How to Manage Side Effects of Cancer with Yoga

From Guest Blogger Meera Watts

It seems as though more and more people are being diagnosed with cancer every day. It is a great struggle for those who must learn to endure a completely new world of diagnoses, waiting rooms, time consuming treatments, and a whole lot of discomfort.

But more and more people are practicing yoga to offset the many side effects, discomforts and complications of the cancer journey. There is good reason for this - the practice of yoga poses gets you back into your body, and away from all the chatter of the mind. It takes you into what is really happening for you, physically, mentally and emotionally. It allows you to truly feel what is going on.

People who practice yoga throughout the journey of cancer seem to be more in touch with the reality of what is happening for them. For some time, the focus is removed from the cancer within, and they can simply experience being in their body. Focus is placed instead on breathing, proper alignment, and it helps people to feel more in control of themselves.

It has been proven that any type of regular exercise is safe for cancer patients. This includes yoga, which can help reduce pain, nausea, and sleeping difficulties. Yoga also improves mood, balance, and focus. Yoga also helps to maintain muscular strength and improves immune system functions. The dynamic poses encourage the movement of lymphatic fluid as we move through the practice.

It’s not only the physical poses of yoga that can help with the rigours of cancer though. Meditation can help people get through the frozen gloves used in certain treatments, or the fear of getting certain scans or tests done. Learning how to focus, to stay calm, and how to “center in”, can bring a sense of peace and control into uncomfortable circumstances.

Here are my favourite poses for cancer:

1) Child's Pose

How to get into the pose: Get onto your hands and knees. Then sit your hips back toward your heels. Lower your head to the floor, or onto a block or blanket. Reach your hands out in front, relax your forearms to the floor. Round your spine, and relax. Take as many deep, focused breaths as you can.

2) Seated Side Bends with Arm Circles

This pose stretches out the muscles between your ribs, as well as the 20 lymph nodes in your armpits!

How to get into the pose: Sit comfortable with a tall spine - either cross legged on the floor, or seated on the edge of a bed or chair. Take your hands to your sides, and then draw your hands away from your body about 6 - 8 inches. Raise your right hand straight up to the ceiling, reaching up long through your side ribs and arm. Then, plant your left hand and look down towards it. Then, keeping your top arm straight, pass it in front of your face, down and across your body, then reaching it to the right, and all the way back to the top. Do 3 - 4 more circles, then do a few in the opposite direction. Repeat on the other side.

3) Cat/Cow

This is one of the poses that you will often see when you search for information on yoga. There is a good reason for it! This pose brings mobility into the spine, frees up the nerves around the vertebrae, and is very soothing to the nervous system.

How to get into the pose: Come onto your hands and knees. Inhale, and tip your tailbone up, lower your belly and look forward. Exhale, and round your spine like an angry cat, tucking your chin into your chest.

Do cat/cow about 10 times.

4) Warrior 1

This pose is essential for tapping into your own strength - in your body and in your mind. It helps you to go towards the discomfort I talked about earlier. *If your balance isn't quite there, stand beside a wall or a chair.

How to get into the pose: Start in standing at the top of your yoga mat. Step your right foot back, no more than 2 to 3 feet. Square both hipbones to the front side of your mat. Bend your left leg, and make sure your knee is directly over your ankle, and you can see your big toe inside the knee. Straighten your back leg, and make sure your heel is planted on the floor. Your toes will be slightly out to the right.

Then, raise both arms overhead, with your palms facing one another. Arms are straight. In this pose, think about your strength, and everything you have endured up to this point. Take 5 - 10 deep breaths here.

In yoga, we sometimes come into places of discomfort in our bodies, our mind, our emotions, and our beliefs. Learning how to breathe into the discomfort and how to ride the edge of the sensation can help with so many scary pieces of the journey. We can actually train our brain where to go in times of stress. These poses can help your mind with the journey through fighting cancer. They will nurture your mind, body, and soul. It’s terrifying to hear that you have cancer but whatever your personal story is, yoga can help you mentally manage the emotions you face. You help the body heal itself and you keep your mind in a healthy place.

Meera Watts is a yoga teacher, entrepreneur and mom. Her writing on yoga and holistic health has appeared in Elephant Journal, CureJoy, FunTimesGuide, OMtimes and others. She’s also the founder and owner of, a yoga teacher training school based in Singapore. Siddhi Yoga runs intensive, residential trainings in India (Rishikesh, Goa and Dharamshala), Indonesia (Bali).

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Notes from a recovering Control-Freak

I’ll be the first to admit that I like having control.  I try to do this through my constant organizing and in my striving toward perfectionism.  Having control of objects gives me the illusion of having control over the intangible.  But if anything spirals you out of control, it is a cancer diagnosis.  With this diagnosis, I lost control of my body to rapidly dividing cancer cells.  I lost control of my time and privacy to medical appointments and health care providers.  And what minute control I thought I had over my future was completely gone.  Recently, I’ve dealt with the issue of control in yoga.  In my practice, the part of me that likes control ensures that my arms are straight, fingers spread, toes in at a 45 degree angle, heels lined up, feet parallel, well, you get the idea.  Fortunately, a very wise yoga instructor shed some light on this for me.  She ever-so-gently nudged me toward relinquishing my control to the energy of each pose.  She reminded me to allow each pose to express itself through me and to let the pose invite me into different variations.  For the short time I’ve been practicing this way, I feel more in sync with and less disconnected from my practice.  This ‘joining together’ is a key element of yoga.  Surrendering my control in yoga has opened a new world to me and I am more in tune with each pose’s energies flowing through me.  Similarly, when we release some control in our daily lives, it allows us to merge with the stream of energy that flows through each of us.  Aligning our efforts with this energy enables us to express our highest selves.   And we are more open to receive.  Whether we discover this energy flow by willingly giving up some control or by having our illusion of control shattered by a life-threatening diagnosis- the love to which this energy opens us is available to us all.


Let That Sh*t Go...A New Year's Message

Do you have a special tradition to ring in the New Year? As this is the last day of 2016, we are taking a look in the rear view mirror of this past year and evaluating the goodness of it. Or maybe the not so goodness of it.

This year, more than any other year that I can recall, the political landscape has stirred up deep-rooted emotions in us that has created fear, anger and has ignited firestorms in our conversations with others and on social media.  On top of all this, we have our own personal life that may have produced significant challenges to our own health or the health of someone we love. We may have experienced deep loss. If 2016 was one of those years you want to just “let go” or “let it be the worst it ever gets” (yes… I actually saw this on social media), perhaps we could rewire our thinking or look differently in that rear view mirror?


How about this?     Let that shit go!  This is my new favorite catch-phrase that we see everywhere and it’s poignant don’t you think? I realize there are things in life that pose huge challenges but let’s be open to looking at it clearly.


I am all for letting go. I’m a yogi and I’m pretty good at it. I’m pretty good at teaching this concept in my classes. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. We have to learn from what we are letting go of.  If we don’t learn from what challenges us, what angers us, what invokes fear in us, we will not grow as human beings. We will stay stuck in judgement and fear. And then we can’t experience really what resides true inside of ourselves.

Here are my thoughts and perhaps a new tradition for ringing in the New Year…

1)     Take a look in that rearview mirror and acknowledge ALL of 2016…. The good, the bad, the ugly.

2)     Take the good and appreciate every bit of it. Savor, love and remember it.

3)     Take the bad and ugly and let IT go….  Contemplate all of it and find the bits that will help you learn about yourself and be better. And I don’t mean be better in 2017… I just mean be better.


So my message here is simple really... Ringing in the New Year is magnificent as it allows us to have hope for the upcoming year and to say good bye to the previous year. Ring in 2017 with an open heart and the learnings from all of 2016 and have gratitude for the moments that brought you peace and joy.

 Sending love and wishes to you and yours for a Happy New Year! 

Reflections ... Last Four Years

It was four years ago this month when I put the very first Yoga and Cancer (formerly called Yoga for Women with Cancer) on the schedule at Prasada Yoga Center. I remember just how nervous I was since it had taken me about six months to do the research and design a class I thought would be supportive for women affected by cancer. I remember feeling self-doubt but also fiercely committed to my idea to create a class that would be effective and address specifically the challenges they faced in their body/mind/heart. I think 7 women showed up for that very first class and then they showed up again the following week for more. Shortly they were asking for a second weekly class. That's when I knew I was onto something. The yoga was making them feel good and it was making a difference. Thanks to a private donor and the formation of SATYA - Seacoast Area Teachers of Yoga in Action, we now have seven Yoga and Cancer classes in six locations that support women, men, caregivers, and bereaved. As a yoga teacher, this work has been most rewarding to me. Why?? Because every week I personally see my students benefit from the practice of yoga in a community that is so supportive of each other. Each student arrives to class with their own cancer story but practicing together fosters a deep understanding of all the challenges and pain brought into the space. This is so powerful and yet beautiful. What amazes me most is that despite obstacles and challenges they feel in their bodies, they trust to open their hearts and minds to explore all possibilities of healing. They trust me and they are learning to trust their own inner voice. They embrace all of what they bring to class even when it seems impossible. This is what I see every week... Resolve, trust, self-love, community and healing.

Here's to the next four years of continued growth in the program so that more patients and survivors of cancer can have access to the therapeutic and healing benefits of yoga practiced in community. I am certain that tremendous healing takes place in these classes and like my students I feel resolved to continue this work. 



An Object Lesson of Support

I’m afraid of horses.  To me, their mere size is surpassed only by their intimidating power and strength.  Yet, it was exactly a horse’s power and strength that taught me an important lesson.  At a day-long Equine Encounter for those with cancer at Ironstone Farm, I found myself lying back on a beautiful horse named Wilson.  

My adventures with Wilson began by meeting him in his home environment, a large area where the horses roam freely.  As I was being introduced to Wilson, one of his ‘friends’ actually bit me on the butt!  I was assured that he was just playing!   Wilson was gentler and allowed me to groom him and then lead him around a large arena.  At last the time came for me to get on the horse:  I donned a helmet and used a step stool to climb onto Wilson’s bare back.  Without the impediment of a saddle, sitting on the horse’s bareback made for a more intimate experience.  I could feel each move he made including twitching to discourage flies from landing on him.  Balancing on Wilson was tricky – fortunately, horses do not have nerve endings at their manes, so I could hold onto his mane to steady myself.  After acclimating to being on Wilson, learning his mannerisms, gaining my balance, and feeling more confident that I wasn’t going to fall off, I was invited to lay back on him.  My fear of horses was waning, but I certainly did not expect what I experienced next.  As I lay back on Wilson, I soon felt, and more importantly, accepted his strong and steadfast might under me.  Fear had turned into trust and support.  I experienced a strong feeling of relief, surrender and trust. 

As we take our yoga lessons ‘off the mat’, I also took my horse lessons ‘off the horse’.   Generally, I’m an independent person and uncomfortable asking for and accepting help.  Yet, as Wilson taught me to surrender to his powerful support, I also came to more fully understand the impact of accepting support from others.    Accepting support can bring feelings of peace and trust.  It is a surrender to the strength of others.  We are interdependent beings that rely on each other to survive. 

My wish for you is that you’re able to receive support from family and friends whenever you need it.  Your acceptance is a gift to them and something that will bring you a sense of relief and trust if you let it.  Wilson taught me a lot that day, lessons I hope to always remember.

My Journey… Teaching Yoga and Cancer Classes.

I have been teaching yoga to cancer patients and survivors for over two years and have learned more than I ever imagined.  Sure I knew there was a learning curve as I dove into the plethora of information out there on cancer and yoga but I was not prepared for the true journey that I would embark upon. It has been a journey of fear, surprise, revelation and gratitude. First let me explain how I got here.  

My friend called me to tell me the news.  Our close friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. It wasn’t my diagnosis but the news hit me like it was.  We cried and then we got a hold of ourselves and started planning on how we were going to help. Really??  How were we going to help? I felt helpless!  I needed to do more than the ideas of how we would support her that were running through my head.

I had been pondering the idea to teach a yoga class for cancer patients and survivors as a few students at the studio where I teach had shared their own news of their diagnosis. Their multiple emotions were raw but I noticed a steadfast resolve that they would get through it and yoga was going to help.

Observing the frustration setting in as these students were trying to keep up in my classes, I knew I had to make a change. I felt this deep belly desire, you know, that gut feeling you need to do something?  I didn’t even know where to begin or how to go about doing it but I knew I needed to create a specialized class. I dragged my feet.  I was marinating in fear that I wouldn’t be good at it.  How could I be?  I’ve never had cancer!  And then the turning point.. my daughter, eleven at the time had written a research essay on her own about breast cancer. I didn’t even know she had been working on it for a week. She had been clearly trying to digest all that I was sharing at home about my friend, my students and trying to fight past my fear to pull a class together.  The essay was three full pages filled with facts and opinions written by an eleven year old with such deep compassion that I began to cry reading it.  The last sentence struck me the most thrust me forward to repurpose my fears.  It read: 

Having breast cancer is a terrible thing but if your family or friends are diagnosed with it, you can help them by staying close to them, loving and caring for them.  You can take a stand and maybe donate some money to a fundraiser or do a walk a thon.  There are so many ways you can help.

Several months later, I created the first free yoga class called Yoga for Women with Cancer and I posted flyers at surrounding cancer centers.  Several students including patients and caregivers showed up at that first class and I’ve been teaching two weekly classes ever since.  

I truly believe that things happen in the universe in a certain way that fosters a sense of action within us and in turn, creates a pathway to explore our own passions.  For me, it has been this journey to teach a class to cancer patients and survivors as well as joining the Board of Directors of SATYA. The mission of SATYA to support teachers who are inspired and committed to providing specialized yoga instruction in under-served populations was clearly to be part of my own personal journey.  

Cancer or any illness is frightening and yoga can provide opportunities for healing. I am amazed at the ability for my cancer students to “show up” to the weekly Yoga and Cancer classes. They have cancer issues and they have real life issues and they don’t just show up half-heartedly, they arrive with an openness to listen and learn.  They support each other and they support me. I am grateful to all my students who place their trust in me every week.  I have learned so much on this journey.  I have learned to let go of my own fears so that I can help my students face theirs. I have learned that a community who gathers with unique considerations has a deep desire to care for each other. I have learned that giving students with cancer the ability to let go and to trust themselves gives them empowerment; that for true healing to take place, one must bare their truths, let go of fears and trust.  My students have given me the truest gift of trusting me and sharing their inner truths.  This takes courage. True compassion comes from wisdom and knowing what to do with it.  I have grown, my students have grown and I am forever grateful.

A Student's Experience

For me, cancer came first.  Upon diagnosis, I was given a 25% chance of surviving 5 years. During those 5 years I’ve had chemotherapy twice, been bald twice and had my share of ER visits.  During a month long hospital stay, once I could finally walk after surgery, the farthest I could make it was to the end of my bed. 

My introduction to yoga was a beginner’s class.  But it was too physically demanding for me. Then, about one year later, I saw an ad for Yoga and Cancer.  I immediately fell in love with the class.  It focused on mobility, stretching and strengthening.  But, I learned so much more. After much self-imposed resistance, I learned to:  accept my new physical limitations; honor my breath and body; and calm my frantic mind.  Slowly, I‘m learning to put it all together. Overall, I’m in a much better place within myself.

I owe all this, in large part, to my instructor.  Her methods allow each student to fully express their potential while respecting any physical limitations.  She helps maximize wellness at a time when wellness is so very much needed.  Personally, her constant support of where I am along my journey, as well as her gentle nudges to grow, have allowed me a nurturing environment in which my yoga practice can mature.

My yoga journey, to include the acceptance and lasting friendships of fellow students, has filled my heart.  I’m not sure if I would have found yoga without experiencing cancer, but I know that yoga has deepened and enriched my relationship to self as well as to the cancer experience.