Kate Garza is a mother of three teenagers, cancer survivor and yoga instructor in Cheltenham. Her “Team Kangaroo-om” participated in our event, Yoga on the Steps: Philadelphia, on Sunday, May 18. For more information or to register for a Yoga event near you, visit yogaonthesteps.org. Read Kate’s blog at LotsaHelpingHands.com.
I climbed the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum last Sunday for Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Yoga On The Steps, a sun drenched block party of yoga enthusiasts and breast cancer affiliates. Occasionally my thoughts traveled back to last year’s event, which I attended during my own active treatment, bandanna wrapped around my chemo-bald head. On that gray day a year ago I felt as bad as the cold fog and drizzle that enshrouded the steps.
But last Sunday, bathed in sunshine, I shook off a year and a half of living with breast cancer treatment. I gathered with a large team from my kids’ high school, faculty and students together. I was there to give and gain support and to advance LBBC’s mission of bringing patients together with resources throughout the journey, one that can thankfully now include many years of health beyond treatment.
Cancer survivors have long had an intuitive sense that yoga helps body and mind, but now we have studies to prove it. In March, the Journal of Clinical Oncology published a study of 191 breast cancer patients by researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. It linked yoga to improvements in self-reported quality of life, including measures of mood, pain and fatigue. Practicing yoga also appeared to help regulate the stress hormone cortisol, which is tied to poor survival among breast cancer patients.
Aware of these unique qualities of yoga, Living Beyond Breast Cancer has held Yoga on the Steps as its signature fundraising event since 2001, and in recent years has expanded to other cities — this July in Kansas City and September in Denver. Last year, LBBC, the Ardmore-based national education and support organization, published a Guide to Understanding Yoga and Breast Cancer, detailing the benefits of yoga to coping with anxiety, fatigue, strength and body image.
But what exactly is it about yoga that helps?
A breast cancer diagnosis brings on an immediate re-evaluation of the life that existed before. Like many other women, I came home after that medical moment in September of 2012, full of questions, including, “What did I do wrong?” and “How will I handle treatment?” But for me, the most persistent question repeated, “What do I really want to do with the rest of my life?”
As a yoga practitioner for more than 30 years and a long-time teacher, I knew that my mind would run wild with these queries until I intervened in some way. Yoga became the first step in that intervention.
For me, the process of taking the postures and transitioning from one to the next released tension I didn’t even know I was holding. That, combined with deep, intentional breathing, created a moving meditation that carried me from anxiety to something closer to calm. It allowed for emotional release, which can be burdensome to family and friends, and it helped me to know my mind, discuss a treatment path and then move forward.
During treatment, in the dark winter months of chemo, there were days when yoga practice gently guided me from depression, fear and helplessness. Just simple postures, deep breathing and a focus on self-awareness brought me back to clear thinking and a better approach to my circumstances. Even if physically I couldn’t do very much, I still felt better afterward. The stillness in me at the end of practice became an anchor in unfamiliar waters.
Thankfully, yoga is available to anyone, not just confirmed yoga students or teachers. Many cancer treatment centers now offer yoga as complementary therapy. Studios often have workshops for people in treatment, and home practice is available 24/7 with many yoga options online.
Some yogis say that each yoga practice is a metaphor for a lifetime. The first inhale represents the beginning of life and all its potential. Then, we experience movement and existence through this body in moments of struggle and pain, or joy and bliss. We ride the waves of that experience, either fighting where we are, or accepting, and releasing into it. The practice concludes with savasana, corpse pose, laying down in relaxation with a final exhale. It is here, and then it is gone.
When I think about life in these terms, it becomes simple and clear. Just move though the day, through this life, one moment at a time, noting the experience and learning the lessons. These lessons became clearer still, once I spent some time with cancer and its treatment, while allowing yoga to be part of my medicine. I know that this life does not owe me one more day, one more breath. But I’ll take and enjoy as many as I can get.