Breathe Out, Then In: Yoga for Cancer Survivors


The reason breathing techniques are so powerful, is they can lower blood pressure, heart rate and ease tension on capillaries.

Breathe Out, then In: Yoga for Cancer Survivors

Have you noticed that when you’re tense or upset, you hold your breath? It’s a natural response. Our bodies are still set up to save us from lions, tigers, and bears. It requires our immune response to fuel us with adrenaline in order to make a quick getaway.

Our gut responds as well, in case we have to run, our digestion is diverted and whatever is in our colon is dumped out. Hey, I’m a colon cancer survivor and I talk poop. The gut has its own “brain” and complicated nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS). It’s responsible for our nutritional intake and making serotonin. When stressed, it tries to keep us alive by halting hunger signals and helping us run, run, run away from that bear!

Stress is part of cancer. Whether you are dealing with cancer or you’ve had cancer, you are a cancer survivor. You and I have experienced trauma. Our bodies, minds and spirits have the scars to prove it.

It's now two days later that I am continuing my blog on stress and diaphragmatic or yogic breathing. While I was in the middle of writing, I received a phone call from my sister-in-love. I thought she was calling me to wish me an early happy birthday. She was calling to tell me that my younger brother, her husband, was in Cardiac Care Unit (CCU) with uncontrollably high blood pressure. All the stress responses I had described earlier in this blog cascaded over me. I stopped breathing and focused intently on her vocal tone. I couldn't make out all the words, but I generally understood that she was trying to give me an assessment of the situation as calmly as she could.

Sweat began to pour from my face and hands. A wave of nausea overcame my bowels and I completely lost track of time. It's ironic that I was writing on our stress responses and then experienced them. It was as if I got to check my work with a real life event.

First, I will say that my brother is now stabilized. As I sit on a plane with the last leg of the journey to visit him all the way across the country, I am calmer. I will see him for myself. We are only 18 months apart. That means we are psychological twins. Before my personality had a chance to form its own identity, my brother was born. We are still very close, though we live on opposite coasts.

Even when I spoke to my brother on the phone, I told him to breathe from his belly. I was reminding myself, too. I needed to exhale first. I had been holding my breath. We lost our father at the age my brother is now. Memories flooded back of the terror of losing an irreplaceable person. I had fear that my brother would die or be critically damaged by stroke.

One of the reasons for traveling to see him, is to be with him, first-hand, as I can share some breathing tips. We can practice together. I know that family members are the most challenging people to work with on healing. But my brother is motivated. And motivation is critical in life change. Those of us who have cancer know this to be true. Crisis can be a motivation for healthy change.

The reason breathing techniques are so powerful, is they can lower blood pressure, heart rate and ease tension on capillaries. But it needs to be safe, continuous, easy breathing. A respected pulmonologist came to our yoga training for seniors and explained what can happen if the breath is held, pushed or made rapid. There's a chance that a person who is weak, elderly or otherwise compromised can have a heart attack from breathing techniques that call for holding, pushing or rapid breathing. Unless you have explicit directions from a doctor, a yoga teacher for cancer patients should only teach continuous breathing. You breathe in and then you breathe out. Or, I like to say, breathe out and let the in breath come in.

Now, this isn't exactly what I expected to write. But I want to be able to share myself and my real life practice of yoga. This morning, my daughter and I did a vigorous hatha practice. Sitting on a plane all day is challenging for me. I am thankful that my body is able to do a harder asana practice. It's a one day at a time practice. Today, I was able to move more vigorously and yet, I keep my breath long and deep. I spent many hours in meditation over the past two days and napping. Stress requires more attention to purposeful relaxation.

How are you doing? How are your breaths? How is your spirit?



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