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The Healing Power of Yoga -  Julie Friedeberger

Julie Friedeberger'A lifetime of yoga has taught me to regard life's big challenges as opportunities for growth and transformation. My experience of cancer left me with a deeper trust in the power of yoga to help us meet those challenges, and a stronger commitment to teaching it. Teaching people with cancer has been the most rewarding teaching I have done.'  

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 1993, I knew that yoga, which I had been practicing and teaching for many years, would help me through cancer as it had through every difficult time. In fact, yoga was an enormous help in dealing with the shock of the diagnosis and in my recovery from mastectomy surgery. In the longer term, it proved to be the most significant factor in my healing.

The experience of cancer was, for me, a transformative one. It taught me a great deal, and it guided me into new paths. Now, seven years later, yoga for cancer has become the main focus of my teaching.

I would like to tell you about how yoga can help people with cancer, but first let's think about the nature of healing. It's important to make the distinction between curing and healing. Curing is what mainstream medicine may or may not be able to do for us when we are ill or injured. Healing comes from within us, from our inner resources.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word 'heal' as 'to make whole, or sound'; also 'to unite, after being cut or broken'. On the physical level, healing is the drawing together of the two sides of a cut, the knitting together of the two ends of a broken bone. On the spiritual level, healing is the process of becoming whole. It is  the integration of all the aspects of one's being, the bringing of body, mind and spirit into harmonious union. I think of it now as the healing of our broken or wounded relation to God.

This is precisely the aim of yoga. The Sanskrit word yoga  means 'union': that is, union or harmony of body, mind and spirit; and union with God, or the higher power or consciousness. Fundamentally, therefore, healing is yoga. And yoga heals by making whole, by joining, uniting, connecting the scattered, disparate elements of a person, and ultimately by connecting the person with God.

I believe that cancer, or indeed any life-changing illness, can be a manifestation of disharmony, an indication that something is out of balance. If we can accept this, it follows that illness can be a catalyst for healing. And this is where yoga comes in:  it can help in a number of ways to awaken and galvanize our inner healing forces. Yoga offers us a great variety of tools and techniques with which we can work towards integration and a balance of energies on all levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Practicing yoga also changes our attitude towards life and towards our experiences, and develops the inner strength and stability that enable us to face and deal with all the experiences and crises that life brings us.

How does yoga work to heal? 

Each aspect of Yoga has its part to play in the healing process.

Yoga postures work on all of the body's internal organs and systems, i.e. circulation, respiration, digestion, and elimination. They also work on the nervous system and the lymphatic system, as well as on the joints, muscles and ligaments. They affect our posture, breathing, circulation, digestion and elimination, as well as our physical strength,  stamina and flexibility, and our overall balance. Many of the better known yoga postures are not appropriate for people who are ill, but there are simpler, less physically demanding techniques that promote healing  by clearing toxins, removing the blockages that hinder the free flow of energy, and raising energy levels.

Breathing exercises release tension and replenish energy. Shallow, restricted breathing contributes to tiredness, depression and physical illness. Deep, relaxed, rhythmic breathing in which the lungs are fully utilized is energizing and revitalizing and can help us to avoid and overcome illness. The simple breathing and stretching exercises  of yoga will improve the elasticity and efficiency of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, and replace poor, ineffectual breathing habits with more healthful, life-enhancing ones.

Simple breathing exercises help us to deal with the strong emotions that a cancer diagnosis gives rise to: panic, grief, despair. We can easily observe how our emotions affect our breathing: when we are anxious, angry or frightened, it responds by growing shallow and erratic. But the reverse is also true: our breathing affects our emotional state. Deeper, rhythmic breathing calms the mind, nerves and emotions, relieves anxiety and stress, restores serenity and balance, and lifts the spirits. The breath brings energy into our being. It carries the vital life force throughout the body, and it connects and brings into harmony all the levels of our being: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Our breath is the vital link between body, mind and spirit; between ourselves and all creation.

Meditation  isn't 'emptying the mind'. It is ultimately calming to the mind and the emotions, but what makes it so is the opportunity it gives us to allow our thoughts and emotions to surface so that we can look at them instead of repressing them. Meditation develops the mental focus, the powers of observation and perception, that enable us to observe things accurately, to better understand the workings of our mind, and to face and let go of our fears. Once we have looked clearly at the realities of our situation we can acknowledge and accept them, and work with them. Burying emotions traps our energy and creates more stress; acknowledging and accepting them liberates energy and reduces stress. Meditation is therefore a therapeutic process: it cleanses and brings about integration on the emotional level, releasing energy for our spiritual growth. In other words, it brings about healing.

Relaxation is possibly the most vital element in healing, because it helps undo the stress that is so detrimental to the immune system. In relaxation, muscles release tension, the heart rate and blood pressure drop, breathing and mental activity slow down, and tension and anxiety begin to dissolve. Body and mind 'let go' and surrender themselves to the stillness and peace of deep relaxation. These are conditions conducive to the repair of cells, conditions in which healing can take place. In relaxation we are actively co-operating with our immune system and encouraging our inner healing forces to work for us.

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