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CATEGORIES [ EXERCISE, SURVIVORSHIP, TREATMENT ]

Starting a Yoga Practice: Practical advice from a survivor turned yoga teacher

BY GUEST BLOGGER | MAY 3, 2011

Libby Lowe, of Yoga Bear, a non-profit organization that provides yoga to cancer patients and survivors, shares how those new to yoga can begin practicing after a cancer diagnosis. Lowe shares Jean Di Carlo-Wagner's story of beginning yoga and later became an instructor for other cancer patients and survivors.

Jean Di Carlo-Wagner's battles with cancer have been as both a survivor and a caregiver. She began her yoga practice before her own fight with stage 3 colon cancer, and as it evolved to accommodate her recovery, her practice remained a source of healing and inspiration. Today, Jean lives and teaches in San Diego, Calif.

"For me, cancer meant starting over and not knowing how long I had or what to do -- it was like being 19 in a 50-year-old body. I knew more about myself, but needed a lot of prayer and meditation. I tried to go to yoga classes, but it was too humiliating. I had no muscle tone and pulled a hamstring folding forward. I didn't know my new body; and my mind and body were not together. I started practicing at home with a tape but I could only do the first 10 minutes, sometimes only five. So, that's what I did ... over and over again. I needed to work on a scale that I had never had to work on," she says.

She realized she couldn't be the only one struggling. Wanting to help others, Jean got certified as a yoga instructor and began by teaching a group of friends before going on to complete a 200-hour certification as well as special training to work with seniors. Today, she teaches many survivors one on one.

"One of the reasons I became a yoga teacher for cancer survivors was to offer a class where students could learn to assess their bodies and move within the integrity of their bodies. In theory, all yoga classes have this self-reflective component, but their baseline for normal is assumed. In a class designed for cancer survivors, or special populations, the practice of relearning our bodies is encouraged and we find our new normal."

Here, Jean offers advice for people interested in returning to or beginning a yoga practice.

First, talk to your doctor to get a sense of what is OK for you. "Bending over may not feel very good to you if you are on chemotherapy, and twists aren't good for everyone either. If you have a mass in your abdomen, for example, it may not feel very good to twist and compress your internal organs. One of my cancer buddies was a long time hula dancer and yogi, but after her first dose of chemotherapy for breast cancer, bending over made her dizzy and weak. She asked me what she should do and I told her that anything that doesn't feel good means it isn't good for her right now," Jean says.

Finding the Right Class

Once you've got the green light and feel ready to try a class, the first step is finding the right one. One great way to get started is to check out Jean's video for beginning students and search Yoga Bear's map of free or discounted classes across the country. Many are specifically geared toward cancer survivors!

You might also start by asking the social worker at your cancer center if there is a yoga program for survivors affiliated with the hospital. If not, call the American Cancer Society and ask if there is one in the community. If you can't find any special programs for cancer survivors, ask if there are programs for seniors. "Most people don't realize that community college classes for seniors accept younger students after they meet their quota of seniors. Most senior class work on increasing range of motion, balance and strength," says Jean.

Here's Jean's self-assessment list to help you determine where you might want to begin:
• Can you walk half of a mile without getting winded?
• Can you fold forward to touch your knees, shins, or the floor without getting dizzy?
• Can you lie comfortably on your back, your hip and your stomach?
• Can you get down on all fours?
• Can you twist, raise your hands above your head; balance on one foot?

If you answered "no" to three or more questions, don't worry! You can still do yoga. Jean suggests starting with a restorative class or chair yoga.

If you answered no to two or more questions, you might like a gentle beginning class that is no more than an hour.

"The more times you answered yes, the more choices you have. However, during cancer treatment, staying active is encouraged, but metering out your energy is also advisable. There's no point in blowing a whole day's energy on one activity," says Jean.

Once you have a sense of your level, search local studios online; don't be afraid to call and ask specific questions to find the right instructor and class for your level. Many studios offer introductory classes or series. These courses are a great way to get started and connect with a community of other beginners. Because there isn't a national, standardized certification for teaching survivors, ask questions and do your homework before taking any class.

Here are some questions that might be helpful:
• What is the level of students who usually come to your class?
• Are you familiar with cancer treatments?
• Do you have experience working with people with illness or injury?
• Do you give alternatives movements for people with special needs?
• How long have you been practicing, teaching?

Classes with names like Gentle Yoga or Restorative Yoga are usually great for beginners and those with illnesses or injuries.

"Gentle yoga can mean different things to different people, but it's an indication that the class will be slower. Studios that specialize in working with students that are health challenged are out there and growing," says Jean. "My original training at A Gentle Way in La Mesa, Calif. is run by Lanita Varshell, a plus-size woman with fibromyalgia. When you walk into the studio, you can tell from the abundance of blankets, pillows, straps and blocks that the studio has many yoga props and adaptations."

Restorative classes incorporate many props and focus is on breath awareness, deep and total relaxation and allowing gravity and proper propping to ease muscles into position. One the other hand, classes with words like "power," "hot" and "core" in the title will be too intense for beginners--especially those in treatment or recovery.

Setting Your Intention

Above all, yoga should feel good. Ideally, when you walk out of class you will be grateful for the time you dedicated to yourself, feel empowered in your own skin and proud of what your body can do.

When Jean started her post-treatment practice, she realized she had to honor where her body was and not get hung up on what she once was able to do.

"Ask yourself what the main goal for your yoga practice is and be willing to do less and feel more. During cancer, a good day for me was taking a shower, making dinner and possibly feeding the cat. I was very frustrated that my regular routine of exercise was interrupted and I had no idea who to ask or where to go. After abdominal surgery for colon cancer, I was given three weeks to recover and chemotherapy was started. I crawled into bed and stayed there, unless I was throwing up."

Jean advises beginners or those returning to exercise not to get caught up in trying to master specific poses, but to get in touch with the original intention of yoga: deep meditation. When she started her own practice, she admits that the relaxation at the end of class--called savasana--seemed like a waste of time to her. As her practice deepened, that chance to relax and full let go became the central focus.

"Be curious about the journey you are embarking on and allow a sense of humor into your practice. Yoga is for our joy, our gratitude and our love of life. It is a life-affirming activity that brings us back to very basics of being alive: it focuses us on our breath and our heartbeat. As long as you are breathing consciously, you are doing yoga. When you outstretch your hand to help another, you are practicing Karma yoga. When you kiss a beloved and hold their gaze, you are practicing Bhakti yoga. We are never not practicing yoga, we are just not attending to our practice."

The basics:
Many people are nervous walking into their first class. Here are some tips to make it easier.
• Go barefoot and wear clothing that is comfortable but not too loose. Loose clothes can get in the way.
• Bring water and a towel.
• It's okay to take breaks during class or leave to go to the restroom.
• Most studios have mats your can borrow, but check before you go. If you have joint issues, you may want to consider purchasing an extra-thick mat or using two mats.
• Respect your limits. It's okay not to do a pose if it's uncomfortable. An instructor who crosses over from encouraging to pushy isn't the right person for you.
• Yoga is about finding joy in the present. Don't worry about "doing it right." Have fun and celebrate what you can do.

Libby Lowe is social media manager for Yoga Bear.

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COMMENTS

I began yoga practice four years after diagnosis--about three years post-treatment. It is curiously energizing and exhausting at the same time, but I am gradually becoming stronger and more focused. I wish I had started sooner!
- Posted by Joanne 5/4/11 9:12 PM

I had been doing yoga for years before I got breast cancer and underwent a lumpectomy, chemo, and radiation. My yoga practice helped me along each step of the way. The breathing and relaxation got me through the tough treatments. I continued my yoga classes during all of the treatment and am convinced that my practice was the main reason I did so well through everything. Yoga is even more meaningful to me now, 4 1/2 yrs after diagnosis, as it really helps me be in the present moment and savor every day. I recommend yoga to anyone before, during and after treatment for cancer.
- Posted by Cindy Keller 5/20/11 8:35 PM

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