How is Yoga for Cancer Different Than Other Types of Yoga?

I’m often asked this question: “How is yoga for cancer patients different than other types of yoga? “ There are many ways we’ve adapted yoga to serve cancer patients.

Here are the main points . . .

Physical Ability. The first issue to address is the participant’s physical abilities and limitations. Through a pre-class interview via questionnaire, I will already know what form of cancer each person is dealing with. I’ll know whether there are metastasis to watch out for, surgery sites that are still healing, areas of tenderness from radiation, a general limited range of motion or any non-cancer related issues like back pain, arthritis or bad knees. I’ll also know if they are dealing with the side effects of treatment like joint pain, hormonal imbalances, fatigue, shortness of breath. All of this information helps me design the physical aspect of the class.

The movement and poses should meet the participants where they are. We start in a chair to make things easy. Once I understand their condition and get a sense of how they move, I can either take them into standing poses or onto the floor or we can just stay in the chairs.

Emotional and Mental State. The other main concern in these classes is stress and anxiety. Additionally, through that questionnaire, I’ll also know if they are dealing with high anxiety, depression, poor sleep, or if they have other coping mechanisms in place like family support, psychotherapy, meditation, church or friends. All this determines how I weave in things like breathing techniques for anxiety or meditation to get control of fears.

Adaptable. Also, we start each class with a check-in. I ask how each participant is doing that day and they let me know if something has flared up or if their anxiety is high – maybe they have an upcoming scan or other impending tests. This also informs how I structure the class. Some days we do a restorative class with lots of resting in supportive poses. Some days we are more active and we explore strength and balance in the body. Some days we talk more about the mind – how our thoughts ramp up our anxiety and how we can get control of them.

Relaxation. Finally, I make sure we end with a long savasana, the final resting period. The specific practice I do here is called yoga nidra and it allows the participant to drop into a deep state of relaxation while staying lucid enough to feel their body. In this state they may receive signals or information from their body or their deep self and at the very least, they have this sustained moment to rest in just being.

Classes stay small, under ten people, so that I can stay tuned in to everyone and their needs.

Educational. Where I can, I try to educate the participants on the physiological changes that these practices elicit – how these practices are supporting the immune system, supporting healing. This style of yoga can give a cancer patient their body back, help them take control, calm the anxiety, regain strength, flexibility and balance, deepen their awareness, and induce a much needed sense of peace.

 Headshot in blue, smilingMichelle Stortz, C-IAYT, RYT500, MFA
I have been specially trained to work with cancer patients. I am a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapist. If you are looking a yoga-for-cancer class, look for similar credentials.


Lift Up!

If you’ve been taking my class for a while, you’ve heard me say numerous times, “keep the shoulders down, lift the upper chest, find that regal posture!” Here’s more as to why we should “lift up” and out of a rounded upper torso.

Often we hunch forward when working at the computer, washing dishes or driving our cars. We don’t really think about it. The task just seems to lend itself to sinking in the spine. Or perhaps we established a postural habit in our youth which was related to emotional issues such as shame, fear, embarrassment, worthlessness, or guilt. While those feelings may have passed, it’s possible they actually took-up permanent residence deep in our muscle tissue. Unlearning these habits may call for more that just muscle repatterning.

We rarely get the opportunity to learn good posture unless we joined the military, graduated from ‘finishing school’ or took up a physical activity such as dance or sports.

A lifetime of a hunched posture can affect the body in several ways. The most common complaint with this rounded posture is the pain in the neck! Upper back and neck tension can lead to pinched nerves or nerve damage which may cause neck pain and/or migraines.

In addition, the upper torso is home to two very important organs, the lungs and heart. With the heart, a rounded upper back may be putting pressure on the heart. It might cut off circulation to and from the heart or possibly cause nerve irritation in that area. As for the lungs, full lung capacity means being able to breathe into all areas of the lungs: upper, middle, lower and the back aspect. A rounded posture is usually caused by a muscular imbalance, which makes it difficult to move the rib cage into its neutral position. Without this ability to mobilize all the ribs, a big full breath is impossible. We want fuller breaths in order to get more oxygen into the blood stream. This makes all tissues and organs happy, most especially the brain!

There are two glands in this area of the upper chest, the thyroid and thymus. The thyroid regulates metabolism and hormone function. The thymus develops T-cells which are part of the immune system. If the nerves are restricted in the upper chest/neck area, this stress impinges nerve communications from brain to glands (thyroid, thymus and others) and organs and vice versa. The signals can’t get through. The same goes for blood circulation. And that’s not good!

So grab a book, balance it on your head and walk through your house. For fun, chant “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” Enjoy.