During three-hour chemotherapy treatments, Alison Rubin would close her eyes and focus on the gentle rhythm of her breath.
“Be still,” she often told herself, concentrating on the words of her mantra as she slowly inhaled and exhaled.
“Be open to the moment.”
Her ability to meditate along with her daily yoga practice sustained Rubin through eight months of breast cancer therapy – sentinel node surgery, six infusions of chemo every three weeks, a lumpectomy and radiation five days a week for seven weeks.
“Even though I had cancer, I felt like I had a healthy body,” said Rubin, who has been practicing and teaching yoga for more than 25 years. “I treated (cancer) like an adventure and a journey rather than a terrible thing that was happening to me. …
“I tried to live my life from moment to moment, which is all we’ve got anyway.”
Rubin, whose cancer is in remission, now wants to share the gift of yoga with others whose lives have been affected by the disease.
This week, the owner and director of Spokane’s Harmony Yoga will begin offering a class designed for women who are dealing with or have survived breast cancer.
During the eight-week series, students will gently stretch and strengthen their bodies while learning to relax and “practicing acceptance of the present moment,” Rubin said.
Students of all levels – from those who have had extensive yoga experience as well as women who have never tried it before – are welcome.
The poses can be modified to each individual’s needs, and are designed for women at various stages: before, during and after the treatment of breast cancer. Women who have undergone a lumpectomy, mastectomy or other surgeries should consult their physician before signing up for the class.
“This will be a safe and loving environment to let go of your worries and fears, and nurture your body, mind and spirit,” Rubin said. “Because yoga was so helpful to me, I thought offering a class would be a great service to other women.”
Except for skin cancers, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, according to the American Cancer Society. It is also the second leading cause of cancer death in women.
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, experts say. Statistics from May 2009 show that there are about 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.
When doctors discovered she had breast cancer last fall, Rubin’s initial response was shock. Family members and friends also were surprised to learn that someone so vibrant and strong and with lifelong healthy habits could be stricken with the life-threatening disease.
“It was humbling, actually, to realize that cancer doesn’t necessarily happen only to people who perhaps live unhealthy lives,” she said. “It can happen to anybody.”
Instead of feeling sorry for herself, Rubin found solace in yoga.
Her daily yoga practice helped her stay strong and flexible and allowed her to connect with her body. Most of all, the meditation – which is part of the philosophy of yoga – enabled her to stay in the moment and remain as positive as possible.
“Knowing that you have cancer can be scary,” she said. “Yoga has made the difference between me getting well with ease and the possibility of struggling through the cancer.”
Yoga also helped her maintain her energy level and agility. Rubin, 55, continued to do the things she always did before the diagnosis – she went on walks and bike rides, cared for her grandchildren and taught yoga classes at Harmony.
The only times she couldn’t practice were those days after chemotherapy. After receiving a shot to boost her white blood cell count, she often felt weak, as though she had the flu.
Three days after each treatment, however, she bounced back and returned to the studio to practice and teach.
Besides Rubin’s example, several recent studies have shown that yoga can help women coping with breast cancer.
Earlier this year, medical experts from Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that women with breast cancer experienced less stress after participating in a series of 75-minute restorative yoga classes.
After the 10-week course, the women reported a 50 percent reduction in feelings of depression and a 12 percent increase in feelings of peace and meaning. They also experienced less fatigue compared to the group that had yet to take the yoga classes.
In 2007, researchers from Washington State University Spokane and Cancer Care Northwest in Spokane concluded that breast cancer survivors practicing Iyengar yoga – a form of yoga that uses props such as belts and blocks – experienced changes in the way their immune cells respond to activation signals.
According to the American Physiological Society, these findings have helped scientists and others understand how the immune system improves through physical activity and meditative practices.
The study concluded that Iyengar yoga also can have psychological benefits for breast cancer survivors.
Rubin and other instructors at Harmony Yoga regularly use blocks, straps, pillows, chairs and blankets to improve students’ alignment and provide support as they complete the asanas or poses.
Although she doesn’t call it “Iyengar Yoga,” Rubin’s style is “technique-oriented” and focuses on precision.
“The more accurate that you can be with your alignment, the more benefit there is to the body and less physiological strain,” she explained.
A native of England, Rubin was 18 and living in San Diego when she first discovered yoga. She was drawn not just to the physicality of the practice, but also to its philosophy.
Rubin started offering classes soon after moving to Spokane in 1983. At that time, no one seemed to know what yoga was, she recalled. Some people thought it was counterculture and an activity practiced only by hippies.
When she began offering yoga classes at the Spokane Club 17 years ago, she had to call it “power stretching.”
In 2001, right about the time when yoga was growing in popularity in Spokane, Rubin opened Harmony Yoga studio on the lower South Hill.
Like her other classes, Rubin’s yoga for breast cancer classes will provide students with a safe and supportive environment. Along with teaching gentle yoga poses, she will also include breath awareness and restorative yoga poses that will aid in relaxation.
During her cancer treatment, Rubin found comfort in knowing the difference between suffering and pain. Like the needle piercing your skin during an injection, pain is real and it is something you feel, she said.
But suffering “is what you create with your thoughts after you experience pain,” Rubin explained. “Suffering is what you do in your mind that makes it worse.”
So during chemotherapy, Rubin concentrated on her breath so that as soon as the physical sensation was over, she would avoid “jumping” into her mind.
Rubin also has been bolstered by the support of family and friends, doctors and other experts at Cancer Care Northwest, and people from the local yoga community.
In January, several instructors hosted a yoga benefit at the studio to help pay for her medical expenses.
“I felt embraced by everybody,” she said. “My heart was very open during cancer and I was touched by all the love.”