Yoga is an ancient lifestyle practice that uses a series of movements and poses (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation to allow a deeper connection to Self. The word yoga means “to join” or “union.”
Yoga focuses on joining the Body, Mind, Breath and Spirit together in harmony and focus, without mental distractions. Yoga has been practised for thousands of years. Strict followers of the discipline observe a number of beliefs and practices, including ethics, dietary guidelines and spirituality.
A History of the Medical Use of Yoga
Yoga started over 5,000 years ago in India and is now very popular in Western countries.
It is a whole body philosophy, involving working with breathing (pranayama), stretching exercises, postures (asanas) and meditation.
These create harmony between your mind, body and spirit and help clear and calm your mind.
Yoga teachers promote yoga as a way of staying healthy and preventing illness.
They claim that the postures will stimulate your nervous system, make your muscles and joints more flexible, and relax your mind and body.
Yoga as a Complementary Therapy
There is no evidence at this time that yoga can treat cancer itself. Research has shown that yoga can be used to help improve high blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, metabolism and body temperature.
Yoga can improve your strength, mobility, bone health, cardiovascular health, breathing pattern and other physiological systems and decrease pain. Mentally, yoga can enhance well-being, lower your stress response, help manage your pain experience and help you feel more relaxed. People who practice yoga believe that it helps enhance their quality of life.
As with many types of complementary therapy one of the main reasons that people with cancer use yoga is because it makes them feel good.
Yoga teachers promote it as a natural way to help you relax and cope with stress, anxiety and depression. Generally, it can help to lift your mood and enhance well-being.
Some people with cancer who have used yoga say that it helps calm their mind so that they can
cope better with their cancer and its treatment. Others say that it helps to reduce symptoms and side effects such as pain, tiredness, sleep problems and depression.
Several major cancer centers have yoga programs as part of their treatment programs. These centers include Stanford Cancer Center, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
In addition, the National Cancer Institute gave M. D. Anderson Cancer Center a $4.5 million grant in April to research adding yoga to breast cancer treatment programs.
The researchers will measure and track the levels of stress hormones in participants as well and monitor their sleep.
The best types of yoga for cancer patients and survivors are those that focus on breathing and gentle postures. Mustain developed a special yoga program just for cancer patients Called YOCAS®, (Yoga for Cancer Survivors); it is a blend of Hatha and restorative yoga postures as well as breathing exercises.
Yoga can sometimes help you to move around more quickly and easily after surgery for cancer.
All poses were specifically chosen for the healing and calm they can bring to cancer, and were selected to be gentle, easy and accessible to anyone who chooses to practice, even during active treatment. On low energy days, simply doing the fifteen-minute guided meditation will be helpful and healing. Our goal is to move from surviving cancer to thriving after cancer. Over 50% of all our videos produced are donated to hospitals, cancer centers, support groups and survivor ship groups.
Research has shown that yoga can help people living with cancer relieve their anxiety and depression. It’s also been shown to increase a sense of spiritual well-being.
Some research has shown that yoga may potentially help with fatigue or sleeping problems.
There is no scientific evidence to prove that yoga can cure or prevent any type of cancer. But there are some studies to suggest that it might help people with cancer to sleep better and cope with anxiety.
In March 2010 a review of studies into yoga for patients with cancer was published. It included 10 trials. It found that yoga could help to reduce anxiety, depression, fatigue and stress for some patients. And it improved the quality of sleep, mood and spiritual well-being for some people.
The authors of the study said that overall yoga may be associated with some positive effects on psychological well-being for people with cancer. But the review results have to be used with caution because there were some weaknesses and differences in the research studies included.
You can read the review of yoga for people with cancer on the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE) website.
In 2012 researchers carried out another review of studies that looked at the physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga for people with cancer. 13 trials were included.
In patients with breast cancer the reviewers said that they found that yoga helped to reduce distress, anxiety, depression and tiredness (fatigue).
It also helped to improve quality of life, emotional well being and social well being.
A small individual study in the USA in 2012 found that yoga reduced tiredness (fatigue) in women with breast cancer. Some studies seem to show that yoga may be able to reduce hot flushes in women with breast cancer.
One small trial showed that people with lymphoma had fewer sleep disturbances, fell asleep more quickly, and slept for longer after a 7 week yoga programme. But we need bigger studies to confirm all these findings.
Several US studies are currently looking at whether yoga can help to reduce the physical and emotional side effects of living with cancer or its treatment.
Other research suggests that yoga may help people with other health problems such as
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Lower back pain
- Joint problems, such as arthritis
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Anxiety and depression
If you have any of these conditions always tell your yoga teacher before doing yoga.
How is Yoga Administered?
The exercises combined with breathing improve your oxygen and blood supply. In turn, this helps your circulation and breathing, which promotes general good health.
There are several different styles of yoga including Hatha yoga, Iyengar yoga and Astanga yoga. Some are quite strenuous, while others are gentler and focus more on meditation and breath-work.
Some types emphasise the physical poses and focus on alignment. Other types focus on the control and awareness of breathing, while others have a stronger focus on meditation, philosophy, service or cleansing techniques.
A yoga session usually lasts between 60 and 90 minutes, and involves a series of postures with breath work, and relaxation time at the end of the class.
Wear clothing that you find easy to move and stretch in.
You usually need a non-slip mat. Your teacher may provide these or you can bring your own.
You can learn yoga from a book or video, but it’s best to learn from a qualified yoga teacher in a group class or with individual private lessons.
You may be more comfortable seeking private sessions with a certified yoga therapist. Yoga therapy is the specific use of yoga philosophy, poses, breathing methods and meditation for certain diseases or dysfunctions.
It is a one-on-one experience that can address all layers of your being: mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
A therapist can come to your home to help you with specific concerns.
For example, a yoga therapist can work with you when you are feeling physically weak, fragile, in physical or emotional pain, or if you want to enhance your immune system or help manage stress.
Therapists often work on anxiety, insomnia and pain issues, which are common for people in cancer treatment.
Side Effects or Risks
Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about starting yoga or any type of exercise that means moving your joints and muscles in a way that you’re not used to. Let your yoga instructor know about your cancer diagnosis and any physical limitations that you have.
Your instructor should be able to guide you in learning the safe way of doing poses and change the poses to suit your needs.
Side effects from yoga are rare, but yoga injuries are becoming more common, especially in people who haven’t had an individual assessment based on their needs and ability. Over-stretching joints and ligaments can cause injury.
It’s a good idea to start slowly, know your limits, not push past pain or discomfort, and let the yoga instructor know of any issues you may have before the class starts.
If you are still having cancer treatments or if you have lymphedema you should not do hot yoga, which is vigorous yoga in a very hot room (at least 40°C).
Some of the physical yoga poses may not be indicated if you have cancer that has spread to the bone (called bone metastases) and are at risk for fractures.
However, gentle yoga breathing and meditation methods would likely be appropriate. Consult your healthcare team as appropriate.
If you do yoga properly, under instructions from a qualified teacher, it is generally very safe. Qualified teachers usually recommend the following safety measures
- Allow at least 2 hours after eating before doing yoga
- To avoid injury, don’t do yoga alone at home until you’ve practiced it with a qualified teacher
- Before beginning yoga classes, always tell your teacher about any medical problems you have, including back and joint problems
- If any posture is painful for you, stop and let your teacher know
- Never try difficult postures, such as head and shoulder stands, without first being shown how to do this by a qualified teacher
- Women who are pregnant, or have their period, shouldn’t practice certain postures – your teacher will advise you about which these are
- After a yoga class make sure that you drink plenty of water
As with any new exercise program or mental health intervention, it’s best that you talk to your healthcare team about whether yoga is safe for you. It’s also a good idea to have the yoga therapist communicate with your healthcare team.
Please note that the Little Fighters Cancer Trust shares information regarding various types of cancer treatments on this blog merely for informational use. LFCT does not endorse or promote any specific cancer treatments – we believe that the public should be informed but that the option is theirs to take as to what treatments are to be used.
Always consult your medical practitioner prior to taking any other medication, natural or otherwise.