People have images from news media and film of people practicing yoga. Perhaps we picture limber, lean, and youthful bodies in tights and tank tops sitting cross-legged or bent completely backwards like a human Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Celebrities and famous athletes do it. Everybody under thirty seems to be doing it. These young people might think they look like a model on the cover of Yoga Journal, and the serene look on their faces suggests that they’re not just in good physical shape, but their minds are in good shape too.
I believe yoga makes us feel good from the inside out. Yoga does not just help the body get strong, flexible, and detoxified. It helps our perception of the body and improves self-esteem. Cancer survivors have the same desire as everyone else: to look good! And yoga is for ordinary bodies. However, when baldness is not a fashion statement and makes us look sick, or when we feel weak, have gained twenty pounds from medical treatments, or have lost body parts, feeling good about how we look seems out of reach. Encouraging survivors to find a way to feel good about their appearance may sound unrealistic.
Rather than feel good, some survivors feel shame or embarrassment by their disfigurement. They say their body has betrayed them, as if blaming it helps explain a terrifying, mysterious disease. Survivors might also blame—falsely—their will, instead of their body, and think that they did not eat enough organic food, take enough vitamins and supplements, or use enough alternative therapies. Feelings of failure are not helpful and only add stress to life.
Here is what I have learned. Not only has the body not betrayed us, but by thinking this way we risk just such a betrayal. Research on stress and emotion suggests how a negative attitude towards oneself causes stress hormones to rise, thus increasing risk for cancer.18 Even though research progress is being made, we know less than we should about what causes cancer. Almost always, it is not possible to identify the exact causes for an individual cancer. Rather, the best we can do is to manage risk. What we do know, though, is that having positive thoughts cannot hurt us.19
So, a y4c yoga practice seeks to free the mind of negative thoughts and feelings about our bodies. Instead of looking into the mirror and making poor comparisons to magazine cover models, yoga teaches us how to turn the mirror around to find what is hidden on the inside. When we do something every day, even if it is a simple stretch, breathing exercise, or correcting our posture while walking down the street, we develop a healthier, more positive image of ourselves. This is how yoga starts to work and over time, will enhance your body image. By having a daily yoga practice, either alone or with others, survivors see what is good on the inside. A virtuous cycle of positive benefits results.
Excerpt from ‘Yoga for Cancer: A Guide to Managing Side Effects, Boosting Immunity, and Improving Recovery for Cancer Survivors’. Purchase your copy today.
- Sephton et al., “Depression, Cortisol, and Suppressed Cell-Mediated Immunity in Metastatic Breast Cancer.”
- Novotney, “Yoga as a Practice Tool.”