Resilience through yoga therapy—During and after cancer care

By Kelsey Underwood

“Yoga has taught me that I can acknowledge my fear, and then begin to understand and transform it.” —Cancer Patient at IU Health Simon Cancer Center

The clients I work with have offered me the privilege of being a part of one of the biggest journeys of their lives, as they battle cancer. I am a yoga therapist at IU Health Simon Cancer Center, where I work with cancer patients to help ease anxiety and depression, provide social support, and facilitate nonpharmacological pain management.

Processing the complex emotions that accompany a cancer diagnosis is no easy task. The uncertainty of the path that lies ahead, the anxiety of figuring out how to tell family and friends, and the fear of battling a life-threatening disease can be debilitating. Yoga therapy provides people with techniques that help them acknowledge, honor, and process difficult emotions. These tools include mindfulness, breath awareness, body awareness and other meditation techniques, visualization, mantra (meditative phrases), mudra (hand postures), yama and niyama (ethical disciplines), and in some cases therapeutic movement and asana (physical postures).

Cancer patients who use complementary and integrative therapies such as yoga therapy report an increased ability to manage their physical and emotional well-being. Yoga may also improve quality of life both during and after treatment as well as improve biomarkers of stress, inflammation, and immune function.

Yoga therapy offers many tools for coping with conditions such as anxiety, which may or may not be part of a cancer diagnosis. This case, with yoga therapist Kelsey Underwood, illustrates why an individualized approach focused on the particular experience of each client is necessary—and how yoga therapy can be useful even in extreme situations.

Resilient for life

One of the biggest benefits I have observed is the permission yoga gives patients to experience a full range of emotions. Those I work with often report greater feelings of resilience when they are able to experience and release the difficult emotions that inevitably arise. And in fact, research suggests that yoga interventions may increase mental strength and resilience in cancer patients. High resilience is linked to less perceived stress and improved recovery from illness (this article cites some of the research in this area).

Perhaps the greatest truth yoga can reveal is our intrinsic interconnectedness, which can help us access a sense of meaning and purpose. This self-realization is linked to mental flourishing, reduction in perceived loneliness, and mitigation of gene expression changes in response to social adversity. Put simply, feeling connected to something greater than oneself can provide a sense of comfort during a battle with cancer.

As the research on yoga therapy expands, more clinical settings are integrating yoga therapy as an effective means of patient-centered care using the biopsychosocial-spiritual model. My hope is that all patients facing a life-threatening disease such as cancer may have access to the many benefits of yoga therapy.

Kelsey Underwood currently works as a yoga therapist at IU Health Simon Cancer Center and University Hospital. Kelsey is a student in the Master of Science in Yoga Therapy program at Maryland University of Integrative Health. Find her on Instagram and Facebook.

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