Using Yoga to Help Cancer Patients — Interview with Lauren Maher of Breathe Deep Yoga

Yoga_instructor_Lauren_Maher_yoga_poseHow did you first get interested in yoga? 

I was stressed out, basically. I had a feeling yoga would be good for me, though I didn’t exactly know why at the time. I just had an intuition that I should go to a yoga class, and fortunately for me, the first teacher that I studied with is still the best I have ever encountered.

What inspired you to begin teaching yoga to others? 

I was shocked at the difference that yoga had made in my life in a very short amount of time. On a physical level, I rapidly healed a thyroid condition and a chronically sore lower back. On a more subtle level, I found that I was suddenly much more relaxed and less reactive to stress in general.

How would you describe your teaching style? 

I try to guide my students to have a deep internal focus while they practice, and to build self-awareness. My classes tend to be on the gentle side, with an emphasis on relieving stress and reducing anxiety. My classes incorporate asana, breathing, meditation, mantra and visualization — I have studied many different styles of yoga, so I will bring in whatever gets the job done!

What are the differences between Hatha Yoga and Kundalini Yoga?

 I’ve always said that I love how my body feels when I do Hatha Yoga, and I love how my spirit feels when I do Kundalini Yoga. Kundalini Yoga is often referred to as the “Yoga of Awareness”. The focus is not so much on tricky postures, strength or flexibility, but rather about raising consciousness. To this end, Kundalini Yoga classes incorporate breath work, mantras and meditations that are accessible to everyone.

Another main difference is that Kundalini Yoga is a kriya-based style of yoga. A kriya is simply a set of postures or meditations that are put together for a specific purpose (i.e. opening the heart, releasing negativity, detoxing the liver, etc.).  As a result, you may find that one class varies wildly from the next, depending on what you are working on. In a typical hatha yoga class, the teacher will design a sequence, whereas in Kundalini, you try to follow the kriyas as closely as you can. That being said, I use many modifications when I teach Kundalini Yoga to make the sets accessible to everyone.

But the bottom line is – it’s all yoga. All styles of yoga have the same ultimate goal – to create wellness and happiness.

What are the benefits that the cancer patients you’ve worked with have gotten from learning yoga? 

Honestly, there are too many to name here. Cancer patients have so many side effects that may arise due to various treatments – nausea, neuropathy, lymphedema, “chemo brain”, fatigue, pain, insomnia and so on. Yoga cannot eradicate all of these side effects, but it certainly helps to alleviate them and make them more manageable. It softens the edges of these side effects, essentially.

Physically, Yoga helps to boost energy, reduce pain, increase strength and flexibility, break up scar tissue, improve respiration, circulation and digestion… the list goes on and on. On an emotional level, many of my students have said that yoga has helped alleviate their anxiety and depression, and well as help them to find faith and hope about the future.

There is also an amazing thing that happens in group classes – the sense of community and support is just amazing. I think that this facilitates healing on a deep level – feeling respected, treasured and valued by your fellow class participants and by your teacher. Many cancer patients are tired of feeling like they are being poked, prodded and tested all the time by the medical community. A yoga class is a safe space to heal, where you are not viewed as a collection of problems to fix, but as a whole person.

Is there a particular type of yoga that is more effective for cancer patients? 

I think true yoga therapy is not beholden to any particular style. The key is to create a practice for who is in front of you and to address their current concerns and issues. Whether it is a group class or a one-on-one session, the practice is always evolving. I draw from many styles – Kundalini, Viniyoga, Restorative – when I teach.

The key is to create a breath-based, healing practice that is tailored to the student (or students if it is a group class). Generally, I incorporate gentle dynamic movements, relaxing breath work, meditation, visualization and mantra.

What has been the biggest challenge for you since you started teaching yoga?

 Avoiding burnout is something I’ve had to learn to deal with. Teaching yoga full time requires juggling many classes, clients, retreats, workshops and trainings all at once. Yoga teachers tend to give and give, but can sometimes forget to fill up the well themselves. My teacher always tells me, “Teach from your overflow, not from the cup itself.” I’ve had to learn (and I’m still learning) when to say no to things and how to create enough time for myself.

How do you approach teaching yoga for corporate clients? 

It’s not that different from any other client once I’m actually in the room with my students. Corporate clients are naturally concerned with their bottom line and with increasing productivity. My job is to show the client that yoga can help employees to be happier and healthier – which boosts morale and productivity, decreases absenteeism and over time reduces costs.

What differences, if any, have you noticed in people’s lifestyle choices or habits after they’ve started learning yoga?

 Once you become more in tune with your body’s natural rhythms and cycles through yoga, it’s easier to know what feels best for you, especially in terms of diet and sleep habits. That is the first thing that seems to change. Over time I have watched people become more confident, resilient and self-aware. And I have noticed that yoga seems to feed a longing to have a greater awareness about the world around you in general.

What do you think is the best reason someone can have for learning yoga?

 The ultimate goal of yoga is to create more sustained joy in your life. What could be a more noble goal than that? When you create happiness for yourself, the more you have to offer others around you, creating a ripple effect that has great power.

yoga_teacher_lauren_maher_photoLauren Maher (CYT, E-RYT 500) is an internationally certified yoga instructor and yoga therapist at the highest level through Yoga Alliance. Lauren has teaching for over ten years in a variety of settings: hospitals, wellness centers, yoga studios and through her own private practice. Lauren is currently the staff yoga therapist at the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center at Providence Hospital, and the director of Shakta Yoga’s 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. Lauren specializes in teaching yoga to cancer patients during and post treatment. 

You can learn more about Lauren at her website: Breathe Deep Yoga. In addition, you can follow Lauren @BreatheDeepYoga on Twitter and on Facebook too.