By Stella Snyder, Certified Oncology Yoga Instructor for Little Red Door Cancer Agency
Something very special happens twice weekly in the upstairs of the Little Red Door Cancer Agency. We have been practicing yoga for the past two years, and many of our clients have become advanced yogis. Will I be sending them to an advanced yoga class at City Yoga to practice chatarangas and headstands? No. Many of our clients are currently in treatment for cancer, or are newly in remission, and are easing into their new normal — meaning that fatigue is commonly overwhelming and that energy conservation and healing become main goals of our practice.
So what do I mean by advanced yogis? The ancient practice of yoga is actually much more than the asana, or physical practice or poses, that our Western culture has come to portray as yoga. The purpose of sun salutations and physical practices originally became a part of yoga to prepare the body to sit comfortably in meditation. Now when you turn on the television or look to social media, yoga is shown as a rigorous physical practice, certainly not something someone going through cancer treatment should be doing. In the yoga room at the Little Red Door, we know that yoga is so much more than just the physical practices, and we focus our classes on awareness, breath, modified asana, relaxation, and meditation.
It is pretty amazing the commitment our clients have made to their practice, as well as the benefits they see. Through the regular awareness practice that begins each class, many experience the strengthened awareness that stays with them long after class is over. One client, who recently completed her treatment for breast cancer, always credits her heightened awareness for allowing her to notice when she is holding her breath when she is tense or anxious and to notice negative thought patterns. Once she notices these behaviors or sensations, she is able to use her appropriate yoga practices to make changes to these unhealthy habits. I remember when she first came in a year ago. She was bewildered at the idea of watching her thoughts or observing the mind. Now she shares with new students how the practice has allowed her to realize and connect with a part of herself that is more than just the mind.
Through our breathing practices, students have learned how to use their control over their breath to calm their anxieties, and relieve the physiological effects of a stress response. I very commonly hear that this becomes useful before doctor appointments, getting results from scans or tests, and/or other stressful situations. Also, when cancer patients need to receive radiation in the head and neck area, they are strapped down with a specially molded mesh mask, in order to keep the area completely still for radiation therapy. This can cause a feeling of claustrophobia or panic as even the radiation therapist is required to leave the room — leaving the patient alone. One client with throat cancer used our calming breathing tools throughout his radiation treatment and shared with me that it always helped keep him calm during this stressful time.
The modified asana, using a chair as support, helps students manage their neuropathy, increase circulation and lymphatic flow, ease tension, gently build strength, and increase range of motion. Students come to our chair yoga class typically with little to no experience with an asana practice, and our easeful practice is the best unitimidating introduction to the benefits of yoga. Our movements are based on uni-movements, or simple movements coordinated with the breath, and we take these movements dynamically, as opposed to holding poses.
Finally, the relaxation and meditation that we end our class with transforms everyone. No matter how high their stress levels or anxiety is when they come in, they leave in a completely different state. At the end of every class I hear, “Oh, I feel so much better” from practically every student. And the relaxation practice serves as a tool that students take home with them. Several clients have told me they use the practice if they have trouble falling asleep at night. Practicing relaxation is just like practicing any sport or musical instrument, the more often you rehearse, the better you will become. Through our relaxation practice, students’ bodies and minds are familiarized with pathways that lead them from a stressed state to a relaxed nervous system, so that it becomes easier and easier for them to “feel so much better.”
I love that through the Little Red Door and the Pranayoga Foundation, this practice is available to anyone, just as yoga should be. Typical studio classes can cost around $15 per class, and I don’t believe any of my students would have begun their practice at that cost. Through the Door to Wellness program, which offers free yoga, our clients have developed a routine that allows them to receive the benefits of a regular yoga practice. It allows this very special practice to happen twice a week in the upstairs of The Little Red Door Cancer Agency and allows cancer patients and survivors to become advanced yogis.