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Yoga: Preparation for Whatever Life Throws at You

Network - Fall 2008

By Nada El-Sayed

A yoga tale says that we are each allotted a certain number of breaths in life and by controlling our breathing we extend that life.

It is through both pranayama (breathing) and asanas (postures) that yoga is viewed as a method of purification of the physical body, mind and spirit. The goal is to create balance and union within the whole body to live longer, healthier and happier lives. 

Since it focuses on self-reflection and releasing of the ego, yoga has been commonly mistaken as a religion.

Sat Siri Sumler describes the practice of Kundalini yoga
Deborah E. Thomas
Producer: Darcy De Leon

“But it is not,” says Sat Siri Sumler, a massage therapist and yoga instructor at M. D. Anderson.

Yoga, which has no deity to worship or requirement for a confession of faith, is instead exactly what its Sanskrit translation describes, a “union” or “merger.” It’s a systematic science creating harmony between the body and the mind.

“Individuals take an active role in creating their own state of peace,” Sumler says. “Yoga helps us activate our potential, become more grounded and get in touch with the many facets of life.”

A belief that different methods of breathing affect the body’s health and life force is the core of the breathing aspect of the practice.

“Yoga techniques can be used as preparation for life’s challenges,” Sumler says. “With the techniques it teaches, people are more prepared for tough situations that may arise.”

Yogas come in many shapes and sizes

There are many types of yoga, some with different methods of practice and others with varying degrees of physical activity or range of difficulty in technique.

Therefore, it is important for cancer patients or survivors to check with their doctor before enrolling in a class.

Marisse Farnos, Ph.D., demonstrates hatha yoga
Videographer/Editor: Deborah E. Thomas
Producer: Darcy De Leon

“Then, after you enroll in a class, be sure to tell the yoga instructor about your treatment or recent surgeries that may hinder you from performing some of the positions requiring a full range of motion,” says Marisse Farnos, Ph.D., senior improvement advisor in the Office of Performance Improvement and a yoga instructor at M. D. Anderson.

Individual instruction with a yoga teacher is also a good alternative for those who may want more one-on-one help with modified poses to meet those specific needs.

The mother of all yogas

Kundalini has been called the mother of all yogas and is great for patients who need a more modified yoga to fit their specific needs. It consists of a wide array of aspects found in other types of yoga, including different body postures, expressive movements, utterances, meditation, breathing exercises and different levels of concentration.

“Kundalini yoga has no end in its series of poses,” Sumler says. “Everything can be done standing, sitting or lying.”

Each Kundalini yoga asana series is done simultaneously with a specific breathing technique that’s used to intensify the effects of the poses. Some sequences consist either of rapid, repetitive movements done with breath or by holding a pose while breathing in a particular way. Others consist of a cycle of only a few slower motions.

“Each type of breath someone takes has a different effect on the body, stimulating different nerves,” Sumler says. “The practice of yoga can help improve one’s breathing, lung capacity and muscle strength. It balances hormones and, in some cases, can reduce fear, anxiety, depression, general stress levels and improve sleep quality.”

Complementing opposites

Balancing pairs of opposites is a basic element in Hatha yoga, which literally translates to the sun and the moon. Consisting of asanas, it is the most common type of yoga being practiced in the West. It focuses on the physical exercises of the body and concentrates heavily on the practice of bodily postures, while still maintaining breathing techniques.

“Hatha yoga brings health to the body and mind,” Farnos says. “You become more aware of your feelings and emotions while increasing your flexibility.”

Through what Farnos calls “meditation of movement,” practitioners are able to relieve stress, transition into a relaxed state and, in some situations, lower their level of depression. 

“If you are able to get individual training with an instructor, then that is always a good option,” Farnos says.

Improving quality of life

A study completed at M. D. Anderson in 2006 concluded that breast cancer patients who practiced yoga during their radiation treatment had improved quality of life as opposed to those patients who did not participate.

Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D. discusses mind-body practices for cancer patients
Deborah E. Thomas
Producer: Darcy De Leon

According to the study, one week after the end of six weeks of radiotherapy, “Patients in the yoga group reported significantly increased physical function and general health, compared to the control group who had a decline in these measures,” says Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., study lead and director of M. D. Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Program. Patients also reported increased ability to find meaning in their illness experience if they were in the yoga group.

“After a session, one person told me this was the first time she had felt like herself in a long time; the first time she felt at peace,” Sumler says. “She later said she was able to sleep more and soon got off some of her medications.” 

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center