Meditation techniques for cancer patients

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A cancer diagnosis changes a person's life. It entails stress, pain, and anxiety. Meditation is the ancient practice of achieving a thoughtless alertness. Research has shown that meditation can help reduce anxiety and stress. The classic definition of meditation is the deliberate self-regulation of attention through which the stream of consciousness is temporarily suspended. The goal is to achieve a thoughtless awareness of one's person and/or surroundings.1 Many types of meditation are practiced throughout the world. Some types are practiced in a sitting position (transcendental, mindfulness), and some types incorporate movement (aikido, qigong, tai chi). Patients, especially those with chronic conditions such as arthritis or heart disease, are advised to check with their health care team before beginning any type of activity that involves the joints or movement.

Aikido

Aikido is a noncombative Japanese martial art that teaches students to restore harmony in conflictive issues through the study of the martial way (Budo).2 The martial art requires students to squarely face life situations in a proactive, constructive manner.2,3 Aikido utilizes various wristlocks, arm pins, or unbalancing throws to subdue and neutralize attackers without serious injury; the practice is in tandem with learning the art of falling, which trains the body and mind to receive such techniques in a safe manner.4 Aikido is not a sport and has no competitive tournaments. The martial art involves cooperative training used to better oneself without the intention of harm or fear of injury.4

The Aikido Resolution Foundation sponsors a program called “Cut the Cancer” through schools affiliated with the Aikido Association of America. The program teaches cancer patients the physical and philosophical tenets of Budo to help them in their fight against cancer. Fumio Toyoda Shihan, founder, Aikido Association of America, explains the benefits of studying the martial arts, “Why study the martial arts? A true martial artist does not train to only defeat others. He trains also to defeat the enemies inside himself, the enemies we all have. He trains to forge his life into something beautiful, something helpful to the world. He wishes not to draw a sword, but to put it away—once and for all.”2 Cancer patients should have approval to exercise from their health care providers, and caregiver participation is encouraged. 

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of being in the present moment.5 Mindfulness meditation can be learned on your own with practice; however, classes are available if you are having difficulty developing your practice or if you feel more comfortable with formal instruction.

You should find a quiet space to meditate.5 You do not need an entire room or a completely empty area. You can arrange an altar or have candle or incense burning, just make sure there are no distractions such as the television or computer. Place comfortable seating in the space that will allow you to sit with your feet supported, your back comfortably straight (not rigid), and your hips are higher than your knees.5

Mindfulness is the practice of being able to be with all of our experiences. You should allow your gaze to fall at a point a few feet in front of you, but do not focus on a particular object. The release from suffering comes in not trying to get away from it, but by accepting what it is. As you experience the moment, thoughts will come into your mind; they should be allowed to flow freely. But if the thoughts become a central focus, you should gently bring your mind back to the moment. An acknowledgement that the thought occurred may help you let go of it. Recommended practice is to sit for 10 to 15 minutes and build up to sitting for 45 minutes to 1 hour.5

Qigong

Qigong (chee-gong) is an ancient Chinese health practice that is more than 5,000 years old.6 Qigong combines slow graceful movements with mental concentration and breathing to balance personal energy. Referred to as Chinese yoga, the exercises can be modified to be done sitting, lying down, standing, or moving. A set of exercises (form) can consist of repetitive movements that take up to 8 minutes to complete or a sequential routine that can take up to 40 minutes to complete.6

Qigong exercises produce three intentful corrections: body posture, breathing, and mental state or awareness.6 Initially, the adjustment of posture, breathing, and awareness is done only during exercise times. As you continue to practice qigong, you will make these adjustments throughout the day as the practice becomes a natural part of your life.6

Tai chi

Tai chi, also referred to as moving meditation, is a martial art in which the practitioner moves his or her body slowly, gently, and with awareness, while breathing deeply.7 This practice can be self-taught through books and Web sites, and it is also taught in dedicated schools and programs. Originating in China, tai chi is a set of 13 exercises, developed by Chang San-Feng, a Taoist monk, that mimic the movement of animals. The practice incorporates the Chinese concept of yin and yang (opposing forces within the body) and chi (life force or energy).7

Many different styles are practiced, and all involve slow, relaxed, graceful movements that flow from one into the next. The body is in constant motion and posture is important. Practitioners must concentrate on their movements, pushing aside distracting thoughts, and breathe in a deep and relaxed but focused manner. Health-related benefits of practicing tai chi include it is a low-impact, weight-bearing exercise; it improves physical conditioning, muscle strength, coordination, and flexibility; it improves balance and reduces risk of falls, especially in the elderly; it can ease pain and stiffness (eg, osteoarthritis); and it can improve sleep and overall wellness.7

Transcendental Meditation (TM)

TM is a meditation technique that allows the mind to settle inward to a transcendental consciousness.8 TM is simple and natural. It is practiced twice a day for 20 minutes while sitting comfortably with the eyes closed. In a state of restful alertness, the brain functions with significantly greater coherence and the body gains deep rest. TM does not engage the mind such as focusing on an object or breathing; it allows the mind to simply, naturally, and effortlessly transcend thinking. The practitioner experiences a deep state of restfully alert consciousness.8 The technique is taught through instructors certified by the program. Patients should visit the Web site for more information on instructors and classes in their area (www.tm.org).

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