Cancer affects our physical body, but also our mind and mental wellbeing; our entire existence. Treatment to eliminate cancer cells is of utmost importance, but we need to remember that it takes more to regain balance after cancer knocked us. Discover how the five koshas can help us see we're not just physical beings.
This is the sixth blog post in a series on living with cancer that I'll be writing coming months. The introduction and links to the first blog posts, can be found in the first one; To live with, after and next to cancer.
Used yoga to keep performing
When I started doing yoga in my early twenties I came from a world of hard training and competitive running. I took my physical abilities and my performance mindset to the yoga mat. The first year it was just a show, all about looking good doing the postures. From years of training and exercise I was well aware and in contact with my physical body. But I had less knowledge of the rest of me, and I used the yoga poses to keep pushing myself further into performance anxiety and stress, and away from mental wellbeing. Luckily, I had a good teacher who guided me to connect with more aspects of myself and the integrative touch of yoga. That changed everything for me and my overall sense of wellness.
At first glance, cancer is a disease of the physical body. Cells growing out of control causing mayhem in otherwise healthy tissues. It is also medical care for mainly this issue that the health care provides. Killing, eliminating, decreasing the tumorous cells in the body.
The truth is that cancer is a disease that affects not only our physical body, but also our mind and mental wellbeing; our emotions; our beliefs; our entire existence. When faced with the trauma of a life-threatening disease, no matter the outcome, everything we thought we knew is put into question. Whether you are the one living with cancer or the one living next to it, cancer can easily make one feel broken as a person and within one’s life. Sometimes it is physical. Sometimes mentally. Other times emotional, or existential or spiritual.
Because we are not just physical beings.
What is often lost after being diagnosed with cancer, is the care and help for all issues concerning the aspects that is not the physical body. And if you are a loved one, you're often completely on your own. While treatment to eliminate cancer cells is of utmost importance, we still need to remember that it takes more to regain balance after cancer knocked us off our feet.
Yoga is all about integration and bringing together. I often practice and teach from the yogic Kosha model. It gives me a better way to see how everything is connected and that we can’t ignore parts of ourselves if we want to experience wellbeing. It offers help to see, appreciate, and pay attention to the whole person.
The five koshas
Every human being has five Koshas, meaning ‘body’ or ‘sheet’. It is like five layers, kind of like a Russian doll, going from the gross outer physical body to the subtler inner bodies. But, different to the Russian dolls, the bodies/sheets are not separate. They are intertwined and always interacting to make us stay in balance.
1. The physical body: The first body is everything you can touch, see, and feel. It’s skin, muscles, bones, and organs. It’s the tissues that cancer cells destroy. This body is often what us humans are most familiar with because it is visible and touchable. And it is what has the most focus in health care.
2. The energy body: As we reach the inner Russian dolls, the composure of the bodies gets more subtle and less tangible. The energy body includes breath, prana (life force), energy, and the channels which energy runs through. I usually describe it as what gives life to your physical body. You can have a body, but without breath, without energy, there is no life – it is just a pile of flesh and bones.
3. The mental/emotional body: The mental body contains the mind, our senses, emotions, and basic instincts and urges such as hunger, thirst, and sex. It also includes the “older mind”, meaning the sympathetic nervous system with the stress system and fight/flight/freeze response.
I think of this body as what takes in the world. You have a body, you breathe, you have energy and you are alive. But without this Mental body you are in a coma, not aware, not taking in your surroundings, and not communicating with the outer world. When we are exposed by too much and too intense stress, may it be physical or mental, and don’t make time for quiet and recovery, this kosha goes off balance and it often impacts the other koshas strongly.
4. The wisdom body: The wisdom body is the higher mind where your intellect, understanding, reasoning, and intuition resides. It contains the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response that is able to influence and reduce the fight/flight response. That makes us see a bigger picture, analyze a situation and choose a proper response instead of just living by hasty reactions to everything that comes our way. The wisdom helps us see that a thought is just a thought and not necessarily the truth.
5. The bliss body: Here resides the sense of being whole. The connection to your own center, but also the connection to others and the universe. It’s a sense of flow and ease. Connecting to the Bliss body gives you spiritual and existential awareness and meaning. The sense of wholeness and connection is something that can be experienced even when diagnosed with a life-threatening disease; knowing that you are facing death; or loving someone in those situations.
Foto: Mikael Björk
Appreciate all aspects of you
Acknowledging all of these aspects of ourselves, and understanding the interlacing effect they have on each other, help us to work to integrate instead of separate. This is especially important when facing challenging situations.
When we do practices to help release tension in all bodies, we are more likely to experience the joy, ease, and connection to our own center that resides in the Bliss body. We are more likely to feel whole as a person no matter the circumstances.
We can do practices that incorporates all Koshas. We can also focus on one Kosha to access another that might be hard to connect with. For example, if you struggle with a lot of fear and anxiety, that resides in the Mental body, the calm and sensible reasoning that is the Wisdom body might be blocked, as the survival instinct in the stress response is stronger. Focusing on slow, even breaths (Energy body) and muscle relaxation (Physical body) can lower the stress response and reduce the fear and anxiety in the Mental body. Then exercises that strengthen the Wisdom body can have more effect.
Examples of what to focus on for each kosha:
- Physical body – connect through physical poses; focus on how you place your body for comfort and strength; body scans; muscle relaxation techniques; and so on.
- Energy Body – do breathing exercises and learn to notice your energy levels – feeling energized, sleepy, dull, restless, or calm are all attributes of the vital energy body – and choose practices that brings your energy in the best direction.
- Mental body – work with concentration- and focus exercises; mindfulness techniques; and other types of meditations that help direct the power of the mind and thought.
- Wisdom body – try mantras, visualizations, and guided meditations that help you experience space within. Reflecting upon your own experiences, sharing your story, connection with other with similar experiences is a wonderful way to release tension in the Wisdom body.
Videos integrating all koshas
Try these practices lead by experienced yoga teacher Mona Anand. She has created a physical flow with focus on integrating all koshas, and a restorative practice to create stillness in the mind. Follow up with a Yoga Nidra, a guided meditation to release tension in all bodies and experience a greater sense of ease.
You can also go back to older posts in this series and look for videos and chose from them if you wish to focus on any special Kosha, for example breathing techniques or meditations.
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War on cancer
The physical challenge is huge for a cancer patient. The mental and emotional challenge is at least as great. War On Cancer is a social media-app, a social network and community, where everyone affected by cancer have the opportunity to share their cancer experience and get in contact with others who actually understand. War On Cancer's mission is to put focus on, and radically improve, the mental health of everyone affected by cancer. The first step is the digital social network that creates belonging and community in a time of isolation and uncertainty. You are reminded that you are never alone. We'll fight cancer together.
Learn more about War On Cancer and download their app at waroncancer.com
Share your story, it will make a difference.