Monday, April 8, 2024

Benefits of breath work for cancer patients

by Sharon McGuire, 500 RYT

 (Registered Yoga Teacher with 500+ hours of yoga training) 

As a follow-up on my previous article (Cheerful Heart Newsletter August 2022) about the benefits of yoga for cancer patients, I would like to discuss the benefits of breath work for cancer patients. Breath work is an integral part of yoga, but even if you do not have a personal yoga practice, you can still benefit from the powerful healing energy of the breath. When the breath is exercised, it will move the body into deeper states of relaxation allowing the body’s natural healing abilities to arise; it will calm the mind and reduce anxiety; it will lower cortisol levels, the stress producing hormone; it will assist with falling asleep; and lastly, it will help minimize the discomfort of pain. 

Many people take the act of breathing for granted. Since it is part of the autonomic system of the body (meaning it occurs involuntarily or spontaneously), we do not have to “think” about breathing. The key to using the breath to our benefit is to become aware of the breath as it moves in and out of the body. I’m going to talk you through a couple of beginning exercises to start you on your journey of exploring the power of breath that we have right in our own bodies. 

  • Start with a simple exercise to bring your awareness to the breath. To begin, find a comfortable position for the body (either sitting up or laying down), you can also do this first thing in the morning when you wake up. 
  • Bring your attention to the breath, observing the chest and abdomen rise and fall with each inhale and exhale. Not trying to control your breath, just witness it in its natural state. Notice if the breath is fast or slow, shallow or deep, or if there are any hitches or congestion in the breath. 
  • Notice what you may be thinking about the breath, and just accept the breath as it is in this moment without judgement. 
  • Stay focused on your breath for at least three minutes working your way up to five as you get more comfortable and I would encourage you to do this several times throughout the day. 

Once you become comfortable witnessing the breath, you can add-on the following exercise of extending the exhalation that will activate the parasympathetic nervous system. 

  • Begin by emptying the lungs completely and inhale with a count of two.
  • Pausing briefly before you begin to exhale with a count of four. You can also repeat a word instead of counting (i.e. inhale saying peace, peace; exhale saying peace, peace, peace, peace). 
  • Continue to breathe following this pattern for two minutes. As you get accustomed to this exercise, you can deepen your breath by increasing the count, maintaining a 1:2 ratio (i.e. inhale for four, exhale for eight). 
  • Notice how the body begins to relax and let go of tension. If you are feeling restless, this helps the body relax and will assist you to fall asleep, it is also beneficial for reducing anxiety.

I use this exercise to help minimize the discomfort of pain by focusing on the pain during my exhalation. It is the nature of the mind to wander, so if you find you have lost your focus, just gently bring your attention back to the breath without judgement. 

Sharon McGuire…cell 812-345-0639

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