This article discusses the potential for yoga in cancer recovery, and how misconceptions about this practice can act as a barrier to benefitting from this ancient, adaptable and all-encompassing form of self-care. We will explore the common myths and misconceptions around yoga.
As a physiotherapist in the UK, I worked across many disciplines and much of my work was supporting people to physically rehabilitate their bodies after illness or surgery. Physiotherapy works using a blend of exercise prescription, re-establishing postural alignment and empowering patients to self-manage.
Out of work I regularly practiced yoga. I discovered yoga when I was 16 years old and struggling with anorexia. Yoga helped me reconnect with my body, to start to slow down and listen to my body’s needs. I made friends with my breath and discovered relaxation practices that soothed my soul. It really became a sanctuary for me.
What I quickly became aware of in my personal yoga practice was how beneficial so many aspects of yoga could be for my patients in the hospital. I could see how easy it would be to adapt so many of the postures (asana) and techniques to make it accessible for people who were unwell or in recovery. I could see how it could be a gentle way to reconnect with the body, and how it could be progressed. I loved that it included breath awareness and mindful movement as this supported someone’s emotional recovery at the same time as physical conditioning. I felt excited about this holistic approach to rehabilitation. This inspired me to take a year’s sabbatical and travel to India to train to be a yoga teacher, I later went on to specialise as a cancer yoga teacher.
With my background knowledge as a physiotherapist and then my training and yoga experience I created the Gentle Recovery concept for people affected by cancer. Yoga is a fundamental part of this approach. I am passionate about this way of rehabilitating the body and mind after traumatic cancer treatments, using yoga- based-exercise, a walking programme, breathing techniques (pranayama), relaxation techniques and lots of education around cancer-specific topics so that people can be empowered with their own self-care programme.
I do find however, that when some people hear the word “yoga” they immediately switch off, they have preconceived ideas/ beliefs that make them think that it’s not for them. When I open up the conversation in to why they feel this way there are often some common yoga myths that need dispelling.
So let’s have a look at these yoga myths and truths;
Myth 1 – “I need to do flexible to do yoga”.
This is the most common misconception. People often think they need to be able to touch their toes or do the splits to even contemplate starting a yoga class. It’s true that with social media we are often seeing photos of people performing really advanced postures/ balances and this can be very intimidating.
There is no need to be at all flexible to benefit from yoga, in fact, it is the perfect form of exercise for people experiencing movement limitations/tightness/ stiffness.
It’s an incredibly adaptable practice, all postures can be modified. You can sit on a chair or bed if getting up and down off the floor is difficult. Yoga meets you where you are at, this is why its ideal for cancer rehabilitation.
Myth 2 – “Yoga is Just Stretching”
Improving flexibility is definitely a part of yoga, but its most certainly not what it’s ALL about. Yoga focuses on healthy postural alignment, strengthening, core engagement and balance. And that’s just the physical benefits, it also supports people to connect with their emotional and spiritual wellbeing – so much more than a workout!!
In terms of cancer recovery, yoga is great at restoring range of movement after surgery and/ or radiation which can cause tissue tightness and joint stiffness. It’s a gentle way to restore posture and poise.
Myth 3 – “Yoga is a Religious Practice”
From its early beginnings in India over 5,000 years ago, yoga has always been tied to Hinduism, however the practice itself is not a religion. While it is certainly a spiritual practice, it does not include the worship of deities.
The word “yoga” translates to “union,” or “to yoke”, it’s about connecting mind and body and this is achieved through breath awareness. Yoga was designed to prepare the body for meditation, so the practitioner could sit comfortably for long periods of time. It’s about learning to come home to the body, to the breath, to yourself.
Myth 4 – “There is only one style of yoga”
Unfortunately, many people have tried a yoga class and for some reason it was not for them. There are many styles of yoga from hatha, bikram, kundalini, hot-yoga, vinyasa flow… the list goes on. It’s is very normal to need to try out a few different forms of yoga and different teaching styles before you find what suits you best. I really didn’t enjoy my first experience of yoga but the next time I tried I was blown away by it and never looked back.
If you have just finished cancer treatment, I would highly recommend that you choose a teacher who has training in cancer yoga as there are important adjustments that should be made to the practice to accommodate your needs.
Myth 5 – “Yoga is only for women”
This one is an odd one but I have heard it a fair few times, but yoga is for everyone.
In fact, in the early 1800’s, yoga was common practice for the ruling Prince of India, and it was taught to young boys as a “workout”.
Myth 6 – “I need to perform difficult poses”
Beginners are often hesitant to try yoga as they lack the strength and flexibility to replicate the poses that they see on social media. This misconception can be very discouraging. Yoga is adaptable, you can start where you are at and progress at your own pace.
Myth 7– “Yoga won’t help with weight loss”
Chronic stress is an issue that makes it hard for people to lose weight even when they are eating right and exercising regularly. Yoga allows the body and mind to relax, leading to lesser stress, aiding in weight loss.
I hope this post has helped to dispel some misconceptions. I hope it inspires you to try a yoga session, or to have another go perhaps.
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