When you’re in your post-mastectomy recovery period, it’s normal to want to return to an active lifestyle and focus on regaining your fitness levels as soon as possible.  Yoga is often recommended,  not only for its physical benefits but also because of its positive effect on overall well-being.

If you’ve previously had some experience of yoga, you’ll be aware of what’s involved and what you’ll need to adapt after your mastectomy and possibly reconstruction.  If you’re new to the practice, though, there are several things you need to know so that you can gain the most benefit from your practice.

Yoga tends to be used as an umbrella term. Many people imagine it just involves sitting cross-legged on the floor or performing a few contortions in fashionable yoga-wear.  In fact, there are many styles and approaches. Although yoga has boomed in popularity over recent years, and many of its benefits are backed by solid research, some styles may not be appropriate if you’re a beginner who has had recent surgery.  

So, what should you look for when choosing to start yoga classes?

Choose the right style for you

Go to a yoga class today, and you may find yourself in an overheated room, performing intense routines involving flowing movements or stretches which are held for several minutes.  Other yoga classes are based on gentle movements and breathing exercises. 

 Yoga can be wonderfully healing but it’s important to understand the basics of the different styles so you can make the best choice at this phase of your life.  When you’re still recovering after surgery, you’ll need to build up your fitness gradually, and be patient with your body while you regain your previous stamina.  

Yoga styles that typically involve high levels of exertion include Ashtanga, Bikram, Hot Yoga, Power Yoga, and post-beginner Vinyasa.   As it’s likely that your chest muscles may have been cut, postures such as downward-facing dog or planks will not be accessible at this time.  Mastectomy sports bras, which support the muscles during regular activity, won’t help here. Also, the range of motion in your arm may be limited, so again, unless you can work at your own pace, certain postures may be painful or out-of-reach.

Work with an expert teacher

Look for an instructor with years of yoga teaching experience who really knows what they’re doing.  Most teachers are registered with the Yoga Alliance.  If they have the initials RYT200, after their name, they have completed basic yoga teacher training. RYT500 means they have completed advanced training and  RYT500E confirms that they have a substantial record of actually teaching as well as the certification. 

Before joining the class, speak to the teacher and explore his or her experience of the needs of post-mastectomy students.  An experienced teacher will be able to work with you to adapt the postures to meet your needs and will know which are suitable and which to avoid.

Also, check out the number of students in each class.  If there are large groups, the teacher will simply not have time to focus on you or provide the options you’ll need to get the most from the classes. Look for a smaller class with a maximum of 8-10 students.

Focus on what you need the most

Gentle yoga practice can be tremendously nourishing, not only for your body while you regain your strength and range of motion, but also for your mind and spirit. Look for a class where the focus is on breathing exercises (pranayama), and meditation as key parts of the class. You’ll leave feeling calm and re-energized, which can only help you on the road to recovery.

Restorative classes, which use restful poses and lots of supports are ideal.  The aim is to allow your body to feel safe so it can let go and relax, without fear of injury. There is no struggle, no going beyond your limits, no pushing yourself to do anything you’re not ready for. 

A class that incorporates a session of Yoga Nidra (yoga sleep) can help reduce anxiety, relieve stress, and help you re-connect with every part of your body.  An extended, guided Savasana or relaxation practice at the end of each class is also extremely beneficial in restoring your energy and ensuring you leave the class with your thoughts and emotions calm and clear.

In short, yoga can be a wonderful aid on the road to complete recovery. Choose a class that will support you as you move forward with patience, and you’ll most likely want to incorporate it into your life forever.