I began practicing yoga a decade ago, after a therapist suggested I give it a try, to cope with ongoing anxiety.
Serendipitously, a yoga studio opened a block from my house that very year.
I’m not a pill taker (the worry of possible side effects from anti-anxiety meds made me even more anxious), so I figured yoga was worth a try.
Little did I know, that a year into my practice, I’d be diagnosed with breast cancer.
I took the psychologist’s suggestion seriously, and I went to at least two classes, per week, for a year. I regarded her advice as a “prescription,” as my fear of driving, airplanes, letting go of my college-bound kids and my grief over my recently deceased mother were overtaking my life.
In retrospect, I now believe that there was something prescient in my therapist’s suggestion. Of course, she couldn’t have known I would soon face a life-threatening disease. Yet somehow the stars aligned perfectly on my behalf, and in the perfect order—the death of mother, my visit to the therapist, a yoga studio on my corner and my cancer diagnosis. They all occurred within two years.
These days, yoga is increasingly suggested for those facing and recovering from cancer. Some hospitals—such as the one I was treated at, in Hackensack, New Jersey—are offering yoga classes for cancer patients. There are now books on the subject that were not available when I was diagnosed—Tari Prinster’s Yoga for Cancer comes to mind. Granted, yoga can’t cure cancer, but it can offer some valuable tools to help with the journey. Research also shows yoga helps breast cancer patients alleviate stress  and fatigue .
Here are seven ways yoga pulled me through during my struggle with breast cancer:
Before yoga, I based my life on fear. Yoga helped me tap into an unknown reservoir of courage.
Before yoga, I saw life from a glass half empty perspective. It was my belief that if something bad was going to happen, it would surely happen to me. I had abandoned organized religion in early adulthood, and hadn’t replaced it with any other kind of belief system. Yoga helped me find my way to spirituality—to a sense of trust that all things work for the good.
In addition to inner strength (courage) aforementioned, practicing the asanas increased my physical strength and helped me combat the disease. The knowledge that I still had some say about my body (I learned how to do headstand, warrior poses and other asanas) empowered me with a measure of control, despite the fact that cancer cells had set up camp in my body.
The owner of the yoga studio where I practiced taught me the mantra, Sa Ta Na Ma, the day before my surgery. Preparing for surgery, nights when I couldn’t sleep, waiting for radiation therapy and when I was face down in the MRI—directing my attention to Sa Ta Na Ma (birth, life, death, rebirth) and other mantras carried me through.
Yoga taught me how to breathe from the belly—how to slow down and follow the breath, and how to focus on the breath, instead of on frightening thoughts and imagined scenarios.
Residing in the present moment.
One of the worst things about cancer is the waiting. There’s waiting for lab results and decisions about treatment. I can recall counting the minutes—sometimes the hours—at doctors’ offices, just waiting to see what would happen next. Yoga taught me to see the sunset outside my window, instead of imagining tomorrow’s oncology appointment. Yoga taught me to focus on the sound of my teenage son, playing guitar in his room, instead of on whether I would be alive to attend his college graduation.
My yoga teacher and fellow students were a source of support and information throughout my journey. My family and friends were invaluable pillars, but yoga also provided an ongoing sense of community. In my absence, my yoga classmates chanted “Om” for me the day of my surgery, and my teacher was there for me every step of the way. At a special yoga class for healing and stress, I also found a compassionate teacher who provided a safe space for us to cry.
“Remember,” she said, and I still treasure her words in my heart, “All healing takes time.”