In my movement, fitness, and yoga classes, I often meet students who have heard the fateful words, “You have breast cancer.” Every student’s situation is different, of course, but they all share a common experience: in one way or another, they feel their lives will never quite be the same.
After diagnosis the predominant focus is usually devoted to the disease and its treatment, yet, surprisingly, the body as a whole is often the last area to receive attention. Functions as simple and elementary as moving and breathing tend to be taken for granted.
Too often the cumulative stress of the breast cancer experience can result in unconscious reactions. Instinctively, we reorganize our body’s structure to protect the ravaged chest. It is not uncommon to cradle an arm to protect a chest wall that is raw from radiation or to favor lying on one side while recovering from surgery. These seemingly subtle, unconscious modifications and inhibitions can generate a whole range of new symptoms, such as hip pain, muscle tension and stiffness, and lower-back discomfort, as the body alters its alignment in adapting to structural change.
While we may be aware that it will do us good to move our bodies, the sheer barrage of information touting the health benefits of exercise can be daunting. And often exercise programs are accompanied by duration and intensity guidelines that may seem beyond the reach of someone recovering from breast cancer. After all, the desire to begin an exercise program after treatment and the ability to do so are two different things.
As a fitness and yoga teacher, I have incorporated these considerations into my classes after observing a definite need for them. I was so moved by the reactions and the breakthroughs my students experienced as a result of these efforts that I created an entire program designed specifically for breast cancer patients and survivors. This culminated in a DVD production called The Next Step: Restorative Exercises after Breast Cancer.
The exercise program I devised consists of gentle yet profound movement techniques combining the precision and the alignment of yoga, the core-strengthening methods of fitness, and the nonlinear, expansive nature of dance. It is a method of exercise designed to persuade the body to transcend perceived limitations and to investigate many different planes of movement in a safe and joyful yet challenging way. The goal of the program is to build strength, gain flexibility, and restore balance.
Time and again I witness in my students the experience of renewal. These extraordinary people have the courage to take “the next step.” That’s when I know that all the time we have spent moving together has had a positive impact not only on their muscles, tendons, and joints but also on their attitudes, hearts, minds, and relationships. And they feel good. And they want more. And that gives me great joy.
Here are three exercises from The Next Step: Restorative Exercises after Breast Cancer. The program is designed to address most side effects gently and safely in creative and lyrical ways. Before you attempt these or any exercises in the wake of breast cancer treatment, take care in choosing a program that is appropriate for you and embark on your journey with the proper guidance from your healthcare provider and—especially important—from your own body.
I recommend that as you do these exercises you take note of every sensation that passes through your body. This body awareness is vital. Allow it to be your teacher. Listen to it. Learn from it. Your physical self may look different and feel different after treatment, but it still has the same intelligence and cherishes the same history that it did before the cancer diagnosis. I have crafted these restorative postures and movement patterns to inspire your body to “undo and release” at its own pace. My intention is to encourage the body to open: open up, open out, open wide.
As you work through these exercises, do not dwell on what was but on what can be. Our bodies are incredibly resilient and can adapt to almost anything. I ask my students to breathe and move gently through the discomfort, the resistance, and the numbness. We will never know what is on the other side unless we use our sensations as guides rather than barriers. By retrieving range of motion in creative ways, we truly can reach a place called “the best shape of our lives.”
This exercise can be done on a chair or a ball.
Inhale with your arms over your head, palms facing each other. Lengthen your spine as you keep your shoulders “reaching” down your back.
Exhale as you gently twist to the left, placing your right hand on the outside of your left knee and your left hand behind you on the ball. Allow the twist to initiate from the belly (not the shoulders) and keep your head in line with the sternum. Hold this posture for three breaths.
Inhale as you release your left hand and place it on your head. Exhale as you reach your elbow to the ceiling, stretching your triceps, armpit, and side ribs. Hold this posture for three breaths if you can.
Repeat the sequence on the other side.
Camel Pose Variation
Sit on the front edge of a chair with your feet directly under your knees. Reach behind you and grab the sides of the chair back. If that is too much of a strain, slide your hands down and hold onto the seat of the chair anywhere that is comfortable.
With your arms straight and your chin slightly tucked so that your neck stays long, lift your heart to the ceiling while your shoulder blades “reach” down your back.
This exercise can be done on a chair or a ball.
Inhale as you open your arms out to the sides, lift your heart to the ceiling, and extend your pelvis back behind you, creating a gentle arch in your spine.
Exhale as you reverse the movement by bringing your pelvis forward, pulling your belly in toward your spine, and bringing your hands in toward your heart. The initiation of these movements comes from the abdominals. The shoulders, neck, and chin are not leading the movement but responding to the cues of your core. Matching breath with movement, do this sequence five times.