Research Sheds Light on Yoga Benefits

A variety of research studies have verified yoga can be used as a complimentary therapy to boost mood, reduce fatigue and improve sleep.

Many cancer survivors can identify with Meghan Kearney. “During all my surgeries and treatment, I felt like my body was not my own,” she says. Two years after diagnosis, she was still feeling the effects of her treatments. “I was still in pain from my surgeries, and the rest of my body was very tight from all the stress.”

Like so many others, Meghan turned to yoga for relief. Yoga, which commonly involves synchronizing various postures and breathing methods in conjunction with meditation, is thought to release tension and increase a calm state of mind.

Anecdotal evidence has long supported yoga’s ability to improve quality of life, but until recently, there was very little factual evidence.

There’s a good chance you know at least one or two people who have tried yoga. The National Institutes of Health reports the number of people practicing this complimentary therapy has nearly doubled since 2002. Today, nearly 10 percent of adults practice yoga.

Yoga has become so prevalent that it’s now widely accepted as a complementary therapy for cancer patients. And new studies on the specific benefits of yoga are helping to convince more people that it’s worth trying.  

Yoga Can Significantly Reduce Fatigue and Improve Sleep

At the 2010 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting, researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center presented the results of a four-week yoga program, created specifically for cancer survivors. The results clearly indicated yoga has the ability to reduce fatigue and improve sleep in cancer survivors. 

Karen Mustian, PhD, is an exercise psychologist specializing in cancer. She’s also an Assistant Professor of the Cancer Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center who oversaw the yoga study.

“Because many cancer survivors still have unresolved fatigue after treatment, we wanted to see if yoga could help reduce that quality-of-life issue,” says Dr. Mustian. Each week, the 410 study participants joined two 75-minute sessions of YOCAS (Yoga for Cancer Survivors), which was developed by Dr. Mustian and her team. This program included breathing exercises, gentle Hatha and restorative yoga postures and mindfulness exercises. Dr. Mustian says many of the poses created were modified from traditional yoga, including the use of bolsters and pillows as well as doing postures standing, seated or lying down.

At the end of the four weeks, 22 percent of participants had improved sleep compared with 12 percent in a control group that did not participate in yoga. But the largest improvement was in the reduction of fatigue. Yoga participants showed a 42 percent reduction in their fatigue symptoms, while those who did not participate had only a 12 percent reduction in fatigue.

Yoga Can Improve Quality of Life

While Dr. Mustian’s study focused on fatigue and sleep issues, other yoga studies have examined emotional quality of life issues. In a 2007 study, doctors at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y. worked with a group of underserved breast cancer patients and survivors to determine if yoga would improve their quality of life.

Around half of the participants were in treatment during the study, which included chemotherapy, radiation or hormonal therapy. The 128 participants were divided into two groups: one group was assigned to a yoga class once a week for the 12 weeks of the study, and the remaining participants were put on a wait list for the classes.

Chirag Shah, MD, a certified yoga instructor and oncologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, modified yoga positions to meet the needs of the participants. The program included physical stretches and poses, breathing exercises and meditation. All exercises were performed in a seated or reclining position with blocks, mats and blankets used for support.

In the group that participated in the yoga classes, 13 percent showed improvements in quality-of-life issues, such as mood and emotional wellbeing, versus only two percent in the wait-listed participants. The wait-list group also showed a 13 percent decrease in social wellbeing while the patients in the yoga classes had a decrease of just two percent. 

Yoga Can Boost Your Mood

How and why yoga improves mood is yet to be determined. But a 12-week study conducted by Chris C. Streeter, MD, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, provided some interesting clues. Dr. Streeter randomized 34 healthy adults to either a 60-minute yoga session or a 60-minute walking program that was held three times a week.

Before the participants engaged in yoga or walking, their level of brain neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) was measured using MRI technology. “We know that in people who are depressed, GABA is low,” says Dr. Streeter.

After completing the yoga or walking program, participants were tested again. Dr. Streeter found the GABA levels of those who took part in yoga increased while the walkers’ levels did not. He was quick to point out this research was not to determine which activity was better but to examine activities with similar metabolic demands.

Dr. Streeter noted it was, “...highly significant that those who did yoga felt better. They were less anxious and their mood went up.” He says the results indicate a behavioral intervention such as yoga, which is associated with chemical changes and better mood, should be used as a complementary therapy to help people feel better.

“This is a hard-core measurement to [support] what people have been saying for years,” Dr. Streeter says. “The science is catching up with the practice.” 


This material is furnished for informational purposes and is for your personal use only. It is not intended as a substitute for the expertise, judgment and specific advice of your doctor. Based on your condition and treatment plan, you may have different medical needs. Please talk to your doctor before making changes to your care plan.

Bending the Rules. Adapted Excerpt March 3, 2011, from