Regaining Control Through Mindful Living

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve really enjoyed the Coursera course, “Engineering Health: Introduction to Yoga and Physiology“, which I highly recommend. One of the recurring themes of the class that I’ve found particularly relevant is that of effecting incremental and meaningful epigenetic change through yoga and meditation.

The class lectures went through the physiological mechanisms by which this happens, and this information would be reason enough to incorporate mindfulness and breath-to-movement in one’s life. But for someone who’s experienced cancer, there’s something even more important: a sense of control.

For me, the most terrifying part of my cancer diagnosis was the lack of control over what was happening to me. First, my body had turned on me by cultivating a tumor, the ultimate goal of which was to take over my organs and kill me. Then, my doctors were giving me drugs that by design would kill certain parts of me, with the intention of taking out the tumor before it spread to really important parts of me (brain? liver? heart?).

My body was a battleground in the war between my rogue cells and modern medicine. I had to sit there and take collateral damage if I wanted a chance at survival.

Disclaimer: So I feel the need to stress here that we do not yet know how to reliably prevent the formation of cancerous tumors, but there are things that we can do to greatly lessen the risk. I’m willing to bet that managing stress would have a powerful impact on prevention.

While I did begin meditation at that time, had I started learning to deal with my anxiety and accompanying physiological responses years ago, I might have been able to sidestep the disease. There is science to this which I will cover in a later post, but my doctors *hate* it when I postulate possible causes of my tumor since if we could truly pinpoint the cause, we’d be able to cure the disease. However, given what we do know about stress and inflammation, I can guarantee that my stress response did not help in keeping me cancer-free!

In the Coursera class, Dr. Ali Seidenstein (NYU) explains, among other things, how the small positive changes that arise from learning to control the stress response by applying yoga and meditation affect your genetics. And this is key. While you’re born with a certain set of genes, the science of epigenetics describes how you can affect gene activity (think, turning a gene on or off) and thereby have a different outcome from someone else with the same gene.

Finally! Something that *I* can do that provides a rare sense of control in an uncontrollable situation! For a cancer survivor, this offers a nugget of hope to hold on to in the face of continuing medications that may or may not help your survival. Medicine is tested on a variety of individuals but there’s no guarantee that their success will translate into your own (news flash: cancer = no guarantees, period). But knowing that you can engage in behaviors that, when applied over time, will actually benefit you on a genetic level…that, my friends, is priceless.

Revisiting Yoga After Cancer: Finally Coming Around

Decades ago, my introduction to yoga took place in my parents’ library, a small paneled room with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books. There I found an illustrated guide, replete with black and white photographs of odd contortions and strange nasal flossing. It seemed weird.

Oh, the moves I could do!

I had barely begun elementary school, and at that age was a natural-born yogi, as many young children are. Lotus pose? I could get my legs into position without using my hands. King Pigeon was no big deal, and nothing hurt when I folded myself up. I didn’t have a regular yoga practice at that age, but I would get occasional exposure to yoga moves at school, and I imagined all yogis wore diaper-like pants and lived on mountaintops.

High school provided an opportunity to do more. One of our French teachers practiced yoga, and I took a season of classes with her. Really, I remember little from that time. At that point, I was still limber but not as lanky, and yoga wasn’t particularly exciting. Volleyball was my game and I had no appreciation for how yoga could improve my playing. Had I practiced it properly, yoga could have helped immeasurably and prevented many a lost serve. But I lacked introspection and so barreled on as before.

Yoga resurfaced in my life now and again, but obsessed with more active ways of sweating, I steered away from it. I swam, ran and eventually strength-trained my body into shape. Yoga didn’t have a place in my view of what fitness should be.

Holding poses for a prolonged time? Not for me. Sweating through hot yoga? You’ve got to be kidding. A friend sustained a serious back injury from a yoga teacher who tried to force her into a pose. That was it; I was done with the idea of incorporating yoga into my already packed fitness routine.

Then I got cancer.

And I realized that my mind was victim to free-ranging anxiety. Desperate, I immersed myself in learning to meditate. I know they say that you need to find calm in the midst of chaos, but being thrown into chaos is not the best place to learn to be calm. I limped through cancer treatment and clung to the hope of peace. The only relief came from my love of fitness and drive to exercise as soon as the worst side effects of each infusion had passed.

Still, I pushed yoga away. Not interested. I needed to get my body back to where I’d been pre-cancer, not do slow movements that might tweak something and burned too few calories.

But the more meditation I did, the more mindfully I moved, yoga kept coming up, like a refrain in a song. Movements paired with breath.

I have made space in my life for yoga.

And then, it hit me. Movements paired with breath. I was all about the breath by then. Yoga provided the movements. And I found bliss.

When I opened myself up to yoga and invited it into my workout routine, something magical happened: my body started stretching out. All that tension that I’d carried for decades that had gradually tightened me up started releasing. My fingers found the floor in a forward bend again, and gently brought my palms with them. My heels easily pressed against the ground in a downward dog, with little peddling required. Moves that I could once do became available to me again.

So here’s the thing about breast cancer: after surgery, you lose some mobility in the affected side. Even now, side bends stretching my left side “pull” uncomfortably compared to my right side. Anyone who’s had lymph nodes plucked out of their armpits knows that that area stays tender for a good long time. Often, this brings an imbalance to the body.

My workouts had consisted of pounding myself through rowing, conditioning intervals, strength training with heavy weights and swinging kettlebells around. But without yoga, something critical was missing. Initially, I was afraid that “sacrificing” exercise sessions to yoga would result in faster decline of my physical ability and a push towards a more sedentary existence. Oh, how wrong I was! If anything, yoga has moved me towards vitality, flexibility and a sense of youthfulness that straight strength training had never allowed. Yoga opened up my whole body and allowed it to breathe freely.

What this has offered me is another way to look at how my cancer journey is progressing. After the aches and pains associated with never-ending adjuvant therapies, I admit I felt it was all going to be downhill, and that all I could do was desperately cling to my workout routines as my abilities gradually slipped away. Yoga brought back an element of fitness that I’d forgotten, and now, even though I know that I will be lifting less and rowing slower as time goes on, there is a new, perhaps more gentle world of fitness that I have yet to fully discover.

Online Classes: Yoga and Science – Putting It All Together

Please note: I’ve included links to various items below, none of which I’m compensated for. If I’m writing about them, it’s because I think they’re excellent and worth recommending to others.

In my never-ending quest to bring more peace into my life, and with the extra time I’ve found in COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve been taking advantage of online class on platforms such as edX and Coursera, and have been impressed with the breadth of courses that are available.

Currently, I’m mid-way through a class on Coursera from New York University (NYU) connecting yoga and science, called “Engineering Health: An Introduction to Yoga and Physiology,” and I am thoroughly enjoying it. This class can be audited for free, or $49 gets you access to the quizzes, a certificate once you’re done (that can be posted on LinkedIn) and no time limit on access to the materials.

The course is taught mainly by three individuals: (1) Prof. Alexandra (Ali) Seidenstein, lecturer and research scientist in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at NYU, who is also a yoga teacher; (2) Eddie Stern, NYC-area yoga teacher and author, co-founder of the international Yoga and Science Conference and creator (along with Deepak Chopra, Sergey Varichev and musician Moby) of the highly-rated Breathing App for mobile devices; and (3) Prof. Tommy Lee, senior lecturer in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at NYU. In addition, there are interviews with other scientists who have studied or made use of yoga in their research. For me, as someone who’s always looking for scientific validation, this combination of yoga and physiology is very gratifying.

First and foremost, the class teaches basic physiology. If you took survey classes in high school and college, the material will be familiar, and it’s presented in a clear manner with lots of visuals. Topics include physiological systems such as nervous, respiratory, cardiovascular, immune, digestive and much more. Additionally, there are discussions of homeostasis, epigenetics, and the effect of stress on human physiology.

As a cancer survivor, I find it so empowering to see the science behind how yoga affects my physiology, especially strengthening my immune system!

But woven in between all of these topics are instructions on breathwork and yoga movements for beginners, and this is what really ties the course together for me. The yoga is expertly taught by Eddie and Ali, both of whom make the experience very positive and not intimidating. With each lesson, they take the time to connect the physiology topics with what is being taught in the yoga class. This is a novel approach that I have found very empowering: there is a direct link between the work being done in the yoga lessons with functioning of the body.

For me, making that connection leads to a sense of self-efficacy and patience with myself, as it is with consistency of practice that we make change. Even more than that is the feeling that I can affect my immunity against disease (and cancer?) by keeping my stress levels in check. I have always felt that stress played a role in the development of my cancer, and although I cannot prove this, knowing that there is good science behind using such relaxation techniques as yoga and meditation in prevention of inflammation and subsequent disease gives me a sense of control in a situation that has often felt completely outside my control.

As mentioned, I am only at the midpoint of this class. I look forward to the second half and will report back about my overall impression once I am finished. In the meantime, if this post has piqued your interest, I highly encourage you to check the class out!