For Yogis with Chronic Illness or Cancer

In the spring of 2011 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I was really lucky. Not only did I catch an aggressive form of cancer just before it started to spread, I also had a supportive yoga teacher and community already in place.

My world came to a standstill when I learned the diagnosis. Actually, a tailspin is more like it. Whatever my everyday life was, that disappeared. What I experienced was constant and intense fear and anxiety at the deepest levels, fueled in part by the trauma of losing my own mother to cancer when she was my age and I was only 11 years old. I remember telling a friend that I should never have had children because now they will lose their mother just like I did. I had spent the last 30 years with “40 = cancer = death” etched in my heart and soul, and then there I was.

Over the year and a half preceding my diagnosis, I had been practicing regularly with a very special teacher. When we met, I had recently been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune disease that was knocking out my thyroid) and this teacher seemed to know exactly what I needed to hear. Sprinkled into her delightfully sweaty and athletic yoga sequences were words that sparked my curiosity and touched my heart. Her yin and restorative classes reset every part of me like nothing I had ever experienced. After classes, she would often sit with me and go a little deeper into chakras, koshas, and ayurvedic elements. With her guidance, I became much more in tune with my own, inner resources and healing power, and more importantly, I became willing to face what needed to be healed inside me.

When the cancer diagnosis came crashing down, my teacher was determined to get me as strong as possible before the long months of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy started. During treatment and after, this teacher cared for me in the best ways she knew. Some things were just right, but we made a few mistakes, too. Now a full-time yoga teacher and teacher trainer myself, I’m honored to guide others living with chronic illness or going through cancer treatment drawing on both advanced training and years of personal experience. While chronic illness and cancer treatment are different conditions, many of the same guidelines of practice apply.

In my own journey through chronic illness and cancer, my yoga community has been an important anchor in my life. Not only has my yoga practice connected me to generous and supportive people, it has taught me more about illness and healing from the inside out.

My yoga practice continues to change year to year, month to month, and day to day and I encourage you to let yours evolve and change, too. We all age differently, and with chronic illness or a cancer diagnosis, our bodies may seem a lot older than they are. That can be frustrating, but yoga teaches us to respect our bodies, love them, and do no harm. Even at your fittest, there is never a need to compete for the fanciest pose or the deepest stretch. We work with what we have and start where we are, each time we practice. Chronic illness and cancer survivorship continue to teach me to turn away from self-criticism for what I can’t do and in favor of the powerful healing that my body is guiding me toward.

Honor your energy level each time you choose to practice

Practicing with an experienced and knowledgeable teacher is always recommended, and if you find the right one, s/he/they will be guiding you always to learn to hear your own inner teacher. Remember that if you are going through chemotherapy, your joint tissue as well as your muscles are affected, and you may be hypermobile in your joints similar to women who are pregnant. Going too far in stretches when the joint tissue is very weak is strongly discouraged.

With a teacher or on your own, use these energetic, moderate, and gentle movements as an opportunity to notice the before and after, the shift in your energy physically, mentally, and emotionally. Choose just one at a time or string them together to suit your needs.

Yoga for Fatigue:

Studies show that even just a little bit of mindful movement can help energize us. Less minutes more times per week have a greater effect in blasting fatigue, so it’s important to change it up during the week if you get easily bored with repetition. And remember, a little inversion goes a long way!

  • Energetic: Sun Salutations (modify as you like; as few as five can do the trick! And a mala of 108 is almost sure to get you out of any funk you can create)
  • Moderate: Seated or standing forward fold to open the energy channels on the back of the body followed by a seated twist (if you like, go for double pigeon with a folding prayer twist to rest your elbow in the arch of your top foot).
  • Gentle: Viparita Karani (legs up the wall, props or no props) for 15 minutes

Yoga to Reduce Inflammation:

Stretching helps stimulate the healing process to combat inflammation, so get into those joints as much as you can tolerate. Chair stretches work just as well as more athletic versions of poses if what you’re going for is stimulating joint tissue and stretching, so use all the props that you need.

  • Energetic: Sanding forward fold followed by downward facing dog. Take your time in these poses to lengthen, strengthen, and release where you can. Next: camel pose, flow into it if you need to then hold or do a few rounds, always keeping your lower spine long, your breath expansive, and your shoulders drawn away from your ears. Take a childs pose to reset.
  • Moderate: Lizard pose variations to target the stretched hip flexor (stretch the back toes back and keep the spine upright and lifting with props under hands), the compressed hip flexor (get low and sink into it a bit), the inner thigh (open it up) and the spine (one hand down, open it up into a twist)
  • Gentle: Supported reclined bound angle pose for 15 minutes

Yoga to Stimulate the Lymphatic System:

Lymph does not flow automatically like blood does but we need it to move those white blood cells around to help the body get rid of toxins and waste. Yoga poses and sequences that stretch and compress major clusters of lymph nodes (leg-hip joint; armpits; cervical spine) do just that.

  • Energetic: shift between low lunges with one knee down to half splits; move with each breath or hold each for a few breaths, alternating between the two poses for up to 5 sets of 5 on each side. Let the arms rise with each lunge and the spine lengthen in each half splits. On the last lunge of each set, interlace your hands behind your lower back and pause, breathing deeply with a long spine and strong core for 5 breaths before resting between sets. Follow this sequence with neck stretches, neck rolls, or a neck massage.
  • Moderate: self-healing Qigong tapping is a fantastic complement to a regular yoga practice.
  • Gentle: Supported child’s pose for 15 minutes (use all the bolsters, blocks, and blankets that you like)

Nervous system:

For cancer survivors, regular monitoring appointments can bring on mild to severe anxiety. We’ve lived through watershed moments when our mortality is brought right in front of our eyes and when our lives change in an instant. Healing from trauma over time includes regular testing that can trigger fears of death and anxiety. Many who suffer from chronic illness or past trauma experience anxiety and other conditions that compound any physical symptoms. When repeated stress becomes chronic, our sympathetic nervous system stays on and floods the body with hormones that overtax just about every other system. Shifting into the restful parasympathetic nervous system is an essential part of our healing and rejuvenation.

  • Energetic: Goddess pose squats with big arm movements to breathe and move the spine in all directions (lateral side stretches with one arm up and over the head followed by arms opening to the side on the inhale and forward on the exhale with flexion and extension of the spine). Follow a few sets of these big breaths with a standing straddle fold hold (but this whole sequence can be done in a seated straddle, too). If you enjoy the pose, try a reclined virasana before spending 10 minutes in savasana.
  • Moderate: flowing bridge pose up and down a few times before holding (supported on a block is OK, too), followed by supine twists and savasana
  • Gentle: Supported savasana with a bolster along the spine and two bolsters under the knees for at least 15 minutes

However you decide to practice on any given day, let the principle of ahimsa, doing no harm, guide you. Listen to the cues in your body that ask for a little more or a little less. Whether you’re living with chronic illness, cancer treatment, or survivorship, your body, heart, and spirit are asking for you to care.

Reach out for help when you need it. Advocate for yourself. Stay open to new knowledge from the outside and from within. Learn to respect the way that your body is trying to guide you and give yourself a yoga break to rejuvenate and reset whenever you can.

By Jennifer Winther

Jennifer Winther. LA based Yoga Teacher Trainer. Retreat leader. PhD. Writer. Traveler. Camper. Hiker. Walker. Cyclist. Meditator. Breast cancer survivor. Motherless mother. Karateka. Libra. Art Lover. Creative dabbler. Bi-racial hapa. Scout leader. Community builder. Novice chef. Advocate. Ally. Community member YBIC. Badass ninja mom.  @JenniferWintherYoga

NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

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