Under stress, both psychological and physical, the body’s sympathetic nervous system or SNS goes into overdrive. Pain, fatigue from fighting the disease, the side effects of treatment all place stress on the body and generate difficulties with sleep, digestion, elimination, growth, repair and cell reproduction. Yoga kicks in the parasympathetic nervous system or PNS, which counteracts the overactive SNS, and fosters healing and a feeling of well-being.
Your body chemistry actually changes. Your blood pressure and heart rate go down. You feel more relaxed and better equipped to handle the disease. Yoga and exercise release dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, which reduce tension and anxiety, help you sleep and even contribute to pain management. They are nature’s feel-good hormones. On the flip side, the production of cortisol, a natural inflammatory agent in the body, is reduced. Cancer loves inflammation!
Yoga and exercise tone the body and provide the strength and flexibility to address muscle imbalances caused by surgery or treatment. The feeling of accomplishment and peace on the mat improves confidence and restores a sense of being in control of one’s life again.
Cancer patients whose lymph nodes were affected (this is not limited to cancer), are subject to increased risk of lymphedema. The deep breathing, gentle twists and stretches massage the lymph system to reduce the likelihood of potentially dangerous accumulation of fluid.
Studies have shown that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can improve mood, lessen fatigue, and reduce the effects of stress, and possibly improve the body’s immune response to healing. In a yoga class, the student will learn how to relax, breathe, stretch, meditate, and clear the mind of stressors… to allow the body to focus on homeostasis and renewed energy. A cancer recovery class includes a longer Savasana (shah-VAH-sah-nah) or relaxed pose…almost sleeplike, at the end of the session, with longer guided meditation than in a regular yoga class to maximize the benefits of MBSR.
As with any form of exercise, anyone with cancer, lymphedema, other medical conditions or recent surgery should consult their doctor and seek out a trained, certified instructor.