Rebecca discovered yoga after her secondary breast cancer diagnosis. She gives her tips on getting started, and shares how it’s helped her understand her body and enjoy life.
My first yoga attempt was like a game of Twister
Downward-facing dog is pretty straightforward, but I can't hold it for long. Lizard and Pigeon are exceedingly satisfying and perhaps my favourites, and one day I'll conquer the Eagle.
Some of you will be with me on this, while others may think I've gone mad. Fear not though, I'm talking about yoga poses, and want to take a moment to talk about how passionately I believe that yoga is a key element of physical recovery and mental wellbeing for any cancer patient, particularly those with secondary cancer.
First, allow me to rewind. My only experience of yoga prior to my secondary breast cancer was on holiday about 15 years ago. I signed up for a yoga class – my first – to be held on the beach. What a romantic idea! Unfortunately, the reality was far from the idea. I was too hot and bothered by the sun and slipped all over the mat like a drunk game of Twister.
So, when I heard that the charity Trekstock was offering cancer-friendly yoga, I was hesitant to say the least. But my ‘try new things’ mantra won through. Led by the supportive Joelle Rainford, the class was a revelation. We moved steadily and gently, and Joelle was on hand to help with any moves my cancer made tricky for me. I was immediately hooked.
It’s not about pushing yourself
Like anyone, I find some of the positions a bit of a challenge. I also struggle at times because of, you guessed it, secondary breast cancer. My back pain has been excruciating at times, which has either stopped me attending class, or prevented me from fully participating. And my lymphoedema means I avoid weight-bearing on my arms for anything longer than a few moments.
Some of you may feel self-conscious about your ability/disability, but trust me, all the yoga classes I've attended have been very safe spaces, led by people who have nothing but sympathy and understanding for my need to do my own thing every now and again. Have a word with the instructor before class begins, and you'll probably find that they offer you alternative poses when it gets a bit tricky.
If you attend a cancer yoga class, you'll probably be expected to have certain limitations. Of course, only ever do what your doctor, oncologist and physio say you can safely do. If you break yourself in yoga, you've missed the point!
Yoga has helped me understand my body
I've found that yoga has improved my connection with my body. In other words, it's helped me tune into how my body normally feels, so that if I have a niggle or issue, I'm quicker at pinpointing exactly what feels wrong, and why. My back is often an indicator of when my secondary breast cancer is growing, and yoga has helped me identify these symptoms more efficiently.
The wonderful thing about yoga is that it’s not only good for your physical health, but it also provides a calm and tranquil space – away from cancer – that enables you to relax and focus on what's good in your body.
For example, when I even half-succeed with a challenging pose, I feel proud of myself for being able to achieve something physically challenging, despite my many cancer-related handicaps. I thank and congratulate my body for this. When I'm concentrating on my breath, I'm exercising the mindfulness that gives me a sense of calm and clarity in daily life – crucial for coping with the impact of secondary cancer. I can’t help but have a more positive feeling towards my rather damaged body as a result of yoga.
How do you find a good yoga class for cancer patients?
So how do you find a good class? In London, the cancer charity Victoria's Promise offers cancer-friendly yoga, led by the wonderful Laura. At these classes, like the Trekstock ones, everyone has one physical difficulty or another, and generally, after a minute or two, we're joyfully comparing notes and helping each other. It's a great way to meet other cancer patients and thrive off mutual support.
However, another feather in yoga's cap is that it's often held in unusual or beautiful spaces. For example, I attend a dawn yoga class on the 28th floor of The Shard. You can imagine how positive it feels to look down on the vast expanse of London while conquering the Warriors. A bonus is that Sarah Kerrigan, the friendly and inspirational teacher, runs these classes to raise money for The Children's Trust.
Don't worry if you aren't in London. Breast Cancer Care has tips for getting started with yoga and videos to help guide you through poses, so you can enjoy the experience from your sitting room if you prefer.
Yoga has given me a positive mindset so I can enjoy life
Had it not been for my secondary breast cancer, I'd never have found yoga. I'm delighted I did. It is definitely a significant factor in my positive mindset and enjoyment of life. Of course, you may not be able to stand on your head or tickle your ears with your feet, but there's more to yoga than ambitious Instagram pics. Provided you're well enough to participate, I'd recommend you give it a try, for the benefit of your physical and mental wellbeing. Take it from this old cynic, it's definitely worth a go.
Find more self-care tips and blogs in our self-care toolkit.