plasma that move through the spleen, kidneys, liver and bladder. The varied movements of yoga (from restorative to gentle to flowing poses) work with the body to help detoxify and improve the immune system.
Now, I’d like to look specifically at surgical procedures - lumpectomies, mastectomies and/or reconstruction. Lumpectomies involve removing the suspicious mass and surrounding tissue. Mastectomies come in different levels. Mastectomies compared with lumpectomies are more involved. A total mastectomy involves the complete removal of the breast tissue from lower ribs to the collar bone. If reconstruction is part of the process, tissue expanders may be inserted under the chest muscle. Then, there is another future surgery that cuts the chest muscles again to give implants their new home. There can be scar tissue formation for all surgeries with mastectomies involving lots of chest tightness and constriction. There is also an imbalance in muscles between the back and chest. Breathing deeply into the lungs assists with the extreme rigidity and decreases the anxiety that can accompany the process. Yoga can assist in opening the torso that we want to thoughtfully and cautiously protect. Specific poses help the body find movement during the extended recovery phase and assists in the rebuilding of strength, flexibility and muscle balance.
Then, there is treatment to consider. If someone is undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiation, there can be a compromised immune system, fatigue and skin irritation to name a few. Mind/body techniques can assist in curbing nausea, improving the immune system and reducing and/or managing pain.
Last but certainly not least, lymphedema can be a concern for many. When lymph nodes are removed in someone who is being treated for breast cancer, swelling can take place in the arm and others areas of the body such as the hand, fingers, chest and back. This swelling means that the lymph vessels aren’t draining properly. It’s important to keep things flowing and yoga can help.
If you can relate to this blog, there are a couple of things to be aware of. It’s imperative to work with someone who has experience and is qualified as there are many types of yoga and not all forms are appropriate for everyone. Certain restrictions should be taken into consideration in addition to utilizing a therapeutic holistic approach which may involve individualized poses or yogascription as I like to call it. Also, a breathing practice should be part of the regimen as the breath and body are so keenly connected.
There is this beautiful harmony with yoga and breathing. If you haven’t tried it, I encourage you to do so even if you aren’t facing a health crossroads. A feeling of bliss after practicing washes over you, even when you’ve had a bad day. (It make take a few classes to experience it, but once you have you’ll know). Research shows that the time we take for ourselves provides a sense of loving kindness. We are kind to others and compassionate with ourselves. The mind/body practices don’t eliminate our concerns, but because of them we may approach our difficulties differently. We accept that we can’t control all aspects of life and because we recognize this, we learn how to manage challenges better.
So although my original intention in 1998 was to use yoga during a time of difficulty, it quickly evolved into part of who I am. It has been with me during the good times and the not so good. It has never let me down and my life wouldn’t be complete without it. I am eternally grateful that yoga found me and look forward to continuing to share it with others.