As an oncology nurse for over three decades, I have had the immense privilege of caring for individuals and families affected by cancer. Several years ago I was overcome with a strong desire to become a yoga teacher so I could share the benefits of yoga with cancer patients/survivors. My long-held desire finally came to fruition earlier this year when I became involved with the not-for-profit organization, You Call This Yoga, which offers free classes to individuals and caregivers who have been touched by cancer. I knew from my own yoga practice how empowering yoga can be for helping to improve physical strength, flexibility, and balance, but perhaps even more important is the power of yoga to foster equanimity.
How can yoga foster equanimity for those affected by cancer?
Equanimity is the ability to find a sense of calm even during the most challenging of times. Not only is the diagnosis of cancer a terrifying experience for many, but the fears around treatment effects, therapeutic as well as adverse, can be overwhelming emotionally for patients and their loved ones. For those fortunate to achieve remission/cure of their disease, there is often the looming threat of recurrence and for those living with metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread), there may be a more frequent feeling of distress and uncertainty about one’s future. These emotional reactions can lead to anxiety and depression, which for many can profoundly impact quality of life.
Yoga has the amazing ability to help mitigate the emotional turmoil often caused by cancer and/or treatment effects. In fact, after a recent review of the literature on yoga and breast cancer conducted by the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO), yoga was recommended for improving anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances and overall quality of life. These recommendations have subsequently been endorsed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). While the review was specific to breast cancer, one can expect that the results could apply to other cancer populations as well.
“With equanimity, you can deal with situations with calm and reason while keeping your inner happiness.” — The Dalai Lama
Helping others find equanimity through yoga
For many affected by cancer, yoga can become the most powerful mind-body practice for moving towards a state of equanimity or emotional balance, both accepting the challenge of cancer while experiencing the joys of life with a calm state of mind. Oftentimes cancer patients/survivors may be led to a yoga class to help improve physical strength, flexibility and balance, but find that the most profound benefit is finding a bit of CALM following, or even during, the storm.
I was delighted to be able to witness this while teaching my first Yoga for Those Touched by Cancer series earlier this year to a wonderful group of individuals. The participants in my class had a range of cancer diagnoses and were at different points in the trajectory of illness – some recently diagnosed and in active treatment, some in remission, and some living with metastatic cancer. Most of the participants had as one of their goals for the yoga series to achieve a sense of “calmness” and “relaxation.” While there were times when some participants came to class looking as though they were anxious and unsettled, by the end of savasana they appeared to have erased the worry from their minds and bodies.
The ability of yoga to transform, even following a single session, can be quite profound. I was told by one participant, “I feel like I’m walking on clouds.” This was enough for me to know they felt the power of yoga. My observations and participant feedback have led to an incredible feeling of joy deep within my soul and brought me back to why I had hoped this time would come – the time of offering those affected by cancer with the ability to experience equanimity through yoga.
The article was specially written by Denise Spector for You Call This Yoga.