How Amelia Coffaro Treats Cancer with Yoga
Amelia Coffaro is a treasured friend of GiveForward. In 2013, she and her creative community raised $65K for her breast cancer treatments by selling beautiful, unique photography prints. During her fundraiser, she even stopped by our office to say “hi” and meet our staff. Amelia captivated us with her grace, kindness, and intelligence.
Today, Amelia is cancer-free and sharing her insights with others as the founder of an oncology-based yoga program in Milwaukee. We caught up with Amelia to learn more about yoga’s role in her life, especially related to her cancer experience. She spoke from her heart about how her love of yoga combined with a heightened body consciousness during cancer led to this new passion.
Whether you’re battling cancer or supporting a loved one with an illness, Amelia’s application of simple yoga methods like breathing and self-awareness will provide comfort and empowerment.
What role has yoga played in your cancer journey?
Though yoga has been apart of my life for nearly ten years, it now holds a more intimate role in my life after going through treatment and now as I continue moving forward.
From the moment of my diagnosis and throughout my entire treatment process, there was nothing closer to me than my own breath—breathing was a reminder that I was simply alive and connected to each passing moment no matter how challenging the experience became. In the span of several short hours, I had gone from living and working in New York City, to getting on a plane to come home and see my doctor and learning of a cancer diagnosis—all before lunchtime.
Starting an intense treatment regimen and being thrown head-on into getting very, very sick all within less than two weeks coupled with the stress of leaving my life as I knew it behind, countless doctors appointments, learning about treatment options, keeping in touch with a tremendous outpouring of support from family, friends and strangers—at times it felt like I was working several full-time jobs. The magnitude of change and uncertainty was so overwhelming that I needed a way to quiet my mind and be able to move through everything that was happening with a sense of clarity and calmness. For me, this was through yoga.
As I went through treatment, my understanding of yoga began to change and became so much more than the physical movement I once defined as the practice of yoga. On the days when my body was at its weakest physical state from chemotherapy side effects or even when I was being wheeled into surgery, my yoga practice was simply about breathing—the breath was the one thing that continuously brought me back to present moment awareness, and from that space I was able to experience a sense of peace and comfort from deep within.
Many times I would consciously direct my breath to certain parts of my body to imagine them relaxing and receiving tons of healing energy. Interestingly, I remember this being some of the happiest times of my treatment—when life sort of forced me flat on to my back to just be. I learned how incredibly fragile and precious each moment in human form can be and the abundance and renewal that lies within each of those moments.
As I’ve continued to recover from treatment and surgery, I’ve also had the privilege to witness my body’s amazing physical resiliency as I’ve started to practice more movement in yoga. It has been a humbling experience in learning how to adapt postures I once faced no challenge in doing but now have extreme limitations with. Over time I’ve watched my body, specifically my chest and arms, regain strength, flexibility, and range of motion.
Some days I show up to practice and it feels like I’ve taken two steps backwards—my neck is tighter than it was the day before, my left shoulder is internally rotated and in “protective mode,” or there’s more lymphatic fluid built up in my hand, so I have to accept where I’m at and honor what my body needs that day. And on some days I show up to practice and my left arm stretches just a bit higher than it ever has, my shoulders chest open just a bit more and there’s isn’t lymphatic fluid in my hand. This is what inspires me to keep showing up to the practice of yoga—the reality that there’s really nowhere to be except exactly where I am and all of the possibilities that lie within that. It has made me more grateful, confident, and accepting of my body. It invites me to allow myself to feel emotions like anger or sadness without shaming myself, and overall really cultivate a sense of connection to myself and everyone and everything around me.
But perhaps, more than anything, the practice of yoga continues to teach me that my intuitive knowledge is the most valuable thing I possess. I was misdiagnosed eight months prior to my official diagnosis (because of my young age and no family history of cancer) and it wasn’t until I saw two heart-shaped tumors mirroring one another on my mammogram the day of my diagnosis that I could actually see what my body was trying to tell me not just in relation to my health, but to my life as a whole: “You know.”
My diagnosis and treatment didn’t fit into a “typical” breast cancer case and, unfortunately, I continue to hear too many other stories of misdiagnosis. It has inspired me to think about how we define “standard care of practice” in the medical world and how we can perhaps begin to bridge the gap so as to recognize and honor the incredible wisdom of the body and the unique needs of every single individual as a whole person. I believe, and science continues to prove more and more, that the practices of yoga can be incredibly powerful in health, healing and how we live our everyday lives.
How does yoga for cancer patients differ from traditional practice?
There are many different styles of yoga—every lineage, teacher, class and practice is unique unto itself. Some styles of yoga are more intensely physical, while others focus primarily on meditation or relaxation.
When I was going through treatment, I recognized that people going through a cancer experience had a very unique set of needs physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. I really wanted to create a safe space and sense of community where these needs were understood and could meet every individual exactly where they were in their treatment and recovery, a space where energy was directed towards experiencing as much joy in life as possible. I completed my 200-hour teacher training in Vinyasa Flow with Ali Szarynski and Shanye Broadwell and then went through additional training developed by Jnani Chapman, who has worked closely with Dr. Dean Ornish in much of his research. The curriculum is designed to educate those working with someone experiencing illness to really develop a deeper understanding of cancer, treatment options, side effects, and any possible contraindications relative to every student’s unique needs.
I am extremely, extremely grateful for the students who come to share in a yoga class with me. It’s a very sacred time during my day and week that I feel very fortunate to experience with others who are living through cancer no matter if they are newly-diagnosed, several years out of treatment, interested in preventing cancer because it runs in their family, or are near their end of life. I learn so much from every person who comes to class. Every yoga class is comprised of slow and singular adaptive movements (sometimes done in a chair or on the floor), breathing, meditation, and deep relaxation practices with imagery that individually and collectively promote relaxation. The primary intention of the class is to teach self-regulating techniques that relieve the side effects of cancer physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically while, most importantly, inducing the relaxation response. In the context of illness, this is extremely important because the organs and systems in the body are working so hard to maintain health and balance in the face of many stressors. We practice how to develop a present moment awareness of sensations, feelings, emotional states of being, and beliefs in nonjudgemental and compassionate observation to then initiate practices that counteract or prevent the harmful physiological responses that typically follow stress. Students leave class feeling a renewed sense of self, a sense of wholeness.
What’s the best advice you could give a newly-diagnosed person interested in yoga?
One of the biggest myths many people (especially people experiencing cancer) have about yoga is that its something they can’t do because they aren’t flexible or that it isn’t safe. I couldn’t disagree more! Can’t do a headstand or twist into the shape of a pretzel? Me neither! Yoga is an ancient practice that is thousands of years old with the profound ability to meet and serve you no matter where you are in life and honor who you are at your most divine essence. Many yoga practices like breathing and meditation can be done when getting a scan or even in the infusion chair. It is so much more than physical movement; it is a process of transformation, a way of living, and a practice that develops from within. And how wonderful it is that someone would show interest!
I would encourage someone who is interested to find an instructor that they trust, respect, and enjoy. Perhaps meet with a few to learn about their experience and background while sharing your needs and goals as well. It may take a few class experiences to find someone you feel comfortable working with, but you will know when it happens because it will feel like a good match. Second, start where you are and work gently there. By honoring the body’s limits and respecting it’s needs, the body will change over time as it’s trust in you continues to grow. Be patient and kind towards yourself. And above all, have fun!
What’s an easy way for a patient to incorporate yoga into everyday life?
Our breath is our most powerful tool in life and in yoga. It not only lets us know when we are feeling stressed, but we can also harness its power to bring us back to the present moment and find balance. Next time you feel stressed or anxious, pause for a moment and turn your attention to your breath. You may start to notice that your breathing feels shallow, short, and quick. Perhaps your heartbeat feels fast or certain parts of your body feel tight. A breathing practice known as “Extended Exhalation” helps us to consciously control the breath. The goal here is to slow the breath down—to extend the breath until it is twice as long in duration as your inhalation. Inhale for three seconds, exhale for six. As you inhale the belly rises and fills with air, as you exhale the belly softens. Imagine inhaling fresh, healing air and exhaling to let go of everything else that does not serve your health.
Another great and really simple practice I like to offer my students is hand over heart and belly breathing. This practice can be done when you first wake up and are lying in bed, or are preparing for sleep. I used this one a lot while getting scans, sitting in the infusion chair and on my way into surgery. Place your right hand over your heart and your left hand over your belly. Again, as you inhale the belly rises and as you exhale the belly falls. Simply follow the breath for one minute as it moves in and out of the body. Work to 5 minutes of practice per day. If you’d like, quietly repeat the mantra, “I am so peaceful.” These are simple practices that can be done almost anywhere and have incredible benefits for the mind, body, and soul.
Want to learn more about Amelia? Check out her incredible photography at ameliacoffaro.com and read up on her yoga practice at ameliacoffaroyoga.com. You can also connect with her on Instagram @ameliacoffaro!