Cancer shatters. No matter what kind of cancer is diagnosed, no matter the stage or the prognosis, there is a full body realization that from this moment on, life will change. The practice of yoga acknowledges this shift, and supports the body on all levels through the transition (or transformation) that cancer can create.
For a newly diagnosed cancer patient, life in the early stages can be notoriously confusing and busy. There are so many appointments to make, so many health practitioners to consult, much to understand, and many treatment decisions to make. There are family and friends to tell (or not), and work situations to move through. People can feel frantic and dislodged, so emotionally frayed that it may feel as though they have left their body behind.
Yoga connects us to ourselves, and through our body to all of life. All practices of yoga, with its focus on breath and movement, are effective in maintaining health and vitality. Restorative Yoga, a particularly slow and mindful practice, has been gaining popularity, especially where life circumstances are stressful and laced with fear. Restorative Yoga is deliberately restful. It helps those with cancer and their caregivers take time to come back to the body—to breathe, release and to help the body heal. It is a practice that is primarily about slowing down and balancing the nervous system, first through breath and mindful movement and then through constructive rest. In the practice, we move from Sympathetic Nervous System dominance (that common rushed and stressed feeling) and seamlessly, effortlessly, stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System to enhance deep rest and full-body restoration. During the practice, students, quite literally, create a nest or an island of physical support using pillows and bolsters. It is an intentional time in the present, away from worries and decisions, the endless planning, assessing and predicting. To slow down and to listen deeply. To come home to ourselves. To allow the body time to rest and heal.
Restorative Yoga is often practiced in group classes. Because it is slow and comfortable poses are rested in for long periods of time, it can actually be a difficult practice to maintain at home — we often don’t give ourselves permission for so much time spent in relaxation. In addition, the beauty of human resonance means that one person softening and relaxing actually helps another to do the same. So, company can be helpful, but is not a requirement. Yoga Therapy sessions work similarly, with the therapist suggesting breath, movement and poses (one-on-one with a client) specific to the student’s unique needs. Group or individual, most important is the attitude in which we practice. Crucial is the learned ability to self-reference—to consider suggestions, and to follow the body’s path to the most healing possibility. We come to the body with mindful curiosity. No judgment. We enter in, not to change or fix this body, but to practice acceptance and love.
For the body to feel safe, the room is kept warm, the music soft and the guide’s voice calm, sincere and unhurried. There is a feeling of endless time—never any rush to move, to get either into a restful pose or out of one. We warm the body through breath and easy movement (gently stimulating fluid – especially lymph and synovial fluid) and then we rest, sometimes for up to twenty minutes in each restorative pose (soft supported versions of yoga forward bends, back bends, twists, and subtle inversions) noticing breath, feeling the body, sensing the earth. The only rule is to be blissfully comfortable, so comfortable that there is not even the sensation of stretch. So comfortable that the body can truly let go.
The basis of the practice is support. When our body is perfectly held with blankets, bolsters and pillows, we can then release the internal holding. We don’t have to hold our body up or hold ourselves together. We are cradled, we feel safe. It is a feeling of relief. Like a child secure in a parent’s arms, we feel easy with life. With each exhaled breath, we begin to feel heavy and soft. We notice more than our thinking. We drop into our physical body, our best reminder of the here and now. Through feeling the moving breath, and any other subtle sensations, we listen with respect and curiosity. This body weight, this feeling of support and connection with the earth below, this wonder and ease, all inform the nervous system that in this moment all is well. Our heart rate and blood pressure come down and the body begins its wise work of physical reparation and restoration. We become more fluid, literally. We breathe, we move, and our body gently detoxifies. We let go of what is not needed. We take life in.
Feeling supported is both physical and emotional. The cradling of the body can restore security and calm when the diagnosis of cancer shakes things up. It can function to bring us back to our true nature. From the place of inner connection we may choose to work, at our own pace, with the trauma of diagnosis or invasive treatments, or more common to all, the fear about the future. Spending this time resting in the body, feeling and listening, can often help to us to make more easeful embodied decisions about our treatment—whole person decisions that can only come when there is spacious time to process and feel one’s own direction. Being supported in this way can help us remember that we are always supported—by the earth, by our breath, by those we have chosen to help us along the way, by our loved ones. It can ensure that we do not abandon ourselves, but stay connected to our own experience, working with cancer, moment by moment, the best that we can.
Restorative Yoga and Nutrition workshop at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre
By Jennifer Garnham, MD, FRCP(C), RYT
In December 2012, the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre (www.oicc.ca) hosted the first, of hopefully a series, of workshops combining Restorative Yoga with Nutrition. The Restorative Yoga component was a 2 1/2 hour class combining theory with practice. The theory part included explanation of the Sympathetic Nervous System and its role in acute and chronic stress, as well as its impact on immune function. In my work, and during this workshop, I use the principles of Embodied Yoga (Bo Forbes) to explain the impact of stress on the entire Mind-Body Network. Following an explanation of these principles, we then applied the information to a practice that included pranayama (breath regulation), bandhas (energy seals or locks) and Restorative Yoga poses.
After my part of the workshop, all participants headed downstairs where Kylie Delfino, Registered Holistic Nutritionist, had organized a nutrition demonstration with the help of the Natural Food Pantry (Ottawa, ON).
For information on upcoming workshops and events at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre, please visit: www.oicc.ca/en/news/events.