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Yoga and somatics for cancer recovery or living with cancer

Updated: Feb 10

All the evidence points to the fact that exercise, both aerobic and strength training, improves the quality of life in those living with cancer and those undergoing treatment ( radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy). It reduces the side effects of treatment, such as fatigue and nausea, improves wellbeing, reduces stress and improves feelings of overall well-being. It also improves people’s feeling of having some control over their disease or its effects on their bodies. For some cancers, such as bowel cancer, the latest evidence shows that exercise reduces the risk of your disease recurring (wow!). Exercise and keeping a normal body weight also reduce your chances of getting lymphoedema. However, if you’ve had surgery, you may need to take certain precautions to avoid straining your wound, while giving your body time to recover. So you need to check with your cancer nurse or GP that it’s a good time to start exercising, or contact a physio who has cancer care experience ( such as me!!), or those who have done the Pinc and Steele courses on cancer exercise.

The main thing is, you need to find something that you LIKE doing, so that it doesn’t become a burden. It needs to enrich your life and give you energy, not drive you crazy….!

Yoga: is a great form of exercise to consider: the stronger practices can be quite aerobic ( making you breathe fast and raise your heart rate) and the gentler forms involve lots of stretching, core strengthening and very importantly, breath control. As a yoga teacher and a physio who is experienced in cancer care, I am going to give my tuppence worth, based on anecdotal evidence ( what I have seen from my practice).

Here are the ways that I am suggesting that yoga may help you:

1) Breath control. In my experience, most people who have had the trauma of a cancer diagnosis and are undergoing treatment, or indeed those who have finished treatment, have poor patterns of breathing. This is often due to stress itself, but sometimes because it is an old pattern of breathing you’ve had for years. But don’t feel bad, most of the general population aren’t that hot at it either! Yoga incorporates breathing into the postures, improving lung capacity. To start with, have a look at my video on how to breathe better. It’ll give you a gentle starting point in the right direction, whether you choose to do yoga or not

2) Stretching and moving a body that has been traumatised, operated on, poked and prodded at, is so beneficial. After all that trauma, my experience is that people are afraid to move, even when all the treatment is finished. Yoga can help you get back in touch with the parts of you that need strengthening and the parts of you that need stretching. In other words, getting to know your body again, getting to see what it’s able for and getting to trust it again.

3) The relaxation effect of yoga is well documented. While it is possible to do strong aerobic forms of yoga, the gentler forms have a relaxation effect. This is because both sustained stretches and breathing are soothing to your nervous system , taking you off that ‘high alert, high alert’ perch you’ve been on during your treatment.

4) Even though it is better known for its beneficial effects on flexibility, yoga is really excellent for strengthening your muscles and making you strong again. The yoga poses can be adjusted for your needs so that you don’t put undue stress on body parts that are recovering from treatment.

5) Yoga can be used as a form of exercise, even if you have got lymphoedema: I’ve got two yoga videos for arm lymphoedema if you click here.

Let’s be honest…yoga is not for everyone. But, if you decide that you would like to try it, check with your cancer team that it’s okay for you to start. Start gently, gradually coaxing your body to move, and deciding which poses feel good and avoiding those that don’t. My Barely Beginner’s series on Youtube is designed for people who are struggling with their bodies and trying to start a gentle recovery. Because they are not supervised, go easy and let your body be your guide: if it feels good you can continue, if it doesn’t, then you stop. Click here for Barely Beginner’s classes and feel free to email me with any queries.

SOMATICS classes are not really exercise , but are more like movement explorations or mindful movements. See my blogs about somatics to explain more – most people have never even heard of it! They can be a lovely, gentle way of making friends with your body again, after all the trauma of surgery and treatment. In my experience, people often develop a fear/dislike relationship with the part of their body that developed cancer, they often avoid moving it, or they protect it by holding it differently than before. This is often subconscious. Somatics movements classes allow you to become aware of these so-called ‘holding patterns’, noticing any muscle tension in the area and discovering how to soften and move it better. They are also very relaxing for most people, but I’ll be honest, they are not for everyone.

So best of luck with your cancer recovery or with your programme for living with cancer. Exercise and movement seems to be the key, so find what you like and enjoy it!

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