Exploring the Intersection of Movement and Mindfulness

February 15, 2017

A cancer diagnosis can impact the body, the mind and the spirit. That’s why the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center offers not only leading-edge medical treatments and therapies but also a nurse navigator and a variety of integrative and complementary therapies designed to enhance each patient’s sense of well-being.

Rebecca Crane-Okada, PhD, RN, director of the breast cancer navigation and Willow Sage Wellness programs, has been looking at how to assist women after treatment. “I’ve worked with breast cancer most of my 40 years in this field. I’ve always wanted to support women in recovery—how can they stay well and be well,” she says.

Specifically, Dr. Crane- Okada—a professor of oncology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute—has been examining whether older women with breast cancer might benefit from a program she designed, along with a team of experts, that incorporates physical and dance movement together with mindfulness techniques. “We’ve created an intervention called mindful movement that combines the best we know about mindfulness with the best we know about dance and movement,” she says.

“We hold our emotions—which can be painful or joyful—as well as physical trauma in our bodies. Expressing them outwardly through movement can help us cope with and integrate our experiences." – Dr. Rebecca Crane-Okada

The intervention consists of a 12-week series of two-hour classes. Music is played while the facilitator directs the participants to move in certain ways—for example, moving an arm or leg softly, slowly, firmly or quickly. Participants are urged to carry out the movements in their own style, in a way that feels right to them.

“Children have a sense of freedom and spaciousness, but as women we’re taught to be proper and contained in our movements,” notes Dr. Crane-Okada. “These exercises seemed to give the women back the freedom to express themselves in movement.”

Interviewed about two months after completing the program, participants shared that they felt able to reconnect with carefree feelings associated with childhood or other activities that they seemed to have lost over time. They also gained an ability to concentrate on the present, slow down and turn inward. Most importantly, they reported less fear of their cancer coming back.

Just as the study participants reaped benefits from practicing mindful movement, the rest of us can too—even without being in a formal program. Mindfulness can be an abstract concept and may look different from one time to another or from one person to the next, she notes. People may feel like they lose themselves; feel a sense of peace, calm and awe; or feel an experience of greater connection with their body. Sometimes these feelings can be achieved from meditation, prayer or exercise (like a runner’s high).

Dr. Crane-Okada, in collaboration with Institute researchers Maggie DiNome, MD, and Delphine J. Lee, MD, PhD, is currently studying the relationship of mindful movement to immune function in breast cancer survivors age 50 and older. Dr. Crane-Okada directs patients who are not eligible for the study to community resources that use dance and movement therapy techniques. In addition, the Margie Petersen Breast Center partners with Cancer Support Community’s Benjamin Center in Santa Monica to offer classes in mind/body practices.

The Breast Center also offers a yoga program, developed specifically for patients undergoing breast cancer treatment and those at high risk for developing the disease. The Center’s Willow Sage Wellness Program emphasizes breast cancer prevention by offering genetic risk assessment, nutritional counseling, yoga, acupuncture and a meditation room. The program was funded by proceeds from the 2014 Power of Pink concert where Alecia Moore (P!NK) and her friends performed at the House of Blues in Hollywood. The singer has been involved in supporting the Breast Center since 2012.

“We hold our emotions— which can be painful or joyful— as well as physical trauma in our bodies,” says Dr. Crane-Okada. “Expressing them outwardly through movement can help us cope with and integrate our experiences.”


  • Set aside five minutes to consider mindful movement for yourself. Silence your phone or computer.
    • Choose a space that is comfortable for you.
    • If you like music, choose something that engages your spirit and your body.
  • Reflect on what you are about to do—this may mean expressing your intention for this time you are allowing for yourself.
  • Sit or move (for example, walking). As you sit or move, focus on your breath in and out. Become aware that your body is moving with each breath, whether or not your legs are moving.
  • Notice how your body feels and what wants to move. Give attention to what you are experiencing in the moment.
  • Try to hold an attitude toward yourself that is nonjudgmental—if you are restless or self-conscious or find your mind wandering, simply notice and return to awareness of your breath and your body moving.
  • Allow yourself to continue this mindful movement for the time you have committed.
  • At the end of this time, take a deep breath and stretch; notice how you now feel.