Yoga therapy and healing with brain cancer

By Bren Ohta

At the peak of a fulfilling career, my seemingly normal world fell into chaos initiated by a devastating cancer diagnosis and its aftermath. I turned to yoga to put myself back together in a new way.

At first, I needed much rest and it was difficult for me to maintain strength and stamina in public yoga classes. Customizing the practices for my body, mind, and soul was key and is a hallmark of yoga therapy—meeting people where they are, be that a yoga mat, a chair, or a hospital bed. Now, as an IAYT-certified yoga therapist, I help others experience the support and healing that yoga therapy can offer.

Kosha keys to healing

My cancer has taught me to be a better yoga therapist and given me an approach to client assessment and therapy that is both integrative and holistic. I learned that cancer can affect every aspect of a person, which makes the inherently holistic practice of yoga a great fit for offering support. 

Yoga therapy uses the panchamaya koshas (the five sheaths of human experience: the physical body, breath/life force, mind, the wisdom body, and bliss or spirit) for assessment, observation, and care planning. This type of assessment reflects a deeper dive into the interconnectedness of the client’s body, breath, mind, and spirit, along with lifestyle, social factors, and cultural considerations. 

Using yoga therapy to support people with cancer entails incorporating physical movement (to the degree appropriate), breathwork, meditation, and possibly additional yoga techniques. This work helps people learn to calm their minds, preparing them for the more difficult tasks ahead—which may include addressing their fears—while remaining in the present moment. For those with cancer, this perspective is crucial and potentially spiritually freeing.

For the client with cancer, the devastation of disease and treatment is not restricted to the directly affected body part or organ system; the entire person has undergone a complete and unwelcome transformation, and they may not recognize the extent of the damage. In my training and healing, I felt a level of compassion grow within me, enabling me to reach out to others on a cancer journey to offer whatever knowledge, advice, and wisdom I had gained to help them lessen their pain and regain their power. Teaching clients to reconnect to what has been lost can help them to take back their sense of agency, which is a foundation of healing.

*This post has been adapted from the article “Standing on My Head: Yoga Therapy and Healing with Brain Cancer” in the Spring 2023 edition of Yoga Therapy Today, which is available to IAYT members.

Bren Ohta, PhD, MS, MSW, LCSW, RYT-500, C-IAYT, was previously a clinician, researcher, and administrator for a major academic medical center. When able, she now offers yoga therapy to others with cancer through private practice and by volunteering at local cancer centers.