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Yoga for Breast Cancer

About 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime, making it the most common cancer in women in the United States.

Beyond the fact that exercise in general can reduce the risk of certain cancers including breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, exercise also lowers the level of certain hormones (including insulin and estrogen) that are associated with the development and progression of breast cancer. Studies say that physical activity after a breast cancer diagnosis has potentially “favorable influence on breast cancer incidence and outcome.”

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Yoga is one such way to exercise. Try the following the gentle yoga routine and see how you feel.

Is it safe to practice yoga if you have breast cancer?

Practice safely
Place a yoga or exercise mat on a nonslip surface and keep the room temperature comfortable, definitely not hot.

Yoga can not only be an effective, low-impact exercise, but it has also been shown in numerous studies to reduce fatigue, improve physical function and quality of sleep, and contribute to an overall better quality of life.

You likely can, and should, exercise at all stages of your cancer diagnosis — before, during, and after radiation, hormonal, and targeted therapies, as well as during and after chemotherapy and surgery. However, you will need to discuss your planned physical activity with your doctor before you undertake a new routine, especially if you recently had surgery.

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If you are at risk of lymphedema, you want to be sure the poses you are doing are beneficial for that (the ones below are). Ask your doctor if they’d recommend compression garments and if it is safe to begin practicing yoga.

Yoga can be restorative and gentle — and the poses that follow absolutely fit that bill — but there are always complications with any new exercise. That risk increases if you are dealing with issues you may not be expecting or aware of. For that reason, you should talk with your doctor about your yoga practice specifically.

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Cat-Cow Pose

This movement strengthens your lower back, decreases hip pain, and increases spine mobility as well as spinal fluid circulation. In general, this can be a lovely way to ease some flexibility back into your torso. Chances are, you have been holding some tension in this area.  

Equipment needed: Again, for all these poses, a yoga mat is a good thing to have, preferably on an uncovered floor. Avoid carpets or rugs, if possible.

Muscles worked: spinal extensors, abdominals, hip, neck, and back muscles

  1. Begin on all fours, in a “tabletop” position, your feet flat (toes not tucked), shoulders directly over your wrists, hips over your knees.
  2. As you inhale, drop your belly, letting your back arch. As you are doing this, bring awareness to your shoulders and be sure your shoulder blades are firmly on your back and not creeping up to your ears. This is Cow pose.
  3. As you exhale, press into your hands and round your upper back, pulling your bellybutton into your spine. This is Cat pose.
  4. Continue moving on your inhales and exhales, repeating 10 times.

Seated Side Bend

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A simple seated side bend will do wonders for your torso. Not only does it work and lengthen your abdominal muscles and improve spine flexibility, but it also stretches the intercostal muscles (the muscles between your ribs). Lengthening those muscles helps with posture, neck and shoulder tension, and increases full range of motion in your ribs.

Muscles worked: abdominals, intercostal muscles, latissimus dorsi (lats), external obliques

  1. Sit cross-legged in the center of the mat.
  2. Place your left palm flat on the ground 6 inches or so from your body, in line with your left hip. Your right hand should be lifted to the sky, alongside your head.
  3. As you inhale deeply, feel your lungs fill up with air and your spine lengthen.
  4. As you exhale, gently stretch your spine to the left, using your left hand for support as you do and arcing over with your right hand and arm. If your spine is flexible in this lateral bend, you can walk your left hand out farther, perhaps until your entire forearm is flat on the ground, supporting your stretch.
  5. Keep your chest open as you take at least 3 deep, even breaths, rolling your right shoulder up and back if it starts to crunch forward a little.
  6. Gently return to sitting and switch sides. Do this stretch at least 3 times on each side.

Fish Pose

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This pose is a heart opener, which means it opens your chest, ribs, lungs, and upper back. It also stimulates lymphatic drainage in the breasts and pecs, and can reduce scar tissue.

Equipment needed: If you have a small, narrow cushion (such as a couch lumbar cushion or a bolster), you can use it here. Also, two thin blankets are good for this pose, one folded for you to sit on, and the other folded to support your upper back.

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Muscles worked: sternocleidomastoid, rectus abdominus, spinal extensors

  1. Prepare your props by folding and sitting on the blanket, so your hips are supported. The long cushion (or rolled blanket) should be perpendicular to the blanket you will sit on, so it will support your spine. The last folded blanket (or small cushion) should be at the top of that, so it will support your upper back. You’ll want your head hanging a bit below the upper back support, to really open your neck and chest, so the upper blanket or cushion should stop at the top of your shoulders.

Note: You can build these props up (or use larger, thicker cushions and blankets or, of course, yoga cushions and blocks), if you prefer to be a bit higher up. To begin, you may want to start lower to the ground, as outlined above, to get the hang of getting into this pose with so many props as well as to get a gentle heart opener and see if you want something deeper or not.

  1. Sit up straight, with hip/sits bones on the blanket and your legs out in front of you, keeping them together, big toe joints touching, heels slightly apart, if that is comfortable. If it’s not, you can widen this “stance,” just be sure you don't let your feet flop out to the sides. Your legs should be active in this pose, not loose and rolling outward.
  2. Gently and slowly, begin to lie back so the blanket or long cushion is supporting your spine (you can use your hands to support you as you lower yourself).
  3. As you lie down on all the props, rest your head back fully onto the mat and let your hands rest on the ground next to you, palms up. (Your hands can be as high or as low as you want in relation to your shoulders, but you want to start with them low and slowly pull them up higher to see what feels best.)
  4. Stay aware of the pose as you lie here. This is not time for a nap, so again, keep your legs engaged — by keeping the feet together if possible — and breathing deeply. Feel free to move the props until it feels best for you.
  5. You can hold this pose for up to 10 minutes if you like. When you come out of it, exhale deeply, point your toes, and lift your chest if possible. If you’re new to the pose and need to build up strength, place your hands on either side of you to support rising out of the pose.

Belly breathing (diaphragmatic pranayama)

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Though it may seem simple — it is just breathing after all — deep belly breathing helps you use the diaphragm more effectively. By strengthening the diaphragm itself, you’ll decrease oxygen demand and make it easier for your lungs to work. This may be beneficial to practice during and after breast cancer treatments. Deep breathing also helps calm us, as the increased oxygen to our brains stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which signals our bodies to relax.

Note: If you are currently in radiation treatments, you may want to look at studies that show decreased radiation exposure to your heart and lungs if you practice deep breathing during treatment.

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Muscles worked: diaphragm

  1. Lie down on your back. You can support your head with a small pillow and your knees with a small cushion, if you like.
  2. Place your hands on your belly and take a slow, deep breath as you feel your belly expand. This part is important, as we may breathe shallowly when dealing with pain or issues in our torso in general. The idea here is to exercise the diaphragm and fully inflate our lungs.
  3. As you are inhaling, count how long you can deeply breathe. (Starting out, this should be something you decide, not something you strain to accomplish.)
  4. Hold as long as feels comfortable and still allows you to gently and evenly exhale (no abrupt exhalations), taking as long to exhale as you did to inhale, maybe even a few beats longer.
  5. Repeat this 4 or 5 times, 5 or 6 times a day, if possible.

Note: While the poses that lead up to this will help, as they warm up the muscles you will be using, you don't have to do them before you practice belly breathing every time.

Takeaway

Yoga has been shown to have positive effects on breast cancer outcomes. It may have positive effects for you, no matter your specific journey. It is also a practice that can and should be personalized. While the above sequence is made up of restorative poses that are a great starting point, always check with your doctor and also a physical therapist or yoga instructor about your body’s specific needs.

Gretchen Stelter
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