Dr. Ingrid Yang: Using Yoga on the Cancer Journey
Ingrid Yang, MD, JD, has been teaching yoga since 2001 and is a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University. Her expert grasp of anatomy and human physiology brings a unique, thoughtful, and joyful experience to the practice of yoga. Dr. Yang integrates allopathic medicine with yoga therapeutics to form a balanced union of modern-day healing methodology and the ancient wisdom of the yogis. She is also coauthor of Hatha Yoga Asanas.
1440: Could you tell us some of the specific effects you’ve seen this yoga practice have on people who are dealing with cancer?
Dr. Yang: First and foremost, it helps build community. Also, there’s a toolbox of stress-reducing strategies, all geared towards students either undergoing cancer treatment or dealing with the after-effects of cancer and its treatments. Strength! Balance! Breath! This list could go on forever!
1440: How does yoga minimize the effects of cancer and related treatments?
Dr. Yang: What we know is that when our system is stressed, our sympathetic nervous system (or “fight or flight” reaction) is activated, which further enables cytokine release and thus inflammation in our bodies.
When we breathe deeply, relax, move our bodies in joyful ways, we activate the other half of our nervous system that allows us to rest and digest, and thus decrease the inflammatory reaction.
Yoga does all of that and then some on the biochemical level. Besides just giving us a subjective sense of well-being, we can go forth in the world and be better people to those who we love, and even those we don’t know.
1440: You are both a practicing physician and a yoga teacher, which puts you in a unique position as a healer. Could you talk a bit about why you first decided to offer Yoga for Cancer Therapy?
Dr. Yang: Someone very, very close to me passed of cancer just as I was opening my yoga center back in 2005. Before she passed, she shared with me that yoga stretches and pranayama that I taught her had been immeasurably helpful through her chemotherapy treatments. I vowed to offer these classes when I opened my center. They became wildly popular and I began collaborating with local oncologists to offer this training. It has been an immense gift to myself, the trainees, and the cancer survivors we have been able to share yoga with.
1440: Do you think that the conversation around cancer prevention and treatment needs to shift in any way, and if so, how can we as individuals begin to shift the conversation around cancer?
Dr. Yang: I think a lot of the conversation about cancer is about fight, fight, fight. That’s a tough outlook. I’m not saying we shouldn’t fight cancer, that part is important, but we forget that there is another side to the fight.
Cancer is our own immune system breaking down and our own body attacking us. In yoga, we learn to make friends with our body again, even in the process of fighting. In yoga, we seek balance.
We develop the courage to ask ourselves: “How can we fight while also still being in a space of love, acceptance, and connection?”
1440: You typically teach this training as a 3-day workshop. How will this week-long offering at 1440 Multiversity be different?
Dr. Yang: When asking my students what else they would like to learn, they have intimated a thirst for more information and practice on the in-patient side of yoga for cancer. So, in this training, we will do a lot more training on working with very debilitated patients who are on bed rest or are limited to wheelchairs. We will also talk a lot more about the physiology of healing generally and about working through each patient’s challenges as they arise. And there will be tons of self-reflection, meditation, and digging deep. I am really looking forward to offering this training on a deeper level!