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Too Stressed For Yoga?By Lisa R. Shusterman, Ph.D.

When I suggested yoga to help manage stress to Kathy, a 54 year-old woman who had recently finished chemotherapy for Stage II breast cancer, she laughed. “I’m too stressed to do yoga!” she told me. Alicia, a 72-year old patient said, “I can’t do yoga. That’s for younger people.” “I’m just too tired,” complained Rae, another breast cancer patient, who was seeing me for counseling to help her cope with the emotional distress associated with a recurrence of her cancer. Another patient, Melinda, stated, “I don’t believe in it. I’m a Christian.” There are hundreds of reasons why breast cancer patients are reluctant to do yoga. Yet, yoga offers many possible benefits for women who are adjusting to a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

There are various types of yoga: some focus on breathing, some focus on meditation and some focus on poses. Yoga may sound exotic, but it really boils down to gentle stretching, deep breathing, arranging the body into postures, quieting the mind and turning inward. All of these aspects of yoga can help someone with breast cancer. It can be a tool for combating the stress associated with the disease.

A recent study found that yoga helps breast cancer patients feel “a sense of well-being.” A sense of well-being is no small thing when you are undergoing surgery, reconstruction, chemotherapy, radiation or hormone therapy. These treatments often have negative side-effects and can make a patient feel worse than she did prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer. “It’s ironic,” explained Melinda. “Before I started treatment I felt good. Now that I’m taking chemotherapy, I feel sick.” Yoga can help someone like Melinda cope.

Yoga cannot cure cancer, but it can significantly improve a cancer patient’s quality of life. More specifically, yoga can increase energy, improve mood, decrease tension, enhance sleep, decrease pain, improve flexibility, increase strength, and extend range of motion. Yoga works by harnessing the benefits of the relaxation response, a physiological state of the body where muscles relax, blood vessels open, heart rate decreases, brain activity slows and stomach acidity goes down. The relaxation response is the opposite of tension in the body. It calms the body down. Anything that helps the breast cancer patient calm down is valuable.

The diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer often leads to anxiety and depression. Patients typically feel scared of the unknown effects of treatment, fearful about their prognosis, and worried about their families. Many women tell me that they feel betrayed by their body and alienated from themselves. Even women who are resilient and positive get overwhelmed and discouraged at times. I often hear patients say, “I don’t know what happened to me.” When someone faces breast cancer she may unconsciously brace herself to deal with the discomforts and physical onslaughts of treatment and the worries about death and protracted illness. Some women have these concerns right after diagnosis; some have these concerns during treatment and some have these concerns after treatment is over, but no one totally escapes them.

From a psychological point of view, yoga can be especially beneficial to a cancer patient or cancer survivor. Yoga is a way to take some level of control over the body at time when people feel little control over their bodies. One of the best aspects of yoga is that each person goes at her own pace. “There were times when I had so little energy that all I could do was show up at the yoga class.” Rae reported, “I didn’t have to do anything that made me uncomfortable. Sometimes I just laid on my back with my knees pointed toward the ceiling and focused on my breathing. Other times I was able to do some of the postures, adapting them to how I felt on a specific day. My yoga teacher kept telling me that there was no where to get to. She said, ‘yoga is a practice. Find the place that works for you.’ That was such a relief.” Yoga done properly encourages a person to proceed gently and at her own level. Kathy told me, “I brought pillows to my yoga sessions and I would use them to make myself comfortable while I stretched and moved.” Rae said, “For me, yoga is about what I can do. It reminds me that the real me is a powerful person.” Alicia, the woman who was concerned that practicing yoga was somehow a threat to her religion, related to me that she had a long conversation about yoga with her minister. She said that, in his opinion, her religion welcomed anything that would make her feel better. “I was delighted to find,” she told me, “that quieting myself actually made me feel closer to my God.”

Yoga isn’t for everyone. Some yoga classes can be quite challenging so it is important to check out the level of the class before going. Beginning and easy yoga classes will probably be the most appropriate; yoga is supposed to be soothing, not stressful.

Kathy told me at our last counseling session, “I have tried to incorporate the things I have learned in yoga into my everyday life. It helps me focus on the moment that I am in and to feel as peaceful as I can at that moment. That’s everything to me now.”