by Parmjit Singh, PhD
With cancer striking an alarmingly high percentage of population and preventive remedies/vaccine still in the realm of speculation and making, yoga may promise some alleviation from the terrible physical and psychological consequences that follow its diagnosis and treatment process.
Some studies in the recent past have held out such hope. In one of the studies, yoga practice has been shown to have improved a general sense of well-being and easing out discomfort in breast cancer patients. Participants registered 12% increase in their well-being as compared to the control group. In another study, scientists found that lymphoma patients who practiced Tibetan yoga for seven weeks went to sleep faster, slept longer, had better overall well being and used less sleep medication as compared to the control group which did not practice yoga.
Ordinarily yogic exercises may just seem a bunch of slow-motioned twist or turns practiced to a mellow music but they are based on century-old model of health and wellness, something which science is beginning to unravel now.
For one, yogic exercises are passive but mindful. One pays attention to the progress of a posture through carefully directed attention. That is what, apart from other things, may be helpful in helping people regain their sense of well-being and comfort. This directed attention on the body and emotions redefine personal relationships with one’s own body and helps to ease out fear of death and desperation associated with the feeling of ‘why me’. When faced by personal mortality, as cancer tends to drive one to that realization, people recoil into fear and despondency which complicates the physical pain and horror related to the disease.
Ancient Indian texts describe five sources of distress (Kleshas) which disturb mental quietude and well-being (Telles & Visweswariah, 2006*). These five factors are: (i) lack of knowledge (avidya), (ii) a sense of ‘I-ness’, (iii) strong preferences, (iv) strong dislikes and (v) fear of death and to lesser degree of anything which appears threatening.
As you can see, the sense of ‘I-ness’ or ‘why me’ is considered one source of distress in ancient philosophy. This might be, as it seems, one source of cognitive distortion that complicates the pain, coping and the recovery process. As people do not have accurate knowledge of the real nature of physical body (which they consider a solid and a sophisticated machine), they get trapped into a false sense of ‘self’ conveyed through sensory perceptions.
One major problem with that perception is that when we come to consider personal wellness solely on the basis of lack of illness in physical body, any threat to it from an illness devastates our feeling of well-being. Furthermore, this ego-identification with perishable physical body tends to distort our sense of self—and we are consumed with terror of disease and mortality. This is the first time we face death or its possibility and because we have never known our self beyond the body-identification, disease means the end of everything. That is what scares people even more than the disease itself—the fear of death.
In yogic philosophy, wellness is not related as much to the soundness of physical body or lack of disease as to the integrity of the mind-body-spirit axis. It reminds people that material things are perishable; that physical body is inherently subject to disease and decay.
This line of understanding helps to reshape personal perception about physical body and its pain process and bring people out of their catastrophic sense of failure and pessimism, thus giving the immune system a breather to initiate healing process. This emotional relief might be able to induce relaxation and deepen the quality of sleep. Previous research has also confirmed that a better quality sleep can beat cancer.
Yoga, through its passively directed attention and movements, could be helping participants in redefining their relationship with their own physical and mental body, thus opening the possibility of experiencing well-being while being struck with a terrible disease such as cancer.
If you would like to try some simple postures, go Here. Remember to follow instructions and practice under specialist supervision.
*Telles, S, & Visweswariah, NK (2006). Comments to: Health Realization/Innate Health: Can a quiet mind and a positive feeling state be accessible over the lifespan without stress-relief techniques? Med Sci Monit., 12(6)