Starting a Yoga Practice: Practical advice from a survivor turned yoga teacher

Libby Lowe, of Yoga Bear, a non-profit organization that provides yoga to cancer patients and survivors, shares how those new to yoga can begin practicing after a cancer diagnosis. Lowe shares Jean Di Carlo-Wagner's story of beginning yoga and later became an instructor for other cancer patients and survivors.

Jean Di Carlo-Wagner's battles with cancer have been as both a survivor and a caregiver. She began her yoga practice before her own fight with stage 3 colon cancer, and as it evolved to accommodate her recovery, her practice remained a source of healing and inspiration. Today, Jean lives and teaches in San Diego, Calif.

"For me, cancer meant starting over and not knowing how long I had or what to do -- it was like being 19 in a 50-year-old body. I knew more about myself, but needed a lot of prayer and meditation. I tried to go to yoga classes, but it was too humiliating. I had no muscle tone and pulled a hamstring folding forward. I didn't know my new body; and my mind and body were not together. I started practicing at home with a tape but I could only do the first 10 minutes, sometimes only five. So, that's what I did ... over and over again. I needed to work on a scale that I had never had to work on," she says.

She realized she couldn't be the only one struggling. Wanting to help others, Jean got certified as a yoga instructor and began by teaching a group of friends before going on to complete a 200-hour certification as well as special training to work with seniors. Today, she teaches many survivors one on one.

"One of the reasons I became a yoga teacher for cancer survivors was to offer a class where students could learn to assess their bodies and move within the integrity of their bodies. In theory, all yoga classes have this self-reflective component, but their baseline for normal is assumed. In a class designed for cancer survivors, or special populations, the practice of relearning our bodies is encouraged and we find our new normal."

Here, Jean offers advice for people interested in returning to or beginning a yoga practice.

First, talk to your doctor to get a sense of what is OK for you. "Bending over may not feel very good to you if you are on chemotherapy, and twists aren't good for everyone either. If you have a mass in your abdomen, for example, it may not feel very good to twist and compress your internal organs. One of my cancer buddies was a long time hula dancer and yogi, but after her first dose of chemotherapy for breast cancer, bending over made her dizzy and weak. She asked me what she should do and I told her that anything that doesn't feel good means it isn't good for her right now," Jean says.

Finding the Right Class

Once you've got the green light and feel ready to try a class, the first step is finding the right one. One great way to get started is to check out Jean's video for beginning students and search Yoga Bear's map of free or discounted classes across the country. Many are specifically geared toward cancer survivors!

Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the General Discussions CURE discussion group.
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