This article was written by Dawn Boulanoff for the 4th issue of Amrita Magazine.
Working on a one to one basis or in groups for cancer patients can be very challenging and sometimes demanding. I have worked in my local hospital with cancer patients on a voluntary basis for over 6 years. I have also worked one to one with breast cancer, bowel cancer, throat cancer and bone cancer patients. I have also given demonstrations to breast cancer patients.
If your general classes focus more towards pranayama and gentle asana, relaxation and meditation, you will be able to adapt and integrate some cancer patients. However, if the class is a strong vinyasa flow or Astanga, or physical asana class, and the patient has recently undergone surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy, the class will not be suitable. A one to one approach will be more orientated to their personal needs and you will be able to work with each session, assessing how they are feeling on the day and communicate with them during the session; this also allows a degree of trust and a more personal relationship to develop.
The discipline of yoga can offer us as teachers a number of healing tools that can be used in a holistic and gentle way, and we can draw on the tools of body, breath and mind to tailor the session that will be of most benefit.
Just the word cancer as we know can cause anxiety, stress and fear. The journey from diagnosis to recovery will be a long road. If you decide to work with a cancer patient, there are no half
measures; be prepared to stay for the journey. When you work on a one to one basis you will need to be flexible and tailor the sessions to your client’s personal needs.
One of my case studies I worked on for two years: The lady had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The first few weeks was a time of waiting for test results so we had to deal more with the psychological issues such as not sleeping, stress etc. After an initial assessment and during these first weeks and months, we focussed more on breathing techniques that helped with the anxiety. Yoga Nidra offered the first step towards waiting for the outcome of test results.
I noticed the patient’s mind was constantly busy during this period, so we began the sessions with a simple technique to follow the breaths. Sighing breaths to release the tension – the HA breath. The client only managed 10 counts at any one time. The thoughts were constantly there but with practice the mind was gently guided back. I asked the client to allow the thoughts to come and go without getting into conversation. The Crocodile asana was also extremely beneficial as it allowed a way to turn inwards from distractions and stress.
Yoga nidra was the most successful with tension and release movements; at the beginning with the help of music and guidance it allowed the patient to be completely relaxed. A blanket over the patient provided comfort and security. This session and the next few followed the same pattern; I would offer yoga nidra, breathing techniques and she fell asleep.
After the test results and up to the surgery was a very challenging time, but we continued in the same way with breath and yoga nidra, and on some days when the patient felt somewhat less stressed and anxious we worked with gentle joint releasing movements.
After the surgery the patient was very drained and exhausted but having had the cancer removed I noted that a more positive approach was beginning to develop each day.
As the sessions continued we worked once again on how the patient felt. We waited for the
consultant and medical professional to advise that it was okay to start working on recovery and gentle movement and as the weeks and months went by, I found a marked difference as the light at the end of the tunnel was in sight. We worked on drainage for the lymph system and also with the core muscles. During this time, each move, even if it was an inch, had to be greeted with positivity and an understanding that the movement and adaptations were going to be slow and working towards the final goal. At this time you need to be observant, encouraging, allow the patient to work where they are comfortable, and if they just want to relax I worked with the body hands on obtaining feedback all the way, encouraging and praising. I do not feel that having a lesson plan can be used during these stages as it is a case of intuition and communication. However, I would recommend keeping your own notes of each session and you will be able to see the improvement from week to week, month to month.
Working on the floor is also a good option and sometimes working in a chair would be the answer; each day will be different: one day the patient will be full of positivity and the next unable to drag themselves out of bed. You will notice their limitations. Giving the feeling of being nurtured is a fundamental role and to hold a safe space is important.
As the patient came towards to the end of the treatment and the cancer was in remission, energy began to come to the body like a shining light. This is a time when the journey begins to end and you have completed your work; some may even return to work or normal life at different times depending on the healing. You will build a strong bond with your patient or group and once they are no longer in need they can join a general class.
I have found this work to be the most satisfying and fulfilling and I have found this to be such a rewarding experience.
Dawn is a Senior Yoga Teacher and teaches Hatha yoga for the body and mind. Having taught over 25 years, she is a trainer for new teachers and works with Hormone Yoga Therapy, as well as teaching other styles including Iyengar.