Cancer and Heart Openers: How Yoga Heals

Mandy Ingber by Mandy Ingber | October 19th, 2011 | 29 Comments
topic: Health & Wellness, Healthy Aging, Personal Growth, Yoga

Mandy Ingber Up Dog

This month I am reminded of the courage it takes to continue to open our hearts in faith, even when we have been pained by loss or heartbreak. There is nothing more heartbreaking than being faced with the inevitable: our mortality, and the remembrance that life is impermanent. This is a reality we deal with each day, and yet the desire to live must carry within it a gratitude of remembering or the faith of forgetting.

Though my life had been touched by cancer — my brother was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was in his 20s and my father with lymphoma a decade ago — my very first experience of someone living within the constraints of cancer was one of my students, a woman who was dealing with breast cancer. It was so difficult for me to fathom how she would show up to my class daily, with her husband and sometimes one of her three young girls. Sporting a kerchief, she would head right to the front of the class and put her whole heart into it. I was always amazed at her spunk and positivity. She is a breast cancer survivor today.

Though he is no longer with us, I remember what an example my father was for me. He was the person who brought yoga into my life when I was a child. I thought that he was invincible. It seemed he could do anything. He had mastered some of the most difficult yoga asanas and pranayamas. He was strong and flexible, and had a positive, yet aggressive nature.

In the end, it was my father’s yoga practice that really struck me. His ability to show up at the mat on a daily basis, even as he was dying, was completely inspiring. He would say, “Other than this cancer, this is the healthiest I’ve ever been.” He would also say that the yoga helped to alleviate the symptoms of the cancer and the chemotherapy. One of the greatest gifts he said he received in his last days was the gift of receiving. How open his heart had become to others during this vulnerable time.

What a gift, to show up as we are. Today is a new day. This is the day that I have. Exactly as I am. Right now. Today I show up, brokenhearted … and full of life. How many mornings have I woken up and taken this day for granted when life was just too much? I often feel too vulnerable with my heartbreaks (and I have many). But how to open up and offer my vulnerability to the Universe and give thanks for another day, that is the lesson yoga offers.

As the years go on, I find my shoulders creeping forward just a bit more, perhaps as protection from the inevitable, my human vulnerability. I have protected my heart, physically, by caving my shoulders and my chest in. So as a daily practice, I find a way to roll my shoulders back and down, to lift my heart to the sky and dunk my head back, opening my throat and surrendering to the heavens. Thank you. Thank you, Universe, for another day. Thank you for this heartbreak. Thank you for this cancer, and for another opportunity to have faith. Thank you for another day of forgetting. Thank you for another day of remembering those who have shown me the strength of opening.

To open your heart and celebrate vulnerability and the strength that comes from acknowledging it, try poses such as Up Dog, Sphynx, Cobra, Camel and Wheel. I also like connecting with the beating of the heart in Supta Bada Konasana, my father’s final pose into his last days.


  1. Brilliant.

    Myra | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  2. Thank you for your blog post. I had a complete hysteroctomy last January, then went through chemo and radiation. After my surgery my doctor wanted me to wait 6 weeks before doing any exercise beyond walking – but the inactivity itself was making me ache. I started to do some mild yoga 2 weeks in, and by the 6th week I was doing my regular practice. The yoga really helped me get through it all – even when I wasn’t up for strenuous exercise I could stretch and relax. I thank God for every day he has given me and look forward to the future knowing I can handle it. Good luck on your journery

    Gini | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  3. Wonderful article; however, I have to say that I don’t agree with your choice of poses. For example, post surgical breast cancer patients would not be able to do wheel unless it was part of their normal practice before cancer treatment and, even then, they would need to be careful in case they are at risk for lymphodema.

    FYI, I specialize in yoga and exercise for oncology patients. I want to make sure that my students are safe so would never suggest in an open forum such as this that they try up dog or wheel without knowing their medical background.

    Dodie Georgiades | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  4. Mandy, namaste and thank you for your great spirit and service carrying the message. I am facilitating a cancer therapeutics initiative and would love a conversation with you to brainstorm; the language of the heart vernacular you employ is a powerful access to some of the energy release components I want to highlight. Please contact me at your convenience. Many gratitudes.
    Peace, Being Well,

    J. Thomas Acklin MD

    Tom Acklin | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  5. Thank you for the thoughtful inspiration. Namaste

    Colleen hemingway | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  6. WONDERFUL, INSPIRING, AND USER FRIENDLY: Thank you for writing this article on opening the heart, opening the mind, and asana openers. I am excited to add this focus to my classes, especially during this month of breast cancer awareness.

    noni floyd | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  7. Wonderfully written and beautifully expressed. Thanks for sharing your journey with all of us so that we, too, may learn and share.

    Susan | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  8. Thank you for this beautiful reminder. It comes on the heels of a story I heard minutes before reading this, of a woman who gave her life to cancer rather than have her unborn baby girl harmed. She saw her for one brief moment before making her transition. Today is a day, like everyday, to open our hearts and allow the love that we are..Namaste’

    Susan | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  9. Just beautiful!!! A nice note to end my day on…
    Thank you for sharing!

    Lauri | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  10. Hi Mandy, I would agree with Dodie .Also considering that cancer survivors sometimes may also deal with lesser bone density as a result of the treatment, which means that back bending too fervently, too much pressure on wrists or sudden movements, and bringing the chest too much backwards may lead to problems in joints, bones etc. Little rupture s in bone may cause more damage.But working with women who have breast cancer also shows improvement with reducing stress, increased improved sleeping and breathing after pranayama exercise so yoga definitely offers benefits to share with these women.

    Anouscka | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  11. Thank you Mandy for your reminder that each day we must give gratitude for the day that stretches before us. I am flooded with memories of my own journey with Breast Cancer and how I felt life goes on and so will I. Namaste

    Leslie | October 20th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  12. Thank you for this uplifting and inspiring article. I teach yoga from a therapeutic perspective to students, some of whom are cancer survivors, and your words have added meaning to my practice.

    Gayle Rogers | October 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  13. I disagree with such heart opening asanas being a bladder and kidney cancer survivor of 4 yrs. I have been able to continue with my yoga practice but the above mentioned poses are very difficult for me due to the huge vertical abdominal scar I have. I know from other survivors, with similar surgical issues, that extreme modifications are necessary for us. Sadly, many yoga instructors do not understand and do NOT take the time to ask 1 on 1 & quietly (due to HIPA privacy act) with cancer survivors who come to class. Therefore, I am currently in yoga teacher training to help others like myself.

    Allie Long | October 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  14. thank you all so much for your responses to this blog! for those of you who are survivors and gave your input on the postures, thank you for the comments and knowledge. it’s very helpful to all. i chose to write from the perspective of the friends and families of the survivors, since that is my personal experience, so the postures i chose for heart opening were meant to open the hearts of those of us who have been touched, maybe not physically, but emotionally by cancer.

    i cannot thank you enough for reading and responding. sharing is our real strength as a community. in gratitude.


    mandy | October 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  15. I am a Breast Cancer survivor and a retired registered nurse. Frankly, I am puzzled about your choice of recommended poses. Many of us have Lymphedema or are at risk of developing it. Additionally, the hormonal treatments that many of us are taking, as part of our treatment, causes bone loss. In consideration of these and other factors that I will not go into here, your endorsement of the benefit of poses such as the Wheel and Camel appear questionable.
    I have been attending Yoga for Cancer Survivors Classes for over a year, in addition to several sessions of Gentle Hatha and Restorative Yoga at local studios each week since immediately after my surgery and completion of my radiation treatments. I agree wholeheartedly with your belief that Yoga for cancer survivors is helpful however, I feel strongly that only with appropriate modifications,made by a teacher well versed in the specific needs of BC survivors should poses such as these be attempted.

    Kay | October 22nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  16. Well, I appreciated the opening the heart information. I am not a yoga practicer but I do appreciate info on opening the heart. I had two cancers unrelated; left breast and uterine. I had a lumpectomy and a complete hysterectomy including removal of the omentum. I had no idea that my body would be so affected from treatment.
    I can’t tolerate standard massages or Reiki treatments. My feet have neuropathy so foot soaks or reflexology are out of the question. My body tissues feel stringy. Just under the surface of my skin. Acupuncture shoots electrical energy through my body and gives off a visible electrical shock. Gentle stretching movements especially opening my heart area are wonderful but movement is limited I guess due to the radiation and surgery and probably the chemo. I finally found someone that can perform lymphatic drainage without over stimulating me only to have it be worse the next two days. Just my insight into what is standards of practice just don’t serve my right now. I am a one year survivor.

    Patricia | October 24th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  17. I am a true believer in the power of yoga.
    I am 35 years old and have been battling Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer since December 2009. I have had a mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. The cancer is still in my bones and liver and I am going through treatment at the current time.
    Why tell all this? Because the one constant in my life (other then my amazing 9 year old son) has been yoga. There are moves that may more challenging for me on my weaker days but it is a practice and all you have to do is listen to your body and your mind. It has brought focus in my very choatic life, it has given my body strength inside and out and it has brought my son and I closer now that he and I have joined a Yoga class together.
    I have been exercising for over 20 years and I have been dedicated to practicing yoga for the past year and a half. I don’t believe it is harmful in anyway to your bones in fact there are moves that are beneficial to your bones. I do all the poses mentioned above to destress me, help open my lungs so I can breath better and to allieviate my bone pain. The key as is with any yoga practice is to listen to yourself. Remember that yoga isn’t suppose to hurt it is suppose to heal and that is what it has been doing for me.

    annasatasia | October 26th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  18. Thanks for taking the time to write this article. Not many people in the West realize the value of Yoga.

    David | November 22nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  19. We are so afraid of our vulnerability and it limits our life in so many ways and yet if we embrace our vulnerability, we will discover our true strengths. Yoga is such an excellent form to release our limitations

    Philip | December 7th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  20. Thank you Mandy for your reminder that each day we must not forget to thank god for healthy and beautiful life.your article reminded me of my mom’s elder sister who suffered lung cancer and her fight till the end.

    Timothy Bolton | January 20th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  21. Thank you for your clear voice. We must learn to treasure all of our being. I also agree that Yoga opens both the heart and the mind. I will forward my patients who could benefit by this gentle Yoga.

    Karen | January 21st, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  22. my wife was diagnosed October 2009 stage 2 she has had a mastectomy with tram flap reconstruction she comes home tomorrow and we have to see the oncologist about the options for chemo. Take care and god bless. WOMEN WHO HAVE GONE THROUGH THIS ARE TRUE HEROES!

    Ferdinand | February 19th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  23. As cancer isn’t just a physical disease but a mental one too, Yoga can be a great treatment method. It can bring stability and mental calm to those that are trying to recover from cancer.

    Fashion Kicks | April 11th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  24. Yoga is so beneficial for physical and mental health. Thanks for sharing it.

    Tacoma exercise | December 6th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  25. Just beautiful!!! A nice note to end my day on…
    Thank you for sharing!

    Acupuncture Kansas City | December 15th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  26. personally 4 weeks ago I started yoga and I’m doing well

    como hacer yoga | January 7th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  27. It’s the first time I visit this site I will be very good information passing oftener

    cuerpo sin celulitis | December 21st, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  28. Yoga is excellent for body, mind and be in harmony. Thanks for sharing.

    Sofía Montalvo | December 26th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  29. Today many people practice yoga others do not. But there are techniques that regardless of origin greatly favor our health. One is the daily practice deep breathing. Serious studies recognize that because of this, our health is improved.

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