September 7, 2015

Lift the Veil of Cancer Survivorship: Yoga

Day 7: Lift the Veil of Cancer Survivorship through Yoga

Today, I invited Lisa Z. Hughes, my yoga coach, to post on the role of yoga in what she refers to as the lifting of the veil of cancer survivorship. I have learned so much from Lisa in my pursuit of chronic WELLNESS and my body is being awakened to possibilities of things that I believed cancer and its treatment had taken from me forever.

Without further comment, I give you Lisa:

“If you were asked to paint a picture of chronic wellness, what would it look like? What would it sound like? What would it feel like inside of the silent places?

Every day I see clients whose health is compromised by disease, disability or by the latent effects of chronic illness or trauma. I have been a Physical Therapist for 30 years and most recently a Yoga Therapist for 2 years. The changes in my clients through Yoga Therapy have been profound; mind boggling really.

Recently, a client who is an adult survivor of childhood Ewing’s Sarcoma and a heart transplant recipient because of heart failure due to the latent effects of radiation and chemotherapy treatments told me she used to refer to the left side of her body as “The Dead Zone”, “No Man’s Land”, “Nuclear Fallout”. After a year of Yoga Therapy and practicing her Yoga at home, she describes a wholeness. Through practice and trust, she now takes flight in her yoga: she soars! The confidence of original soul, that has always been there, free from the limiting veil of the sequelae of survivorship, flies free. She describes her Yoga to me. “It’s like, for the first time I am able, through my own practice, to bring light into the places that I thought were dead.” She has come off of blood pressure medication and she has grown a full inch and a half!

So, how does this happen? What happens when we are practicing Yoga mindfully? When there is prolonged illness, there can also be tremendous fear and a lack of trust in the physical body itself. How can I trust my own intuition about my body if I didn’t even know I had cancer?

Like anything new, we are replacing old thought and belief patterns, that were extremely useful at one time, with a new system of truth. Under the veil of the latent effects of chemotherapy and radiation, you are exactly who you always were. You are not the veil.

If we take a look at breath, there are certain ways of breathing in yoga that create an entirely different state of the autonomic nervous system. This we know: inhalation raises heart rate and blood pressure and exhalation decrease those things. So, we first begin in a supportive shape to prolong exhalation. There are many “centering” breath techniques, which when taught properly create not only relaxation, but exhaling into the bones builds a sense of trust and grounding. We can call this “present moment”. The long exhalations stimulate the Vagal nerve. It’s the tenth cranial nerve that provides parasympathetic control (rest and digest) to every organ from the neck down to the colon, and everything in between, with the exception of the adrenal glands. It’s the master controller! If I can learn how to affect my own nervous system, through stimulating my own Vagal nerve, I can be fully present with what is actually happening in the present moment. I can leave whatever happened in the past and I can eventually lose any fear of the future. In that place I can begin to move my body again.

Postures are chosen based on client need.

The only line that matters in Yoga is the line from the tailbone to the crown of the head so adapting postures to scoliosis, to growth changes as a result of radiation, or to pain and dysfunction is simpler than you might think. When the central channel is aligned from the INside, there is an energy that flows, which we cannot see, nor can we explain in medical terms. It is a felt sense. By grounding the bones, there can be much greater expansion in shapes. We know that the body will lay down bone according to the stresses we place on the bones so the weight bearing shapes in Yoga can be quite helpful in conditions of osteopenia and osteoporosis.

Guided meditations are also individually chosen to close the practice.

There is a way we walk in the world. Most of us carry something around with us, but I would say this: It doesn’t matter if that is a chronic state of anxiety, depression, the latent effects cancer treatment, the challenges of living with spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, MS or amputation. What happens in Yoga Therapy is an inner confidence. There is a truth that arises, in spite of the veil, that is unmistakeable. When you can shine light again into the dark and silent places, there absolutely is wholeness again. Fear gives way to confidence and clear seeing.

The veil lifts.

When you are able to receive the tools to lift the veil, what will you do? How will you sing? If you have a calling inside that says there’s something else besides battling cancer and managing the latent effects of survivorship, trust that as the only truth.”

“The message is don’t die with the music still in you. You came here with something to do. You are part of a universal consciousness, and there are no accidents in it. In your true essence-not the false self, not the ego part of you, but in the true essence of who you are-you are infinite and you have something very profound to accomplish while you’re here. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.” -Dr. Wayne Dyer

Many thanks to Lisa for sharing her expertise with us today.


Lisa Z. Hughes, PT, RYT500 is the President of No Boundaries Yoga Therapy in Alpharetta, GA, where she sees clients of all ages and abilities. In January she founded an Adaptive Yoga class at Project Walk Atlanta Spinal Cord Injury Recovery in Alpharetta, which has grown to over 10 students and 25 volunteers. She teaches “Adapting Yoga for Spinal Cord Injury” at Emory University as part of the “Yoga for PTs” elective.

Check out her website, FB page, or reach out to her via email.

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