Yoga for beginners: how yoga can help during cancer treatment and for general health

Learn about the mental and physical wellbeing benefits of yoga for young people going through cancer, and follow along with a relaxing 30 minute yoga session for beginners.

Thank you both for your time! Can you tell us a bit about your work with Teenage Cancer Trust?

Anna and Kat
Anna and Kat

Anna: My background is in nursing. When I decided to do my initial yoga teacher training I was still nursing full time, predominantly in oncology, including the Teenage Cancer Trust unit.

I was talking to the Youth Support Coordinator, Nicola, about services that were offered for the young people and she asked about my yoga teaching. It kind of organically happened that I started offering classes for young people who were on the unit at the time. To this day it’s one of my favourite groups that I’ve had the pleasure of teaching.

Kat: Anna reached out to me, and I started teaching on the unit around April 2018. It was such a rewarding experience! Before that I’d taught classes with Maggie’s cancer support centre for about three years and I am still involved with different projects at Maggie’s.

My mum was actually diagnosed with breast cancer and because she lives in Croatia, I couldn’t be there for her all the time.  With my mum as my inspiration, I wanted to use my skills and support to help people in my local community. I went to Maggie’s and offered to teach yoga classes at their centre. I am still involved today with some of their amazing projects. 

30 minute yoga session with Anna

Follow along with an enjoyable, relaxing and supportive yoga session. If you’ve never done yoga, this is a great place to start. And if you already love yoga then you know what we are talking about. You’ll need a mat or a carpeted room to join in. Relax and enjoy! Watch below, and keep reading to learn more about the benefits of yoga

How can yoga help young people during cancer treatment or in recovery?

1. Yoga can help release stress

Kat: Stress is a big thing for anyone facing such a diagnosis. Stress can create so much tension which you can physically feel in your body. Yoga can help create space in both the mind and body. The practice can give people the tools to help release physical and emotional tension.

I remember one young man told me after the class: “Just for this hour, I didn’t think about stuff that’s happening in my life,” and I really liked that.

I teach restorative yoga where we use a lot of props like bolsters, cushions and blankets to help you find comfort and ease in the position. The support of the props helps the client hold the position for a longer time so they can slowly surrender and soften. This style of yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system (our “rest-and-digest” mode) which is the exact opposite of the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system. 

2. Yoga is a chance to slow down

Anna: Mentally and psychologically young people with cancer are dealing with so much, and offering opportunity to rest and relax in a way they perhaps wouldn’t do outside of a yoga class I felt was really important.

Even if just one hour a week, yoga offers us opportunity to slow down and listen to our bodies. That’s such a huge benefit and opens the door for more mindfulness, body awareness and resilience of the nervous system.

3. Yoga can teach us to be mindful

Anna: Just as you can build up your muscle tolerance, you can also build up your mental tolerance. You can increase your ability to be calm and for your nervous system to ‘turn the volume down’. 

This means that off the yoga mat in your daily life, your nervous system can ‘switch’ faster than it used to. So, you might recognise “I’m beginning to feel anxious, maybe if I slow my breath down this might help”, where in the past you might just have felt really stressed but not had the tools to do it.

4. Yoga can help you sleep better

Kat: Especially during lockdown, I’ve heard of a lot of people having difficulties with sleep and insomnia. Yoga really helps with different sleep disorders, through breathing and relaxation techniques you can use before bedtime. 

5. Yoga can give you a sense of control

Anna: I think for young people with cancer, missing out on things and not being able to do the activities they want can give rise to anger, frustration or low mood. As well as the mental challenge, there’s fatigue and all the side effects of treatment and the cancer itself.

At a time where you’re feeling not in control of your body, the cancer or the situation, the thought that “today, you can be in control of your breath, or doing this one pose” can empower you and offer some hope.

6. Yoga can help (re)build strength and confidence

Anna: I taught two young men who were in remission. They’d been quite active and sporty prior to diagnosis, and I think that was one of the things they’d most missed out on.

The progression they felt in some of the sequences we did offered a real sense of validation for them – they said: “I’ve been practising at home” and “I can feel myself getting stronger”. Yoga can offer this repetitive movement which can become muscle memory and allows you to practise outside of the class setting.

It can help build strength, flexibility, joint mobility and spinal mobility. And this can also help build confidence. For young people in recovery, it’s a nice gauge of how they’re doing week to week and month to month.

7. Yoga lets you go at your own pace

Anna: Like anything, progress isn’t linear, there’s going to be peaks and troughs. I often said to the young people: “listen to your body as it is today”. Even if you have been feeling stronger, if you’re not feeling it today, that’s okay. Be kind to yourself in your body and your mind.

There were two individuals in my class who were quite unwell at the time. Often, they would just come from their room and lie on the mat with a load of pillows and rest. Offering space to be part of something, even if they took part in one pose or one active breath, they were there and they were part of it.

8. A sense of community – without the need to talk

Anna: It can be of real benefit to come together with young people who are going through a similar thing, and do something, not ‘active’ but physical, something that teenagers without any health issues might do with their friends anyway.

One of the young people in my group sadly passed away the day prior to class one week. The young people were told just before I led the yoga class that she had passed. I remember leading that session and palpably feeling the grief of the young people.

I had to hold myself together in order to hold space for them because it wasn’t just a friend they had lost. For some of those young people there was the potential it could be a reality for them. There were parents there too and I remember a couple of the mums after that class being, understandably, very emotional.

Yoga can be quite an introspective practice, your own body, mat and mind. But in that group, it provided people to be supported in their immediate grief, but not having to verbalise it.

What’s your advice to yoga beginners and anyone who might be unsure about trying it?

Kat: I like the saying “If you can breathe, you can do yoga”. No matter how flexible or inflexible you are, you can experience the numerous benefits of Yoga, regardless of age, body type or fitness level. 

I’ve had people say to me “I was intimidated for years to even set foot in the studio” and I find it quite sad! I’d say to everybody “we all can do yoga”. The physical part of our yoga practice (so called “asana”) is only a small part of the equation.

Try to educate yourself with breathing techniques, meditation, karma work, the whole practice. Old yogis did the physical practice so they could sit in meditation for longer, not the other way round – and that explains a lot!

Traditionally yoga is not associated with goals, so I’d say always keep a positive, open mind and do it one step at a time – go at your own pace. 

Yoga for beginners: where’s a good place to start?

Anna: I’d say get yourself to a beginners’ or beginner-friendly class. Lots of classes are open level, but for someone who’s never been before, it can be a bit intimidating if people are flipping up into headstands – that’s not really what it’s all about!

Lots of studios are open to beginners and offering virtual classes online, even while in-person classes aren’t possible. Just drop them a message when you book saying it’s your first class. Talk to the teacher before and outline any injuries or conditions you may have so the teacher can help you. 

Kat: I would always say to my clients to choose wisely when it comes to trying out different online videos. Not everything out there is for everyone. Find a class, a teacher and a style that resonates with you. Practice changes from one person to the next, our bodies change as we age, so it’s important to always listen to that inner voice and find a style which helps you create a meaningful, healthy, joyful practice. 

Anna: Find a space you feel comfortable in, and a teacher you feel comfortable with. If you can connect with and trust your teacher, you’ll get a lot more from it.

Explore and enjoy, there are so many different styles. I believe there’s a yoga style for everyone.

Huge thanks to Kat and Anna for sharing their insights! Follow online: