In honour of breast cancer awareness month, we’d like to talk about breasts. Understandably, this topic can often be cast in a depressing light, and not surprisingly, breast cancer awareness month is very much focused on the cancer side of things, as opposed to the breast side of things.
But breasts are wonderful! They are unique to each and every individual, and even each breast, as mostly they’re not symmetrical. They have been portrayed in works of art for many hundreds of years, and are venerated as the source of life-giving sustenance.
Many breasts don’t have cancer, which is also wonderful. There are also some heartening statistics on how, even with a breast cancer diagnosis, things are looking up. For example, according to Cancer Research, ‘in the 1970s, 4 in 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer survived their disease beyond ten years, now it’s around 8 in 10.’
There’s no doubt that we need to remain vigilant, checking our breasts regularly, and going to the doctors immediately with any sign of any unusual symptom. But we also need to re-frame our breasts in a positive light, checking them with love, not in fear.
All about BREASTS*
Our breasts start to grow when we hit puberty. To begin with, both boys and girls get breast buds – I remember calling these smarties – they’re small, round and hard and under the nipple. Then, in girls, the fatty tissue and milk-producing glands continue to grow, forming the breasts. Breasts are composed of fatty tissue, mammary glands, areolas, and nipples. In evolutionary terms, their purpose is to feed our offspring until they are weaned.
If you have a baby, they magically turn into milk dispensers, ready and available at any time, day or night, as well as having the incredible ability to produce as much milk as needed. Although this seems magical, it’s actually in response to various hormones produced by your body in response to the baby – the mammary glands respond to the hormone prolactin to switch on the milk supply. Interestingly, breastfeeding stimulates the hormone oxytocin, which leads to a sense of well-being, as well as helping to shrink the uterus back to its original size.
Hormones don’t only affect your breasts during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Breasts are hormonal weather vanes, enlarging and getting tender in the days before a period, changing when you enter the menopausal phase, and even being affected by stress.
Why we get BREAST problems
Many women encounter problems with their breasts, especially in the pre-menstrual phase. Bobby Clennell, an experienced Iyengar yoga teacher and author of ‘The Woman’s Yoga Book’ writes about why this should be:
Breast problems, ranging from slight swelling to tenderness, that occur during the premenstrual time, are usually caused by excess hormonal stimulation. This can arise for several reasons, including an imbalanced lifestyle and chronic stress.
During breastfeeding, a common problem is the contraction of mastitis, a bacterial infection that causes painful inflammation of the breast. This can be treated with antibiotics and eased with hot or cold packs. But is there something else that can help…
Yoga and BREASTfeeding
…Yes! While breastfeeding, women’s bodies are required to work extra hard to keep up their milk supply. In the book ‘Iyengar Yoga for Motherhood’ it states that according to ‘science’, every ounce of breastmilk produced by the body requires 400 ounces of oxygen, an enormous amount.
To aid this massive need for extra oxygen, it recommends that breastfeeding mothers should regularly practice pranayama. In pranayama, the abdomen and other organs relax, allowing much fuller expansion of the diaphragm and lungs, which in turn allows a deeper and more efficient intake of oxygen.
How Yoga can help our BREASTS
Problems with our breasts are not uncommon, but what we don’t realise is that there is a way to alleviate or even prevent them. It’s not just stress that can cause breast problems – Bobby Clennell again:
Causes of lumpiness, cysts, and tenderness can be having a diet too high in carbohydrates, a deficiency of essential fatty acids and excess of alcohol and caffeine. Coffee and chocolate are the main culprits!
Yes, sadly our old friends coffee and chocolate should probably be eliminated (or at least cut down) in your diet if you suffer from breast pain. Yoga can also become part of a toolkit to help ease the buildup of stress in the body, which in turn helps to manage the hormonal balance.
There are yoga poses that specifically help with looking after our breasts.
- Reclining poses such as supta baddha konasana (reclining bound angle pose) and supta virasana (reclining hero pose) have a cooling effect on inflamed breast tissue.
- Raising the arms up above the head in urdhva hastasana (upward raised arms) improves circulation in the breasts and helps reduce inflammation
- Supported viparita dandasana 2 (inverted staff pose) stimulate the circulation in the upper chest and relieves breast tenderness.
- Shoulderstand is particularly important as part of a breast-care programme, as it helps with circulation, lymph drainage and is particularly effective at reducing inflammation.
- Savasana allows the body total rest. It is also a chance to meditate on the things you love about yourself and your breasts.
In general, a consistent yoga practice will help to manage our stress levels, which in turn prevent a spike in breast-irritating hormones.
Yoga and BREAST cancer
If you’ve been diagnosed, or are recovering from breast cancer, yoga can also help. According to breastcancer.org, in ‘studies of women with breast cancer, yoga has been shown to reduce fatigue and improve quality of sleep, physical vitality, and overall quality of life.’
Dealing with the psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis, as well as having to manage your normal life, on top of the physical side-effects of cancer treatments can all take its toll on your general health. It’s really important to be kind to yourself at this time, to recognise that you will need some extra support, and to ask for it!
A yoga practice can also be invaluable. Choose restorative poses, give yourself time to breathe, either in a gentle pranayama session, or just in savasana, and focus on all the positives that exist in your life.
*All reference to ‘breasts’ in the sub-headings are capitalised to signify how much we love them.