Since ancient times, yoga has been used to aid healing and overall functioning of the human body, yet for many years, doctors have advised patients with cancer not to bother too much with yoga or even with physical exercise in general. However, recent studies have validated the healing power of yoga, bringing a new trend of yoga being incorporated into cancer centers across the US, including Memorial Sloan-Kettering, MD Anderson, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and many others. Yoga classes are typically held in small groups designed to address the specific needs and limitations of the participants.
The general health benefits yoga provides are numerous, though stress reduction is clearly one of the most significant for cancer patients. Stress factors for cancer victims typically includes fear of death, living with pain, having to deal with medical expenses, doctors, chemotherapy, and the list goes on. This daily stress can exacerbate the growth of tumors and make recovery difficult or impossible. Because yoga effectively reduces stress hormone levels (cortisol and cytokine), it can be very helpful in the healing and recovery process.
Improved immune system response is another key area where yoga benefits cancer victims. By increasing circulation to vital organs and tissues of the body, yoga improves both cell nourishment and waste disposal. Together with stress reduction, this can improve immune system performance a great deal.
Yoga may also benefit many cancer patients by helping to eliminate insomnia, obesity, poor digestion, constipation, loss of appetite, weakness,
fatigue, shortness of breath, and even anxiety and depression. A medical article titled, "Yoga for Cancer Patients and Survivors", by Julienne E. Bower PhD, Beth Sternlieb, Deborah Garet, MPH, and Alison Woolery, MA, states: “Nine studies conducted with cancer patients and survivors yielded modest improvements in sleep quality, mood, stress, cancer-related distress, cancer-related symptoms, and overall quality of life.”
Regarding specific postures, or "asanas", it's very important for a yoga teacher to consider the specific condition of the patient, and adjust any
routine accordingly. Kripalu yoga is often recommended specifically for cancer patients because of how gentle it is on the joints and bones. A few
gentle poses specifically recommended for many cancer victims are the cat/cow pose, supta baddha konasana, and savasana. In cases of extreme fragility, meditation may be a better option, yielding many of the same benefits as a more physically demanding yoga routine.
Correct breathing, and specific breathing techniques (known as "pranayama") are vitally important to any yoga practice. Many illnesses are caused or exacerbated by incorrect breathing. Slow, deep, yogic breathing techniques increases lung capacity and oxygen absorption, as well as helps calm the mind and reduce anxiety.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that cancer patients have made significant improvements using various types of yoga. Different levels of improvement are achieved depending on the type of cancer, what stage it is at, and the starting point at which the patient begins practicing yoga therapy.