Yoga is being used in countries around the world to help cancer survivors manage stress and improve their health.
Yoga has long been thought to help cancer survivors manage the stress that comes with their diagnosis. Recent studies have proven yoga can improve quality of life and lead to positive physiological changes. Experts are now working on creating yoga programs specifically for people who have or have had cancer.
The Wall Street Journal and International Journal of Yoga Therapists are among the many publications that have reported on the latest findings showing how yoga can benefit cancer survivors. Most notable is the finding that yoga can address the physical aspects of healing, as well as mental, social and spiritual healing.
What Research Tells Us About the Benefits of Yoga
Although yoga has been practiced in the east for centuries, it has taken years for the U.S. medical community to recognize yoga as a beneficial complementary wellness activity. To be fair, doctors were waiting on hard scientific research that demonstrated yoga could help patients.
Early yoga studies reported ‘soft’ scientific findings from self-reported questionnaires. Patients participated in yoga and were then asked how they felt about their lives. The vast majority reported improvements in their quality of life, including sleep, fatigue, social connectedness and depression.
Ohio State University professor Janice Kiecolt-Glaser was the lead researcher on one of the largest clinical cancer-related yoga studies ever conducted. She and her team analyzed 200 breast cancer survivors who had never participated in yoga. Half of the group was randomly selected to practice yoga for 12 weeks, while the other half continued with their normal routines.
Self-reporting revealed the group that practiced yoga reported less fatigue and higher levels of vitality. Researchers also measured three cytokines, proteins in the blood that are inflammation markers. All three cytokines had decreased by 10-15% in the three-month trial period for the participants that performed yoga.
The Stress Factor for Cancer Survivors
Solid research has been coming out on a number of complementary therapies, with yoga being the focus. Why? Because yoga has been shown to be highly effective at reducing stress.
Stress is the common denominator for cancer survivors, especially those who experience reoccurrences or cancer that never fully goes away. The long-term, negative effects of stress on our bodies are well documented. It can cause a whole host of secondary problems, including:
- Heart problems
- Gut issues
- Weight gain or loss
Cortisol, a stress hormone, has also been known to worsen many diseases, including cancer. The resulting inflammation from stress can also increase the feeling of fatigue in cancer survivors who are undergoing treatment.
The path to physiological improvements through yoga may take some time, says Jean Di Carlo-Wagner, a 12-year colorectal cancer survivor and yoga therapist. “During my own recovery, I used yoga to slowly regain strength in my diaphragm and surrounding musculature, which took an entire year.”
Types of Yoga That Can Help Cancer Survivors the Most
Today, many cancers are being treated like chronic illnesses. People are living longer and are better able to manage remitting and relapsing cancer. Wellness activities and exercises, including yoga, are a part of long-term aftercare.
Yoga is one of the most powerful tools in gaining mastery over tense and inefficient breathing, which send “alarm” signals to our brains. “A growing body of research is pointing cancer survivors to yoga classes, which focus on relaxation, gentle movements and breathing to improve quality of life,” says Ms. Di Carlo-Wagner.
Ms. Di Carlo-Wagner has helped yoga instructors around the world create programs specifically designed for cancer survivors. She recommends cancer survivors use visualization skills along with yoga exercise to increase relaxation.
Anyone who’s new to the practice can try the following visualization yoga exercise:
- Put your feet on the ground, and take a moment to feel the bottom of your feet.
- Breathe into the bottom of your feet. Draw your attention to your breathing.
- Breathe into your whole body.
- Bring to mind shapes of clouds. See the clouds in your mind’s eye.
- Follow the clouds in your mind. See their shapes form and change. Notice the color of the sky and the clouds.
- Keep watching the show as you close your eyes and continue the focused breathing.