April 05, 2020
Nourishing our bodies doesn’t start and end with food. Here, yoga teacher Vicky Fox, who runs classes for people living with cancer, explains the importance of mindful movement for boosting immunity and relieving stress
I trained as a yoga teacher in 2008 and five years later qualified to teach people who are living with or recovering from cancer. Yoga can be hugely beneficial post surgery or after chemotherapy, radiotherapy or other treatments. Many cancer therapies target rapidly dividing cells in the body to reduce tumour growth, but our bone also contains fast-growing cells. Yoga can help to build bone and muscle strength. In common with other forms of exercise, it can also help to improve immunity. Yoga can also help you to deal with the huge stress of diagnosis and the side effects of treatment.
When I teach yoga to people with cancer, my approach is slow and gentle, and the focus is always on the breath. I think it is frightening to be diagnosed with cancer; it makes you stop and re-evaluate life. You might look at what you can do to help manage stress and the side effects of surgery (loss of muscle mass and range of motion) and chemotherapy/radiotherapy (fatigue, peripheral neuropathy, nausea and lymphoedema). When you take a breath it’s for right now, not the past or the future. It brings you into the present moment, which can help you to feel calmer. At the same time, it soothes the nervous system, helping to take you out of ‘fight or flight’ mode and bring you into ‘rest or digest’ state, which is when the body is able to begin healing itself.
Decreased stress and pain, and increased wellbeing
Improved quality and quantity of sleep
Restored strength and range of motion, improved lymphatic flow
Enhanced energy, digestion, joint health, circulation, respiration, and endocrine function
Camaraderie with other (wonderful) yogi-survivors
Soothe anxiety, increased sense of groundedness
Be more comfortable in your body, mind, and spirit when you have been diagnosed with cancer
The community aspect of my classes is really important; it’s a chance to come together and support each other. I always offer a cup of tea and fresh fruit afterwards, and people stay to chat. Ages range from thirties to people in their seventies, some who are recently diagnosed, some who are living with cancer or who have had a recurrence, and some who are now cancer free but feel supported and comforted by the class. No one is excluded.
I’m hugely grateful when clients tell me how good my yoga makes them feel. When you are diagnosed, you are grieving for the life you thought you would have, or for the physical loss after surgery. You need to find a new normal, and yoga can help that sense of acceptance. My clients often say coming to a class is the first nice thing they’ve done for themselves since being unwell. One woman has stage four breast cancer and she finds joining in with a class helps to reduce her pain. Cancer can make you feel betrayed by your body, but practising yoga can help you to feel more grounded and comfortable in your changed or changing body.
‘No matter how challenging things are yoga gives me the opportunity to pause and breathe. I might be powerless to what life throws at me but I can control how I respond. It is incredibly empowering’ Vicky Fox
I talk a lot about being kind and loving to our bodies, and that’s something I’ve learnt from my own experience. A few years ago I injured my back messing around in my garden doing backbends when I wasn't properly warmed up. I have scoliosis of my spine and dehydrated discs at L4-L5. For weeks after, I had limited range of motion and was in constant pain. I promised to myself as I lay on the floor in tears that I would be kinder to myself and more compassionate; that I would listen to my body and become a better teacher if only I could begin to heal.
It’s important to make time for the things that give you pleasure. I love to cook and find it relaxing; anything with quinoa or Middle Eastern flavours is my go-to, especially Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe for Slow-Cooked Chicken with a Crisp Corn Crust from his book Simple. I’m vegetarian, although my family is not, so I’ll often substitute butter beans for the chicken. I also try to make time for my own practice – not just yoga, but breathwork and meditation, too. No matter how challenging things are, yoga gives me the opportunity to pause and breathe.
Vicky teaches yoga for cancer classes at centres across London, and is currently offering online classes via Zoom. Go to vickyfox-yoga.com to find out more.
This is helpful for anyone experiencing hot flushes or menopausal symptoms, often as a result of cancer treatment.
Make a circle with your mouth, as if sipping through a straw. Breathe in, close your mouth, then breathe out through your nose.
Continue breathing in and out this way for a few minutes. You’ll feel your mouth start to cool, then your throat, chest, abdomen and pelvis.
This cooling breath stimulates the vagus nerve, helping to soothe and calm the body.
Yoga pose: legs up the wall
One of my favourite ‘doing something by doing nothing’ poses; this simple posture is calming yet energising.
Move as close to a wall as possible and put your legs up straight; you could also put your legs over the seat of a chair if that’s more comfortable for you.
The pose helps fluid to drain down the legs and stops the valves in our blood vessels having to pump so hard.