Combating Cancer with Mind-Body Therapies

Like a house protects one from the sun, hatha yoga protects the practitioner.”  This is an ancient saying from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, essentially the medical book of yoga written thousands of years ago.  It reminds us that a person who strives to build a lifestyle that protects oneself creates a foundation to rebuild the house when it sustains damage from a strong storm.

I speak from experience.  My life has often been a good example of what mind-body practitioner Jon Kabat-Zin terms “full catastrophe living.”  I am a breast cancer survivor living beyond that diagnosis, its physical losses, and effects of treatment.  I’ve suffered the grief and loss of loved ones.  I was a single mother for 17 years, and I’m still single.  I’ve survived income losses due to employment cutbacks and due to a cancer diagnosis, and I started my own business. Most recently, Hurricane Irma added business disruption, car and home damage, and living displacement.  My closest family is 80 miles away, and I have clients who require my strength.

I would not have found the willpower and restoration to keep going and the strength to overcome if my coping skills did not include my personal practices for mind-body-spirit. As a yoga therapist, recovery and resiliency is my specialty.  I was attracted to the field in my own search for solutions.  Yoga Therapy provides protection, relief, and a path after crisis.

We can stack the odds favorably or unfavorably, but none of us can completely control outcomes or the factors of chronic or severe overload.  The securities we like to think will always sustain us–health, relationships, education, and jobs–are not permanent.  Age itself is the gradual process of losing security.  Life events may trigger the weakest links in genetics, immunity, stability, and function, even in the strongest individuals.  An adverse wind can cut off all resources or hobble a life to its foundation.   As time goes on, we may realize that our investment in our health and the mind-body foundation skills on which we rely to repair and rebuild ourselves are among our most valuable resources.

Yoga Therapy is a mind-body therapy that complements fitness, medicine, psychology, alternative therapies, pain management, and stress management.  I know firsthand that developing body and mind accelerates recovery on all levels.

Mindfulness and body awareness alerted me early to cancerous symptoms, which made all the difference to my survival odds and my treatment options.  It gave me the emotional and physical ability to recover from four traumatic surgeries and the flexibility to restore arm function and reduce lymphedema disability after breast surgery.  By adapting yoga to my limitations and needs, I maintained core and postural muscles through a year-long surgical process, which supported my plastic surgeon’s reconstruction efforts to achieve the best result.  Although the stress and trauma of major surgeries and intense drug therapies threw me into a temporary cycle of sleep disturbance and complications that could have expanded into post-traumatic stress dysfunction and emotional paralysis, the stability of mind-body practices carried me forward little-by-little.

A key practice of Yoga Therapy is breathing exercises that increase blood-oxygen level and slow the respiration rate, allowing the body to inspire deeper volumes of oxygen for proper cellular function with each breath.  Slower breathing rates are also deeply connected to the physiological “relaxation response,” found by Herbert Benson of Harvard University’s Mind/Body Institute to occur during meditation and to reduce inflammation associated with stress and disease.

If lifestyles were graded for survival with the same seriousness that tumors and metastases are evaluated, I believe people would look at their daily habits and choices with greater importance.  There are many controllable factors in our lifestyles that are known to influence risks of chronic disease, such as stress and inflammation, smoking, alcohol, drugs, inadequate exercise, sleep, diet, hydration, and oxygen intake. Mitigating these risk factors and acting on the latest mind-body research offers a less commonly explored route to preventing or combating cancer and other inflammatory diseases.  The complexity of cancer demands exploring all possibilities that positively impact health.  The key is not only stopping cancer when we get it, but reducing known factors contributing to it forming long before Stage 1.

The enormous potential of implementing a mind-body approach to reduce cancer and recurrence, metastasis, toxic treatments and effects, and enhance quality of life and longevity is available now. In cancer care, we are realizing the effectiveness of personalizing therapies to do more good and less harm. We have better information than ever before on the interplay of mind and body, stress and disease, yoga therapy’s benefits and long-term effectiveness of current treatments.   We can remain reactive or shift to proactive. Oncologists, surgeons, physicians, and survivors can lead the way.

Cancer may not be incurable unless we live as if it is. We are all longing for better outcomes, but what we make of what we know and can be possible, is up to us. Every small step forward in the mind and body can carry us to the next realization, to the better yet possible.


Paula Morris is a Certified-IAYT Yoga Therapist, mind-body specialist, ERYT500 yoga and meditation teacher, educator, writer, speaker, and owner of Empowered 2 Wellness Yoga Therapy, Sarasota’s first office for individualized yoga therapy services located at Midtown Medical Park, 1219 S. East Avenue, Suite 104.  Yoga Therapy’s targeted and personal programs condition body and mind to assist health, recovery, and resiliency.


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