Mindfulness is the Medication

    Yulady Saluti in dancer pose at sunset.

    One hundred percent. That is the number of participants in a breast cancer yoga class who felt their quality of life had improved after taking the class. All of them. This April, the Journal of Clinical Oncology published an article stating that yoga has positive mental and physical benefits for cancer patients, providing solid evidence for cancer support communities and groups that had been using this philosophy all along.

    The class was put on by the Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor, which is led by Program Director Bonnie Dockham, LMSW. More cancer support groups, hospitals, and communities all over the United States are beginning to offer yoga classes, following the line of growing popularity of yoga overall. The Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor alone offers different classes including yoga for breast cancer, meditation classes, tai chi, and general yoga. All of them are free and open to the patients and their loved ones.

    Not only does yoga improve quality of life, but it also helps with fatigue and insomnia, two side effects of cancer treatment. Doing yoga poses increases circulation and metabolic rate, which can contribute to less fatigue. It also can help with nausea, often an effect from chemotherapy, and an option instead of medication. Dockham finds that yoga can really supplement managing the side effects of dealing with and fighting against cancer.

    An article on the American Cancer Society’s website states, “Research has shown that yoga can be used to control physical functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, metabolism, body temperature, brain waves, and skin resistance.” Of course, it should be taken into account the current physical state of someone who wants to practice yoga. The practice is centered around not pushing yourself too hard, and never causing harm or pain to your body.

    According to an article by Dockham for the University of Michigan blog mCancer, practicing yoga helps curb cellular inflammation, which can lead to disability and increased mortality.

    Dockham has seen the benefits firsthand. “There was a woman who started practicing, she was using a walker, and couldn’t do stairs without help,” she said. “Through regular practice, yoga and tai chi, she was able to increase flexibility and strength, enough to be independent on stairs.”

    Staying grounded and calm while upside down.

    Staying grounded and calm while upside down.

    Yoga can help patients rebuild the strength that can be lost through treatment, Dockham explained. “People become deconditioned after surgery, they lose muscle tone and muscle mass,” she said. “Yoga can help with that deconditioning.”

    The emotional side effects are also evident. “I’ve really seen yoga help people with relaxation and depression, people can take control of life and in other ways,” Dockham said. Like the title of her post on the mCancer blog, it’s not just a feel good activity. The physical benefits are impossible to ignore.

    When patients initially seek help in the form of yoga, it can often take some education on the subject. Flexibility isn’t necessary to begin with, explained Dockham. It’s something learned through the practice and also taken into account when a person can’t manage a certain pose. At the center in Ann Arbor, they offer chair yoga, and a more progressive class that slowly increases intensity. There are always modifications and different styles for each person to choose from, and there are many different types of yoga, and often taking the first step onto the mat is breaking the preconceived notions of what yoga looks like.

    Lura Shopteau, an integrative therapies practitioner, graduate of YCat Yoga Therapy in Cancer and Chronic Illness, and current yoga teacher at Bienestar Yoga Shala in Costa Rica, found that the classes also make a big difference in how patients feel about their healing.

    “You don’t have to struggle through it,” Shopteau said. “You can soften, you can learn things to help you feel secure about healing and the anxiety that goes along with healing and recovery.”

    She defines integrative wellness as, “A combination of modern medical technology and ancient wellness practices integrated to help people heal.” Shopteau will use other techniques that are tied into yoga, such as doing pranayama breathing with a patient who just came out of surgery. This breathing technique is the center of hatha yoga and according to Shopteau, it helps with relaxation, stress reduction, quality of sleep, reduces stress hormones, and improves gastrointestinal function. She tags the doctors today that were practicing yoga in the 60s as the ones responsible, calling them the unsung heroes who have brought integrative wellness to where it’s at today.

    Warrior One pose by the water.

    Warrior One pose by the water.

    She also keeps her classes to a small amount, about six people, in order to accommodate anyone with injuries, and to stretch and strengthen any injuries or surgery areas.

    In addition to physical benefits, Shopteau stresses the psychosocial benefits that attending group yoga classes for chronic disease has. “When people go through cancer, other than at the hospital, at home, they’re often very isolated during [the] healing process,” she said. This can be because of fatigue, friends not knowing how to help, or any awkward situations.

    “All of the sudden you go to yoga, and there’s a few others in the same situation, you have someone who understands what you’re going through,” Shopteau said. She said she’s seen beautiful friendships form from classes, and the support aspect is a wonderful tool for those who feel isolated.

    Yoga itself can be a form of support, as found by popular Instagram yogi Yulady Saluti. Saluti struggled with addiction when she was younger, and overcame it with a good combination of rehab and yoga. Later in life, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and is now a survivor.

    “Because of yoga, I can find the bright side of a crappy situation,” she wrote in an article for MindBodyGreen. She turned her diagnosis into awareness for women, and a way to spread hope. She now spends her time teaching and practicing yoga when she’s not with her family.

    Yoga has made powerful roots in the communities it has grown, whether they are with purpose of helping people with chronic illness and cancer, or simply yoga for it’s own sake.

    Images courtesy of Yulady Saluti

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