The lady who asked the question I blogged about last week, “Yoga is meant to calm me, so why do I feel so nervous?” asked another great question yesterday. Gosh, I love students who give honest reflections and ask questions! Thanks, honey bunch.
After class I noticed that her face wasn’t 100% bliss. Quite the opposite. So, unlike a YouTube video would, I sat next to her and asked her what’s up. She said:
“I couldn’t do some of the simplest poses. It made me feel old.”
Ouch. And yes, yoga does that. You see, if you give someone a workout routine like Crossfit or marathon training, it is very normal that they will find, at first, themselves not able to do it. But because it is hard, challenging, perhaps unattainable, they are quite happy to just thrust away at it for a long time until they reach the goal. To not do something hard on the first go is quite normal and acceptable for the ego.
But when we are asked to do something simple like lie on our backs and stretch one side of the body and breathe deeply, and find that there is pain, discomfort, we say “hold on a second…what is happening here?”
What is happening here is that our bodies have aged, have adopted fixed patterns, have held onto thoughts and emotions and stored them in our abdominal muscles, our hips, our necks, and we have become unable to make those muscles do our bidding. We try to move the ribs with the breath, and we can’t. Upon finding that we can’t do something so seemingly simple, we reflect on how, once upon a time, we could. As children, we were all free and loose and easy. But time, and life, and blows, and ailments, and all that, steals our childhood from us and we become adults, then middle-aged and then, if we are lucky, old. The body ages but so does the mind. We swap physical agility for mental wisdom. Or that is the idea, anyway. There is concept that I love in yoga that goes like this:
Why do we do âsana? We do âsana to keep the body strong and supple and youthful so that we can live a long time. And why do we want to live a long time? So that we can gain wisdom.
“Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la Mort va et vient. Du reste, regardez-vous toute votre vie dans une glace et vous verrez la Mort travailler commes les abeilles dans une ruche de verre.” (Mirrors are the doors by which Death comes and goes. You have only to look at yourself in the mirror every day and you will see Death at work there, like bees in a glass hive.)
Yes indeed. When we look at the mirror every day, we look at the face of Death. Our own death. This is getting heavy, but the Yoga Sutras are very clear about all this, in the first 5-10 aphorisms of the very first Yoga Sutras book, Patanjali identifies the Kleshas, the mental patterns that cause the vrittis, the mental fluctuations that assail us all. And right up there in spot number five is fear, abhinidvesa. Principle fear? Death.
We are all aware of our mortality but none of us wants to admit it, to face it. When we do, we cringe and shudder. This is normal. I love to ruminate on the human being’s awareness of the passage of time. We are, I believe, the only animal that marks time with such precision. We are time-obsessed species. Why? Because we are all unconsciously counting down the seconds of our lives. And this is wildly uncomfortable. Because what this forces us to do is to admit that our time is limited, that we must live fully in the present and create from our meagre and humble little lives the best and brightest creation that we can. And any abstention from this duty, whether through fear, intransigence, obstinance or fakery, is a negation of our duty to grow and gain wisdom and be the best person we can be.
Uff. All that at 8 in the morning. I think a lot. That is why I do yoga. So, I will leave you with a Joy Division song with footage from Orphée. Enjoy it, and live this day fully. And get on your mats, and breathe deeply and feel the love. It is there, all the time, and there is enough for everyone.
In my last post, I described the pericardium and offered some information about how it may be affected in breast cancer survivors. Here are a few suggestions for sequences that could go into your own yoga sequence and help focus it on the diaphragm/pericardium
It is well and good to analyse the physiological and anatomical reasons for practising hatha yoga. It is well and good to tell you why you ought to practise and what you ought to do. Yet, there is another way to saying the same thing and it is much simpler. Dear reader, happened upon this blog, you should practise yoga just because. Just because yoga makes your body sing. Because when you become very very still and very, very quiet, you can hear that miracle of your own song, your very own vibration. You can connect with a timeless quality that is nonexistent in practically every other sphere of your existence. You should start practising yoga right now, even if it’s nothing more than sitting in a straight-backed chair, breathing in and raising your arms to shoulder height, then breathing out to lower them slowly down again. Even this simple movement, isolated from any other posture, breath or sequence, repeated with enough intention and presence will bring you into a place of peace that you cannot know under different circumstances. It is as simple as being quiet enough to listen, quiet enough to hear, your own song. Why, you may ask, ought I listen to my song? There is music on the radio, on the TV, on Spotify…there are so many things to listen to, surely it’s not that important. You err, I will reply. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it. You are deaf to the chorus of your bodysoul and if you choose not to even look, then you are cowed and craven, too. This is not to insult, not to chivvy, but yes, I would like you to wake up. No matter how hard I try to detach from my longing to awaken each and every one of the beautiful human souls on this planet, no matter how unrealistic and even juvenile this deeply held longing may appear, it is there, it is real. I want you to wake up and the best tool I can offer you is yoga. Why hear your song? Why listen? Because then you can hear all the messages from within and without. You can then hear your body tell you which foods give life and which foods burden you. You can then hear your soul’s messages about which company to keep, and for how long, and which relationships are toxic and which are good. You can hear the live-giving messages from Nature, the chant of the wind and the whisper of the trees. And why might this be important for breast cancer survivors? Well, because your song is your life singing. And your life – so rudely threatened by disease – is pretty darn important to you, I will wager. Yoga integrates movement, breath and mind/thought to bring about harmony in all three spheres. I do not say this it should be practised to the exclusion of all other sports or creative activities. But, it complements so well anything else you do that it should be practised alongside your other activities, and not left until last but given priority and done with constancy. Why practise? Because you can. Because you are here. Because you are alive. Because yoga makes you feel more alive. Because yoga has been around forever and keeps coming out tops from practically every angle. I yog just to know that I am alive. Om. Peace out.
I hear this question a lot.As a yoga teacher, I am naturally inclined to say yoga.However, I recognise the usefulness and appropriateness of both systems, depending on the person and their circumstances.
Let’s explore the similarities and differences between Yoga and Pilates.
Yoga is an ancient system of healthcare and spiritual inquiry.What most of us consider yoga is really only a fraction of the entire body of Ayurvedic medicine.Hatha yoga consists of specifically applied breathing and postures.There are many branches of hatha yoga, includingAstanga and flow styles (vigourous, stimulating), Kundalini and tantric lineages (spiritual),and everything in between. The objective of yoga is to heal the physical body and prepare body and mind to sit in contemplation and, eventually,meditate profoundly.The stilling of the mind is paramount in yoga.
Pilates, is a system of exercise developed in Germany by Josef Pilates. Setting out to align and strengthen the body, Mr. Pilates believed that the mind, when properly oriented towards the physical endeavour, could completely dominate the body, bringing it into harmony through force of will, as it were.Thus, as in yoga, there is mental focus required, but the objectives are quite different.In our modern world, we tend to believe the the intellect reigns supreme and human ingenuity can solve any problem.For this reason, the Pilates philosophy may be more comprehensible for the beginner.It is hard to imagine what “stilling the mind” might entail until we have experienced it.When choosing between Yoga and Pilates, review your belief system:are you more materially or spiritually oriented?While yoga doesn’t have to be spiritual, I could not deny the spiritual underpinnings of the practice.
Yoga can be both dynamic or static, depending on the style.Dynamic yoga places poses in a sequence and one moves smoothly from one to the other.This can be used for warming up – the famous Sun Salutation, for example – or the whole series can be built around flowing vinyasa-s. More static styles work on holding poses.The time can be measured in number of breaths or in seconds/minutes.Yin yoga, for example, holds poses for five minutes or more, allowing deep work into the connective tissue.Some styles combine the two:Viniyoga usually takes each pose through a dynamic phase before holding the pose for a certain number of breaths.The idea behind yoga is that the subtle energy needs to flow in all parts of the body, so a practice could focus on one area (hips, chest) or indeed a whole season could be dedicated to working slowly towards a certain key pose.Again, depending on the style, because the flow styles are more “full body” and some systems work with a set series of poses that work the entire body.
PIlates is always a full body workout, but you may use certain props such as balls, stretchy bands and magic rings to focus a class.There is also simply mat Pilates which perhaps looks more like yoga.Notwithstanding, some yoga styles, such as Iyengar, use props.Pilates is focused on aligning the joints, toning the muscles and strengthening the core abdominal musculature.
Correct breathing is important in both systems.In Yoga, breath and movement are co-ordinated and interdependent.Inhaling for opening movements (extensions, lifts), we exhale to close (flexions, lowering).The breath brackets the movement.That is, the breath is longer than the movement, beginning before and finishing after.Most Yoga classes involve a component of “pranayama” or breathwork.This can be done during the practice, or in special gentle sequences. More often, we close the class by sitting with a straight back and breathing through one or both nostrils following a pattern and rhythm designed by the teacher.
Pilates also has specific breathing patterns, but they are distinct.Inhaling to open and exhaling the close is usually observed, but this pattern is reversed in some exercises.In strength work, we are taught to exhale when applying force (think of a weightlifter’s grunt when squatting).Pilates uses this technique for its strength component.In Pilates,the navel is usually held in.However, with tensed abs, we can produce “paradoxical breathing” as we draw breath, .Paradoxical breathing is a breathing pattern in which the pressure in the lungs increases due to intake of air, but the lung volume does not increase (the lungs can’t expand because the tensed abs limit diaphragm movement).Paradoxical breathing is the hallmark of anxiety and even trying it for a few seconds brings on quite a nervous feeling.Try it yourself:pull your abs in then breathe deeply a few times. That heady feeling?The brain’s response the the increased lung pressure.So, while Pilates will produce more toning and strengthening than yoga might, it can have undesired secondary effects due to the breathing.When deciding between Yoga and Pilates, review your personality and challenges:are you nervous, anxious and looking for mental peace?Or are you more interested in toning and firming?
Adaptations for Breast Cancer Survivors
A yoga teacher with a good training will know how to adapt yoga poses (and flows) to minimise their potential harmfulness to irradiated and/or post-operative areas.Bear in mind that this somewhat eliminates styles in which a set of poses “has to” be practised as a sequence. If these sequence is what the teacher CAN teach – and many 200-hour trainings teach their teachers only set sequences, not how to sequence postures – then a practitioner who “cannot” do the equence will put pressure on herself, the teacher and the class.We need a therapeutic style for breast cancer work, so make sure your teacher knows how to adapt both postures and sequences.Bear in mind that yoga teaching is economically unrewarding and some teachers will be under pressure to fill their classes at any cost.Bear in mind, also, that some teachers might be unaware of their limitations.By reading this post, you are gaining the knowledge necessary to assess your potential teacher and decide.
Astanga-style flows are awesome for the fit body, but tend to include quite a few arm balances.Bear in mind that even the ever-famous Downward Dog (Adho-mukha-svanâsana) is an arm balance.This seemingly simple pose puts pressure on wrists and arms, requires full range of motion in the shoulder joint and requires that Serratus anterior be stretched.All of these factors make Downward dog a tough pose for breast cancer patients.I am not saying “Don’t do it”.I am saying – assess carefully just how important this pose is to the final objective of yoga – stilling the mind through body and breath work – and decide if a class that involves a lot of Downward dog is the BEST option.
Kundalini classes also tend to work set kriyas – sequences – but are probably easier on the breast cancer survivor as the âsana element is less important.There tend to be poses that work pretty intensly the abdominal region, so those with shoulder drop might find this imbalance makes some kundalini poses more challenging.
Bikram is out because of the heat.Too dangerous for lymphedema.
I practice and teach Viniyoga.It covers all the bases when it comes to adaptation of postures and sequences.The therapeutic aspect of Viniyoga also makes it more useful when working with the very personal journey each breast cancer survivor is coursing.
Pilates is subject to the same general contra-indications I mentioned about Astanga and flow styles.It may be difficult for a teacher to adapt a class to one single student.Arm balances for core work may be unavoidable.It may be left to the student to adapt the poses, rather than receive specific instructions about how to do so.Pilates will be great for bringing the shoulders back into alignment and keeping the shoulders joint stable, but again, interview your teacher and decide if they are the person best able to help you.
Gentle physical exercise is a must for breast cancer patients. How tough you want to go is up to you, but it also depends on where you were when you were diagnosed.Did you have a good level of physical fitness, or had you been making excuses for too long?How old are you?Have you any extenuating circumstances like injuries or co-pathologies? Answering these questions helps you to decide what your goal is.But, really, I urge you to go slow at first, and keep a steady pace over time.This will bring greater rewards, over time, than plunging in and risking injury and setbacks.Either yoga or Pilates will do you a great service.Find a teacher who knows and inspires confidence, a class that is nearby and at a time that you can manage. Consider taking a private class, just to give the teacher time to know your history, your limitations, and to teach you how to modify the postures that you will find in the group class.Most important of all is to stick with it!
If you can’t find a group class in your area, why not start one yourself?Find three other breast cancer patients – not too hard, sadly – and contact a teacher.Be pro-active and believe that this is a fundamental part of your healing journey.Om.