In honour of breast cancer awareness month, we’d like to talk about breasts. Understandably, this topic can often be cast in a depressing light, and not surprisingly, breast cancer awareness month is very much focused on the cancer side of things, as opposed to the breast side of things.
But breasts are wonderful! They are unique to each and every individual, and even each breast, as mostly they’re not symmetrical. They have been portrayed in works of art for many hundreds of years, and are venerated as the source of life-giving sustenance.
Many breasts don’t have cancer, which is also wonderful. There are also some heartening statistics on how, even with a breast cancer diagnosis, things are looking up. For example, according to Cancer Research, ‘in the 1970s, 4 in 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer survived their disease beyond ten years, now it’s around 8 in 10.’
There’s no doubt that we need to remain vigilant, checking our breasts regularly, and going to the doctors immediately with any sign of any unusual symptom. But we also need to re-frame our breasts in a positive light, checking them with love, not in fear.
Research shows that people can control physical functions, such as breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure, through yoga practice. By controlling these physical functions, yoga can help people reduce stress levels and improve feelings of relaxation and well-being.
Research also shows that people with breast cancer who do yoga may feel less stressed, enjoy a better quality of life, and experience less fatigue.
One 2018 review found that low intensity forms of yoga, such as gentle Hatha and restorative yoga, are safe and effective for treating the following symptoms in people with cancer or survivors:
- sleep disruption
- cognitive impairment
- musculoskeletal symptoms
Is it safe to practice yoga if you have breast cancer?
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.
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.
Different poses and their benefits
Yoga has many benefits for breast cancer patients. For example, it:
- reduces fatigue
- betters quality of life
- lessens the symptoms of nausea
- increases relaxation
Gentle poses that do not strain the chest, arms, and shoulders can help people with breast cancer experience the benefits of yoga most effectively.
It is advisable for people with breast cancer to practice these five poses:
Balasana, or Child’s Pose, helps stretch the hips, thighs, and back muscles while relaxing the chest muscles.
- Start on all fours.
- Exhale and lower the hips toward the heels.
- Reach the arms forward, outstretched.
- Breathe slowly and keep the arms stretched out, with the hands on the floor and the palms facing up or down.
- Bring the forehead to the floor.
- Hold the pose for 4–12 breaths.
2. Dirga Pranayama
Dirga Pranayama, or Three-Part Breath, encourages deep, complete breathing and helps increase the supply of oxygen to the blood while releasing muscle tension. It also helps relieve stress and bring focus to the body.
The three parts refer to the diaphragm, chest, and abdomen.
- Breathe in deeply as if filling the stomach, lungs, and chest with air.
- Exhale completely.
- Repeat until feeling more relaxed.
3. Viparita Karani
Also known as Legs Up the Wall Pose, Viparita Karani takes pressure off the neck and spine and encourages circulation and relaxation.
- Position the body next to a wall. Bring the knees close to the chest while lying on one side.
- Exhale and roll onto the back.
- Bring the legs up the wall.
- Keep the legs straight and firm and let the shoulders and back sink into the floor.
- Draw the head and neck away from the shoulders, extending the arms out to the sides, with the palms up.
- Remain in the pose for 5–10 minutes and relax into it while concentrating on breathing.
- To release the pose, bend the knees and roll onto the right side.
This pose, also known as Standing Forward Bend, stretches the calves, hamstrings, and hips, relieving tension in the neck, spine, and back muscles.
- Begin by standing upright with feet hip-distance apart.
- Exhale and slowly hinge forward at the hips, bending the knees as much as necessary.
- Reach the hands down toward the floor, placing the palms or fingertips on the floor or blocks.
- Release the head and neck toward the ground.
- Breathe and hold for 4–8 breaths.
- To release the pose, bend the knees more while keeping the back long and inhale as you return to standing.
Savasana, or Corpse Pose, helps calm the mind and relieve feelings of stress.
- Lie with the back flat on the floor and stretch the legs out. If this feels uncomfortable, bend the knees and place the feet on the floor.
- Extend the arms down by your sides, with the palms facing up.
- Place a rolled-up blanket or towel under the knees if there is tension in the lower back.
- Relax into the pose and breathe naturally.
- Relax the jaw and let go of tension in the back, neck, and face.
- Stay in this pose with the eyes closed for 5–15 minutes.
Yoga and Breastfeeding
Yes! While breastfeeding, women’s bodies are required to work extra hard to keep up their milk supply. In the book ‘Iyengar Yoga for Motherhood’ it states that according to ‘science’, every ounce of breastmilk produced by the body requires 400 ounces of oxygen, an enormous amount.
To aid this massive need for extra oxygen, it recommends that breastfeeding mothers should regularly practice pranayama. In pranayama, the abdomen and other organs relax, allowing much fuller expansion of the diaphragm and lungs, which in turn allows a deeper and more efficient intake of oxygen.
RisksBreast cancer patients and survivors who practice gentle yoga that has been approved by a healthcare professional should face no adverse effects or risks. A person with breast cancer should avoid any poses that put stress on their shoulders, chest, or arms, such as Plank Pose. However, people should remain cautious of potential injury. Risks may include:
MIMI (Multi ion mask insert)
- Can be worn with any facemask and provides additional heavy-duty protection.
- Adult & Youth Sizes Available
Strenuous yoga poses may present the risk of lymphedema for people who have had lymph nodes removed during breast cancer surgery.
Lymphedema causes swelling due to excess fluid. It may affect a person’s arms or legs.
A yoga instructor who has experience with breast cancer patients and survivors will be able to decide which poses and types of yoga are safe.
A person who has had breast cancer should therefore always talk with a yoga instructor before starting a class.
People with bone metastasis, where breast cancer has spread to the bone, may be at risk of fracture during yoga.
A person with bone metastasis should consult a healthcare professional on whether yoga is a safe activity for them. They could also try guided imagery meditation instead.
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.
Research shows breast cancer patients and survivors can benefit from yoga in various ways. For example, it can help them feel less fatigued and more relaxed, allowing them to enjoy a better quality of life.
People with breast cancer and those who are breast cancer survivors should practice gentle yoga and do poses that do not strain the chest, arm, or shoulder areas.
To ensure that their yoga practice is safe, they should seek guidance from a healthcare professional about which poses not to include in order to avoid potential risks, such as lymphedema and fractures due to metastasis.