Breast cancer survivors do yoga

Five women sit cross-legged on mats in a Toronto yoga studio. One woman wears a soft cotton toque. She is mid-way through cancer chemo treatments and has no hair.

This is a yoga class for breast cancer survivors.

The yoga teacher is Esther Myers, well known in yoga circles throughout North America.
She has taught yoga for 25 years and is the author of Yoga & You.

She also had a mastectomy eight years ago.

video picturesVideo based on class
Now, she has made a video of her techniques called Gentle Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors.

“This started because I was invited to teach a class at Mount Sinai Hospital (in Toronto) at the Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre. And I thought doing the class would also help me. It’s a gentle yoga class. But when I teach it, it’s got a stronger support group element, because I know the territory, I’ve been through it,” says Myers.

On this day, she begins with relaxing deep breathing instructions delivered in a calm, comforting voice. Thenhe guides the class through a series of gentle stretches and poses. By the end of the class, everyone is lying down, totally relaxed and meditating.

Simple poses, relaxation
Myers covers the same simple poses, exercises and relaxation in the video. 

“When I got together with the women appearing in the video, they said, ‘after you have breast surgery, someone hands you a sheet of paper and says here, do these arm exercises’. End of instruction. So, incorporated in the video are things like crawling your arm up the wall, which comes out of the very basic instruction you’re given,” says Myers.

She says the video is designed for women early in their recovery period and for anyone experiencing significant limitation in the range of movement of their arms.

“If you’re fit enough to go to a general yoga class, then you’re past this video,” says Myers.

Helps flexibility, swelling
The video features a group of women being guided by Myers through eight adapted yoga sections. The hour-long tape starts with a relaxation introduction, covers warm up poses, arm stretches, spine stretches, standing and strength building stretches. It ends with meditation.

Myers also shows how to do various poses sitting in a chair for anyone uncomfortable lying on the floor.

She says the exercises help reduce swelling and re-establish flexibility and arm movement after breast surgery. And the meditation and relaxation sections give relief from anxiety and fatigue.

Background on video
The video is endorsed by doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital who work with breast cancer patients. The yoga class Myers began there continues with another teacher and is popular with patients, according to the director of the hospital’s breast centre.

Myers says both ICE Productions and JAM Designs, a marketing company, volunteered their skills to make the video. And some of the sales profits will go for research into yoga’s use in breast cancer treatment “so we can document in a rigorous way how this is working.”

Students like class
One of her students is Judith Rabin, a 57-year-old psychotherapist based in Toronto. She began taking yoga after breast cancer surgery, chemo and radiation therapy in 2000. She is currently taking the drug Tamoxifen.

“What I have found is that yoga and I are a wonderful fit. It helped me connect again with my body. I would walk out after every class just feeling elated. Just emotionally and spiritually, it connected me with a real joy of living, of being alive. I feel good about being in my body,” she says.

Another student is Sabah Ghazzawi, 50, a high school guidance teacher in Toronto.

“This is not set up to be a support group-but you are doing something concrete about your condition, something more than just talking. Physically, it’s wonderful, very helpful. Doing these exercises, I find, has reduced my scar tissue and improved my arm mobility. And because Esther has gone through it, when I say something pulls or stretches or I have pain, she knows exactly what I’m saying and can offer suggestions,” she says.

Supportive environment
Myers says she developed the yoga class for breast cancer patients at the start as a “way of giving something back” after she received such strong support during her own medical crisis. But she says she also benefits from doing the class.

“I’ll occasionally, in a general class, refer to something related to my experience with the disease. And you can just feel the room freeze. Here’s an environment where I can talk about my experience, be real about it. It changed me. If I had a job at a computer, then I wouldn’t be dealing with the fact that every time I stretch my arm, I feel I have scar tissue,” says Myers. 

The video Gentle Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors costs $22.49 CDN. Toll free number: 1-866-300-0433 (9 am to 5 pm EST)