Breathe and bend! How yoga can help you cope with cancer

Every year, at Shine’s Great Escape, we run morning yoga sessions for our “Escapees”. For many, it’s the first time they’ve tried yoga and most people are pleasantly surprised by how much they get out of it.

In this blog, Stephanie Bartlett shares her experience of starting yoga during her cancer treatment and how it’s helped calm her busy mind.  Want to learn more? Below Stephanie’s blog, we’ve posted some ‘getting started’ tips from Shine’s yoga guru (and podcast host) Tatum de Roeck!


StephAndTheo

Stephanie with son Theo

Last July I was diagnosed with cancer.  As a young and healthy 32 year old, I certainly wasn’t expecting it, though I have learnt very quickly it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are or how ‘healthy’ you thought you were.

Cancer for me has been ‘mind consuming’. In the seven months since my diagnosis, my mind has been consumed with everything cancer related, from the seemingly endless weeks of waiting for test results to the side effects of 18 weeks of chemotherapy to the apprehension of the next course of treatment; there was just no getting away from it.

That was until I discovered yoga. My very first yoga session consisted of some simple breathing techniques and some basic stretching and relaxation. I followed my instructor and it was very peaceful. I found it easy and I soon realised that an hour had passed and I hadn’t thought about cancer.

I can only describe how I felt after my first session as a balloon floating in the sea. I felt present in the here and now.  My mind felt completely empty.  No thoughts had entered my mind the entire time. I had no idea what it felt like to be free of the constant cancer woes until then. I also felt very relaxed, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and like I was finally lightened of the burden.

I continued to practice yoga with my instructor about once a fortnight and before I knew it I had learned a whole yoga flow and every session we were adding to it. I was also learning more how good it was for my mind and body. Post-surgery and during chemotherapy I looked forward to each session as I viewed it as my escape from cancer. I then found myself doing yoga on my own at home in the days in between seeing my instructor – I could finally escape cancer every day. I knew exactly what to do and I loved it.

The truly great thing about yoga is that no matter how I was feeling or how physically able I was (and this changed from week to week, with the effects of surgery or chemotherapy), I was always able to do yoga. And it’s really not about getting one leg wrapped around your neck while balancing in the shape of an elegant swan – rather, it’s all about connecting with yourself and using your mind and body no matter how much you’re able to move.  Basically, we can all do it, no matter how flexible you are.

As a busy and working mum to my five-year-old son, Theo, I’m constantly on the go.  Life is always eventful and there’s no escaping the constant need to be somewhere or do something.  This consumed a lot of my thoughts before cancer and adding cancer to that mix made life even crazier. Yoga enabled me not only to calm down my mind but also to focus on simply moving and breathing.  It lets me forget the chaos that life has thrown at me and it enables me to put into perspective the important things that are worthy of my attention. Most importantly, it also helps me forget about the pointless little things that can fill the gaps.

I have certainly caught the yoga bug; I now know a moon flow, what sun salutation is and can do my warrior poses.  During each of these yoga flows, the actions and breathing are the only things on my mind. Even before the cancer diagnosis I didn’t know it was possible to escape; I’ve always had a busy mind so for me it’s been a real eye opener. Steph1

I cannot recommend yoga enough to anyone going through a cancer diagnosis or treatment – an even those that aren’t. I once thought “oh, yoga is not for me – it’s too airy fairy”.  How wrong I was!  I have even booked myself onto a four day yoga retreat in Spain, as a reward once all my treatment is over. It’ll involve hours of yoga, relaxation and a well needed break in the sun.I genuinely never believed yoga would help me as much as it does but I honestly love what yoga does for me.  Give it a go, you won’t know until you try it!

Stephanie lives with her son, Theo, who is five, and she was one of Shine’s 2017 Escapees. To learn more about the Great Escape, click here. And if you’re interested in trying yoga, read on for a briefing by our yoga instructor (and podcast host) Tatum de Roeck!


Thinking of trying yoga after cancer?

Three months after Tatum de Roeck qualified as a yoga teacher, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Below, she shares her tips for getting started with yoga. Tatum

Even knowing quite a bit about yoga, I was still daunted going into a new class when my body felt so alien. It was tough dealing with feeling physically limited, emotionally all over map and mentally frazzled. What made it easier was having an idea what to expect from a class and how to find the right one.

I now teach yoga as my main job and give classes as part of Shine’s Great Escape weekend. Many Escapees have never done yoga before and the class has given them the chance to find out they rather like it! So for others who think they might fancy giving yoga a whirl here are some tips and thoughts to help make finding the first class a little easier.

Yoga is yoga, right?

Not all yoga is the same. The spectrum of classes range from ones where all the poses involve lying down on the ground with cushions and blocks, to hot sweaty powerful classes that seem to be created for acrobats from Cirque du Soliel.

I’m not flexible, can I still do yoga?

Yes! Yoga isn’t about what it looks like on the outside but how it feels inside your body. You can be one millimetre into a pose and feel the benefit of the stretch. If you feel it, that’s your pose and it is perfect. Someone else might have a different rotation in their hip joint and their legs may impressively flop out, but they may be working on how to engage their muscles instead which might be just as much of a challenge. It’s good to bear in mind since everyone’s body is wildly different (and always changing) we don’t bend to yoga, it is yoga that should bend to us.

Starting Slow

Slow classes give you time to try a pose, see if it’s right for you and adjust as needed. Even if it’s a super relaxing class it gives you a chance to hear some yoga terminology, become familiar with teachers providing different options, and to build confidence for trying the next class.

How do I find a slow class?

If there is a yoga studio nearby I would either pop in or give them a call to ask if they offer a relaxing, slow or gentle classes. Some bigger studios sometimes even offer classes handily named something like ‘yoga for people with cancer’. Most mid-size studios will have great introductory offers of unlimited classes for a couple of weeks. This can be a really useful (and far cheaper) way to try out different classes. Sometimes yoga classes at the gym are unhelpfully labelled ‘yoga’. In these cases its useful to get some more info otherwise you might be in a sweaty power hour territory.

The key things to ask is it is suitable for beginners and is it gentle? If possible it may be good to see if you can briefly contact the teacher before you plan to take the class.

A lot of cancer centres like Maggie’s also offer yoga and if they don’t offer yoga on the premises it’s worth giving them a call to see if they know a place or a teacher they’d recommend.

What do I wear?

The main thing is to wear something comfortable, which doesn’t restrict movement but isn’t too loose. The reason we don’t wear baggy T-shirts is because some of the poses (like a forward fold or child’s pose) will cause loose T-shirts to ride up exposing the stomach and lower back or rising so much it covers your face. Very baggy shorts can also show a bit more than you bargained for. If this happens you spend the class fighting with your clothes which takes away a little of the joy (I’m relaying this from personal experience!).

Getting to the first class early

It’s a good idea to get to your first class 15 minutes early. There will be forms to fill out and it’s a good time to talk to the teacher before the class starts. You can let them know you are trying yoga for the first time, that you may need to take it easy or have a part of your body where there is a limitation of movement. They are the best people to give you a bit of an idea about what to expect in the class.

Do I need to do all the poses?

Nope! Yoga is about being in the body and feeling out what is right for you. Anything that causes sharp pinching pain or any sensation which takes your breath away is a sign from your body saying that position isn’t right for you at that time. If this happens you can come out of the pose slightly or fully. There is a pose called child’s pose which is the go to position any time in the practice. It’s the pose to regain your breath, to rest or simply stay there until another pose that you might like comes along.

Giving it another go

Since there is such a variety in yoga styles, teacher personalities and range of environments it is worth giving yoga more than one class to really determine whether or not it’s right for you. If you find it ultimately isn’t what you want at the moment that’s totally ok too! You’ll know what it is and that it’s there if you ever want to come back to it.

Ask for Recommendations

One of the best ways to find a class is to ask others who have tried and tested classes already.  In the comments below, feel free to share your experiences and any places or teachers you love. You never know another Shiny person may be in your ‘hood and looking for a class!

 

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Life – but not as you knew it: Laughter as medicine!

Got a case of the January blahs? Here at Shine, we’ve been looking at ways that we can beat the dark, grey days and bring a bit of happiness into our lives, regardless of the challenges 2015 might bring.  Luckily for us, we found Mandy Riches of Grin and Tonic which uses Laughtercise (yes, you read that correctly!) to promote physical and psychological health.  Mandy understands cancer because she’s been there: diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma twice in her twenties, she was then diagnosed in 2011/2012 with breast cancer.  Yes, we know it sounds a bit weird but we also think it sounds like lots of fun so read on and visit her website for more information!


Mandy Riches

Three-time cancer superhero and laughtercise guru Mandy Riches

 

There’s something about one year ending and a new year beginning that I find unsettling. It’s often a time for self-reflection which brings a myriad of emotions, ranging from the optimism and excitement of new opportunities, to a longing to simply curl up under the duvet and hide from the world. Since I was first diagnosed with cancer over 20 years ago, I’ve often had an urgency to really ‘live’ life though I’ve found that this is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it contributes to the fact that I can look back on 2014 and feel incredibly proud at achieving what I describe as my crazy scary challenge: cycling from Edinburgh to London in five days for charity. For someone who often feels like a cancer factory, this accomplishment helped me to regain strength both mentally and physically. The absolute focus on following my heart and in achieving something that once seemed out of reach was invigorating.

The flip side is that this urgency sometimes completely and utterly overwhelms me – the need to make the new year count, the need to make every month, every week, every day, every second count. It can be exhausting and my New Year self-reflections could easily spiral into the January blues. However, as I lie snuggled up nursing my inevitable winter cold, I have decided instead that I will laugh in the face of the January blues using Laughtercise.

What is Laughtercise I hear you ask?

Laughtercise is based on the principles of laughter yoga, which combines laughter with deep breathing. When my good friend Stephanie Hill from Grin and Tonic heard about my third diagnosis of cancer, she felt powerless and wanted to find some way to help me and my family, so she engaged us in using laughter as an exercise (as opposed to laughing at comedy or jokes). With simple, fun exercises and some deep breathing your serotonin (the happy hormone) increases, the laughter becomes contagious. You feel more relaxed, less stressed, more energised. Like many, I found it a bit barmy at first and I could have easily discarded it as “I’m way too reserved for that kind of thing”. But by simply letting go a little and using techniques to anchor it into daily life, it was brilliant.

Mandy and her colleague, Steph

Mandy and her colleague, Steph

For most of my adult life, I’ve been dancing the tango with cancer: twice with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the 1990s and then breast cancer in 2011/12. I was devastated to have cancer for a third time, and it hit me much harder emotionally. I don’t know if it was the optimism of youth that carried me through the first two, or the cumulative effect of ‘here we go again’. Perhaps there was even an element of the unfairness of the breast cancer being caused by the radiotherapy I received for the Hodgkin’s.

One way or another, I experienced an overwhelming sense of emotion. I found myself crying for no real reason, I couldn’t sleep and I’d often wake up with tears streaming down my face. I found it really difficult to articulate what was going on.  Mortality had smacked me in face again and at least some part of me felt smashed, whether that was my sense of myself and who I was, my loss of innocence, my view on time, my view on what next.

I never thought that Laughtercise would become such a useful tool, but it did, and continues to be so. It has helped me to feel more in control of my life at a point when it seemed like cancer had taken over everything and every thought. Physically, the act of laughing and the deep breathing also helped to release some of the tightness I felt in my chest following reconstruction for my bi-lateral mastectomy. It also helped me connect with my family and friends in a really meaningful way.  When you’re dealing with cancer, people don’t know if they are allowed to laugh around you.  It was easy for me to give ‘permission’ for them to laugh with me, and although it started as an exercise, it was contagious and incredibly powerful, helping them to relax and deal with my illness too.

I know it all sounds a bit mad, but honestly you have to try it!  I am passionate about bringing more laughter into the lives of as many people as possible, and together Steph and I have created a DVD called “Dealing with Cancer? Laughter Works”. January can be a tough time for many people, cancer or not. Whether you’re happy, sad, or just need a little pick me up, I’d encourage you to get out of bed, grab the next person you see, or simply look in the mirror and give it a good Ho Ho Ho. It’s infectious!

In addition to being a freelancer writer and running her own Customer Experience Consultancy, Mandy is now proud to be a Director of Laughter at Grin and Tonic.