Cancer Stole My Breath; Yoga Gave It Back

By Tari Prinster

Cancer is a box full of surprises. For many women a significant surprise is a profound sense of disappointment in their physical body. Thinking about your body this way, as something separate from you, perhaps like a bad friend who let you down, is understandable but counterproductive.

We come to this way of thinking about our bodies through a variety of sources beyond our control— through myths, advertising, media reports, and good intentions.  These societal influences can make us feel guilty, as though if we had eaten more veggies, run more miles, kept our weight below average, had a baby before 30, stayed more positive, or had a different mother, our bodies would not have let us down. If we had just been healthier, better, stronger, we would not have received the cancer diagnosis.

But all of these thoughts and questions add unnecessary guilt to the already substantial challenge: maintaining your emotional health in the wake of a cancer diagnosis. Don’t blame your body. It is not separate from you. It is you, and you need each other.

My personal experience with cancer reflected these same issues: I did all the right things; I tried to avoid cancer by following health guidelines. So what went wrong? The frustrating truth that I found myself confronting is that there are still few answers to what really causes cancer and how to cure it. But while there is much we don’t know, we do have tools to help manage some aspects of the experience. For me, managing the journey was about finding the right tools.

Yoga became the most significant tool in my box—both to cope with the emotional pieces and to maintain physical well-being.

After my auxiliary node surgeries, I panicked when I could not lift my arm. The fear of lymphedema was stronger than the fear of dying from cancer. I restarted my daily yoga practice slowly and gently, but with a different focus and intention: using yoga to optimize my health and feel comfortable in my body again as quickly as possible.

As I recommitted myself to yoga, I found surprising benefits. The first surprise was the yoga tool I had underestimated in the past: meditation. This mental aspect of my practice provided invaluable relief. What a gift to rest my mind whenever I chose, to be able to monitor my thoughts so I could go to sleep at night, to manage the stress of waiting in the doctor’s office on my follow-up exams or lying in a magnetic resonance imaging machine for 45 minutes.

Physically, yoga increased my strength, flexibility, and overall activity level—it moved me. The joy I found in my body as I rediscovered my physical self was another surprise: movement was key. Too many doctors, family, and friends told me—with the best intentions—to go home and “take it easy.” But moving is how all humans detoxify their bodies. We are designed to move. That’s what I wanted to do. Movement transitioned my survival into “thrival.”

The third benefit I found in my yoga practice was the most powerful: Yoga taught me how to breathe. When I heard those three words, “You have cancer,” I stopped breathing. Cancer stole my breath. Through my daily yoga practice, I learned to breathe again—to take life one breath at a time.

Tari Prinster is a yoga teacher, the founder of yoga4cancer (y4c.com), and a breast cancer survivor. She has worked with thousands of survivors and yoga teachers nationally and internationally. She founded The Retreat Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help underserved cancer survivors through yoga by funding weekly classes and retreats. Tari is the author of Yoga for Cancer and the winner of the Yoga Journal Good Karma Award 2015.


Yoga Plus

Consider these additional tools for managing your life with cancer:

  • Forgive your body and dig deeply to find what can make it healthier, stronger, and more resistant to all diseases.
  • Do not be afraid of negative emotions. They hold valuable lessons.
  • Turn off the “monkey mind” (mental chatter) once a day through meditation.
  • Think about your body as a precious, life-giving vessel and focus on how best to treat it now.
  • Be gentle, nurturing, and understanding of your body.
  • Make your body a cancer-free and unresponsive environment.
  • Use yoga as your daily companion.

Prescribed Reading

Ready to Try Yoga? Here Is Your Go-to Guide

If you are undergoing cancer treatment and interested in exploring yoga as a healing tool, Tari Prinster’s Yoga for Cancer: A Guide to Managing Side Effects, Boosting Immunity, and Improving Recovery for Cancer Survivors (Healing Arts Press, 2014; $19.95) is an excellent resource.

A breast cancer survivor and certified yoga teacher, Tari has written a book that is both a practical how-to guide and an honest and empowering personal narrative that describes her journey, offering readers comprehensive information and inspiring insight.

By combining relevant research and background information related to the intersection of yoga and cancer, with instruction in poses (illustrated with clear line-drawings) to aid those interested in a general practice or help with specific issues (relaxation, recovery, strength building, and neuropathy, for example), the book covers a truly wide range of readers’ needs. The writing is clear and thoughtful, leading the reader to an in-depth understanding of the benefits of yoga and precise instruction. Interspersed throughout with Tari’s experiences as a yoga instructor and as a survivor, the book presents those facing cancer treatment with a hopeful, engaging guide for physical and mental well-being through yoga.