Melitta's post Aging, Diabetes and Yoga and Shari’s post Ruminations on Health reminded us that although yoga can be helpful for many conditions, it is far from a cure all. Melitta’s life is sustained through western medicine (that is, insulin), without which she would have died. And as Shari said:
My own personal pet peeve is the often unspoken allegation within alternative healthcare communities of “healthy living” that if you lived a more “pure and holistic life,” this illness or health problem wouldn’t be happening to you. Too many women I have known with breast cancer have felt the twinge of anxiety that they were the cause of their own cancers. But how much do we owe to our own genetic predispositions rather than to emotional and environmental stresses?
On the other hand, I think all three of us believe that yoga has something important to offer to people suffering from chronic and even terminal diseases or conditions: the reduction of suffering.
This message came home to me in a very powerful way when I attended a therapeutic workshop on yoga for cancer, taught by Bonnie Maeda, RN. As a nurse, Bonnie has a clear-eyed understanding that yoga cannot cure cancer and, indeed, that even western medicine cannot always do the job. So what she has been offering her students, along with a chance to move and regain strength, is the reduction of suffering. This was especially evident when she led us through a sequence that she had designed specifically for this particular set of yoga practitioners. The sequence—which was unlike any I’d ever seen before—was a gentle Vinyasa series that used the wall for support. Bonnie explained that she felt this particular group needed to engage their minds by moving mindfully from one pose to another as they followed their breath, but, because they were often weak from illness or treatments, the wall was necessary for support and safety. To be honest, I thought the sequence was brilliant! It was providing gentle exercise for people who needed to build up their strength, while at same time functioning as a mindfulness practice to help focus minds on the present and distract from worries about the future.
After the movement came supported poses and relaxation. Stress management is also invaluable for people with chronic illnesses as it can help reduce both physical and emotional pain, as well as supporting healing. As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, yoga provides such a wide range of stress management tools (meditation, breath awareness, pranayama, conscious relaxation practices, restorative poses, supported inverted poses, and active practice to release physical tension) that there is something suitable for almost everyone.
For those of us who are teachers, it is important for us to remind ourselves both of the limitations of what we can offer and of the simple but powerful solutions that we can provide. Both mindful movement and stress management techniques are safe practices that can help reduce the suffering of people enduring great challenges.
And as human beings, it is heartening to remember that there are powerful practices we can rely on when difficulty arises.