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Yoga in Cancer and Chronic Illness

26 Mar 2016   Shanti Gowans
Shanti yoga accepts the body as a divine instrument. The practice of Shanti Yoga assists an individual attune to their subtle and vibrant energy field through the process of continuous refinement. This therapeutic system awakens the body's natural healing potential and enhances life and vitality in the body
Amongst the popular and widely practiced elements of yoga is asana (Yoga posture). Asana works on the disciplined cleansing of subtle energy channels, known as nadis, in our energetic body, which harness the energy of the pranic (energetic) body, and awaken and activate the life force (pranic energy) in the body. Aligning each asana with the breath, and the awareness is a potent tool to experience the vibrant self and oneness within. 
Devitalisation In the yoga body is described as crystallised energy. Some of the causes of devitalisation that can be reversed by yoga are:

If you are slumped at your desk, shoulders curved forward and spine rounded, then you become a vulnerable target of fatigue and lethargy. Poor posture is the precipitating cause of imbalance as well as dissipation of mind-body energy. The spinal column is considered as the pathway of subtle neural and psychic energies. A correct alignment of the spine maintains a high level of vitality in body and mind.
Each Yoga posture is performed in conjunction with breath and mindfulness. Fusion of these three elements (posture, breath and mind) grounds the awareness in the present moment, develops concentration and heightens the intuition of the body. Each yoga posture is the expression of a specific state of consciousness and attitude, and leaves an impression in our consciousness and vice versa. So, for example: virbhadrasana or warrior pose brings out the expression of externalisation, extroversion and self confidence in the practitioners whereas Shashankasana or Moon pose calms the emotional and mental energies. 
The Starving Spirit
Twenty-first century convenience food trends indicate that we now eat on the run, speed takes precedence over the loving preparation of food, convenience is winning over consciously caring about what’s in the food, and a sense of urgency about time is keeping us from savouring the flavour in our food. More and more we treat food as mere fuel to keep us going, like petrol in a car. Not only are we not paying attention to how our meals are prepared, nor to our state of mind as we eat, we don’t even believe that these two factors have anything to do with our health or wellbeing. There are consequences for being so disconnected from what we eat, and being so distanced from the connection between ourselves and what and how we eat. 
Modern nutrition’s approach to food is similar to studying the individual threads in a beautiful tapestry in lieu of viewing the whole picture. Analysing food for its vitamin, mineral fat or enzyme content is comparable to assessing whether the tapestry is made from wool or cotton. Such information could be important, but what’s missing is our subjective appreciation of the art itself, its content, the message, and the feelings that the artist is trying to convey.  Food related wisdom must expand past diets, disease and traditional nutritional sciences to a more integrated approach that includes how our awareness of the sacred, as well as what and how we eat affects our health. 
Prana is the vital force of the universe, the cosmic force that becomes you and me with food. Loving awareness is transmuted into food and you ingest the vital force when you eat. When you cook with love, you transfer the love into the food and it is metabolised. 
The optimal way of eating has us coming back to whole foods - fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans and peas), and dairy. However, a really sacred ingredient that we need to cultivate and bring to the food we eat is the attitude of appreciation, regard and reverence. Thus, together with a mainly plant-based diet, exercise, community and family support and stress management we need to approach eating with a more integrated perspective that includes not only biological but psychological and sacred awareness. 
Most cultures and religions intuitively have developed rituals that use food as a vehicle to connect to its deeper significance. Judaism’s dietary laws are designed to honour the sanctity of life that is both animal and plant-based food. Christians honour the divine by connecting to Jesus Christ through the bread and wine of holy communion. Yogis eat, in part, to commune with food’s life-giving qualities. Muslims honour food for its divine essence. Buddhists pursue enlightenment by bringing a meditative awareness to food. The Chinese and Balinese use food to communicate with gods and spirits. The Japanese turn to tea to renew the spirit. The Hindu wedding feast shows us how sharing a sumptuous, elaborate meal with others can serve as more than a symbol of joyous, sacred fellowship. Entertaining the possibility that human consciousness can actually alter food, perhaps our understanding of the concept of ‘nourishment’ to include not only familiar nutrients but also sacred sustenance.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and overeating emerge when the link between food and spirit is severed. Spirituality is the missing ingredient in food. We need to create conscious connections that sense the potential grandeur of your sacred relationship to food, spiritual kitchens and scientific laboratories. 
Energy blocks due to mental and emotional tensions 
We store emotional tension in the muscles of the body, and the total pattern of chronic muscular tensions in the body os referred to as armouring. Whilst body armour develops to serve and protect an individual against painful and threatening emotional experiences, they can become chronic, which results in depletion of energy in the  body-mind complex. The most vulnerable points of armouring in the body are shoulders, neck, lower back and abdomen. These vulnerable points of tensions often develop muscular or energy knots. 
Yoga as cancer-prevention and/or cancer-recovery
An increasing body of research shows that yoga can help prevent cancer, and help cancer patients and survivors manage risk and side effects after treatment. Yoga brings balance and alignment to all body parts and systems: muscles, bones, organs, and the mind. It’s a holistic path to wellness that focuses on interconnections.

Research shows that yoga and mindfulness boosts immunity

The goal of strengthening the immune system is to keep all of the body’s systems working together…it takes a village… Failure of any one system threatens the health of the whole community. Cancer therapies that seek to strengthen the immune system are increasingly proving to be helpful in fighting a wide variety of cancers.
A 2013 study in Norway found that regular practice of gentle yoga and meditation had a rapid effect at the genetic level in circulating cancer-fighting immune cells. Mindfulness meditation also appears to change the brain and immune function in positive ways.

Yoga detoxifies the body

Detoxification is the vital metabolic process by which dead cells and toxins (the flu virus, a rogue cancer cell, or any other pathogen) are excreted from the body. Yoga is the muscle of the lymphatic system, the body’s plumbing and trash-removal system. Similar to how the heart muscle circulates blood, yoga increases lymphatic flow with specific breathing and movement practices, including counter gravity movements, which are a fundamental part of yoga. These utilise movement and body positioning to reverse the effects of gravity on our body, enhancing the process of cardiovascular and lymphatic drainage.

Another way in which yoga detoxifies the body is through compression. For example, forward bends and abdominal twists which activate internal organs and guide the release of toxins into the lymphatic system.

Yoga detoxifies the mind as well. A survivor lives with the fear of cancer returning, and thus daily anxiety is a mental toxin. With yoga you can detoxify the mind by yoga nidra, and being aware of the movement of breath, by relaxing into gravity in a restorative pose, and by quietly watching our thoughts in meditation.

Yoga builds bones 

Strong bones are linked with cancer prevention. The bones house bone marrow, where new red and white blood cells are constantly being produced. White blood cells are needed to form leukocytes, the body's natural cancer-fighting immune cells. If your bones are compromised from a break or from osteoporosis (a side effect of chemotherapy), so too is the production of a nourishing blood supply and immune protection. A recent pilot study by Loren Fishman, MD, applied yoga practice to sufferers of osteoporosis (decrease in bone mass) and osteopenia (reduction in bone volume). The results showed that 85 percent of the yoga practitioners gained bone in both the spine and hip, while nearly every member of the control group maintained or lost bone mass. 

Yoga reduces stress
Cancer patients and survivors experience stress similar to that endured by military veterans. They are bombarded by frightening information, subjected to invasive procedures, and inevitably endure cold clinics and blank stares.

A 2009 study of cancer survivors developed and tested a concept that measures how a person responds to “post-traumatic stress growth,” the positive flip side to suffering with stress. This growth occurs when people make the traumatic event a pivotal point in their life, changing their situation by making lemonade out lemons, for instance, ultimately thriving after cancer. The thriving survivor enjoys their blissful moments, which can lead to further change, and the ability to find positive ways to manage stress.

Yoga can enhance that positivity. The results of a 2009 study on the effects of yoga on emotions found an increase in positive emotions such as calmness and a sense of purpose in more than 50 percent of subjects. Women participating in a 10-week program of restorative yoga classes gained positive differences in aspects of mental health such as depression, positive emotions, and spirituality (feeling calm and peaceful), as compared to the control group.

Yoga in weight management 

Obesity is a key, if not the largest, indicator of both cancer incidence and recurrence. In the USA, excess body weight is thought to contribute to as many as one out of five cancer-related deaths, and being overweight or obese is clearly linked with an increased risk of several types of cancer. 

Research on the impact of yoga on weight gain is still in the early stages. One study showed that yoga had a more positive impact on obesity and depression than aerobic exercise. While yoga for cancer survivors often focuses on gentle or restorative yoga methods (which are necessary and beneficial approaches), it can and should be active, and therefore calorie burning, while also being safe, physically accessible, welcoming, and inclusive. Yoga can help cancer survivors manage weight gain, which improves self-esteem and the ability to function normally, and ultimately reduces the risk of recurrence and mortality. 

The benefits of yoga for cancer prevention are profound and well substantiated. For yoga teachers who work with cancer survivors and those in treatment, having specific knowledge about the benefits and modifications for this community is imperative. Teachers must  learn about the benefits of Yoga for people living with cancer, Yoga practices that are useful for cancer, understand the limitations and requirements in order to support this community to practice effectively and safely, and how a Yoga therapist can overcome the challenges of working in a hospital setting.
Yoga practices have immense effects in dissolving the knots to release vitality in the body.
  • Discover vitality through yogic postures, breath and awareness
  • Experience practices that can bring mental focus, emotional ease and physical rejuvenation.
  • Learn care strategies that reduce fatigue and anxiety and improve sleep and mood.
  • Practice lifestyle changes that research evidence indicates is highly effective in reducing the side effects of conventional treatment, recurrences, and mortality rates.
Each session will include gentle yoga practice with movement, breathing, relaxation imagery and meditation and provide education about nutrition, stress management and lifestyle changes.
Duration:    4 weeks 
Dates:        5, 12, 19, 26 May, 2016.
Time:         Thursday 2-3:30pm
Fee:           $100
Week 1:    Worst enemy, best teacher (Suffering has a cause).
Week 2:    Feeding the body, nourishing the soul. 
                  Nutrition that integrates the physical, emotional and spiritual towards wellbeing.
Week 3:    Better choices, better life. (Habit i.e. consistency and patience - is the foundation of all success.).
Week 4:    The Healing Code


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About Shantiji

Shanti Gowans is the globally recognised author and founder of Shanti Yoga™, Meditation and Ayurveda for the self, family and community.

Shantiji has brought the concepts and practices of a healthy body and a still mind to thousands of Australians through her Yoga and Meditation programs on national television... Read more about Shantiji's biography

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