Yoga

Yoga

Yoga

Common Names

  • Yoga

For Patients & Caregivers

Yoga improves quality of life in both newly diagnosed and long-term cancer survivors by reducing stress and fatigue, and improving sleep and mood.

Yoga is an ancient Indian philosophy that has been practiced for thousands of years. It involves regulated breathing, moving through various postures, and meditation to achieve physical and emotional health benefits. Yoga was shown to reduce symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, seizures, diabetes, migraine headaches, depression, and anxiety. It is also practiced for weight maintenance. Cancer survivors including those recently diagnosed report better sleep, less stress, and improved quality of life with the practice of yoga. It is now offered in many cancer hospitals around the country.

Cancer patients interested in beginning yoga should first ask their physicians, because certain cancer treatments can cause physical limitations. It is also important that proper techniques are learned from certified instructors who have experience working with cancer patients.

  • Anxiety
    Many different types of studies indicate that yoga can reduce anxiety.
  • Depression
    Some studies have linked yoga to reduced depression and more positive mood.
  • Breathing difficulty
    Small studies show that yoga may help problems such as shortness of breath and anxiety in COPD and lung cancer patients. More studies are needed.
  • Fatigue
    A study found that yoga can help reduce fatigue and improve vigor in breast cancer survivors.
  • Hot flashes
    Small studies show that yoga may be effective in cancer patients who have hot flashes and related symptoms.
  • Pain
    Yoga was shown in some studies to relieve pain.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
    Several yoga programs for survivors of war and natural disasters show it may be possible to use this practice in certain populations with post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Sleep quality and sleep medication use
    A large study of a specific yoga program showed improved sleep quality and less sleep medication use in cancer survivors with sleep problems.
  • Stress
    Several studies support use of yoga to reduce stress.

Pregnant women and individuals with hypertension or glaucoma should use caution when practicing certain yoga postures.

Side effects from yoga are rare. However, blood clots, nerve damage, torn ligaments and difficulty breathing have been reported.

If you are pregnant or have physical limitations, certain yoga techniques may not be advisable.

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For Healthcare Professionals

Yoga was first described in the Vedic texts of India and has been practiced over several centuries. It is an integral part of Ayurveda, the traditional healing system that originated in India. Major components of yoga include regulated breathing (pranayama), moving through various postures (asansas), meditation (dhyana), and optimal coping principles (swadhyaya) (1) to cultivate physical and emotional health, and spiritual growth,  with self-realization as a core intention. Many styles of yoga encompass some or all of these components. In the United States, most practices focus on postures, meditation, and breath control (2).

Yoga is effective in reducing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome (3), irritable bowel syndrome (4), asthma (5), and drug-resistant epilepsy (6). It is also helpful for weight maintenance (7), diabetes (8), migraines (9), low back pain (10), depression (11)(12) and anxiety (4)(11)(13)(14)(15)(16). Preliminary evaluations suggest yoga is feasible and beneficial in populations with post-traumatic stress disorder (14)(17)(18). Yoga may improve symptoms and quality of life in patients with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (16) and as an adjunct to pulmonary rehabilitation, contribute to improvements in dyspnea for COPD patients (1). For adolescents and young adults with difficult disease states, clinicians have also noted that yoga can return a sense of control to one’s experience (4)(19).

With the introduction of yoga in many cancer centers across the country, patients now use this modality at all disease stages to relieve various symptoms (20)(21)(22). The ability of yoga to reduce stress, increase sense of well-being, improve quality of life, and impart more restful sleep in both newly diagnosed and long-term cancer survivors is well documented (2)(23)(24)(25)(26)(27)(28) with the potential for reduced need for sleep medications (28)(29). Studies in breast cancer survivors indicate that yoga improves social functioning and mood, reduces stress levels (30)(31), and can help to address a range of psychological symptoms (32). In survivors with persistent fatigue and induced or exacerbated menopausal symptoms, yoga has also reduced fatigue, joint pain and the number of hot flashes while increasing vigor, with benefits persisting at 3-month follow-up (22)(33). Yoga can improve quality of life in breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy (34). Preliminary studies in other cancers have also shown that yoga can increase forced expiratory volume in non-small cell lung cancer patients (35) and improve sleep quality for lymphoma survivors (29).

Adverse effects associated with improper yoga practices have been reported. However, appropriate and long-term yoga practices to relieve symptoms can have additional downstream benefits, such as genetic and physiologic changes (35), as well as the ability to adhere to exercise programs or make other lifestyle changes (1). Cancer patients interested in beginning yoga should first consult their physicians. In addition, it is advisable to learn proper technique from certified instructors who have experience working with cancer patients, because survivors may have special limitations due to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dyspnea
  • Fatigue
  • Hot flashes
  • Improve sleep quality
  • Increase flexibility and strength
  • Pain
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Reduce need for sleep medications
  • Stress

Because components of yoga practice include postural alignment and engagement of the extremities, yoga raises somatic self-awareness, educating the user of states in which the body experiences balance and calm, and identifying symptoms that may be problematic (3). The engagement of the mind, attention to comfort, and deep relaxed abdominal breathing reduces gastrointestinal symptoms by disrupting chronic patterns of functional disability and maladaptive coping strategies often experienced with irritable bowel syndrome (4).

Some studies have shown that the meditation component of yoga increases blood flow to the brain, releases endogenous dopamine, and reduces respiratory rate (6). The changes in breathing patterns that accompany various yoga practices may also alter airway hyper-responsiveness (5). Yoga postures and controlled breathing interact with both the somatic nervous system and endocrine mechanisms, thereby affecting insulin kinetics (8). Neuroplastic mechanisms for its antidepressant effects include elevated serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels (36). Yoga relieves stress and anxiety by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA) (13) and improving hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis functioning (25). Improvements in fatigue, sleep disturbance, anxiety, and quality of life are also attributed to increased parasympathetic and decreased sympathetic activities, stimulation of the vagus nerve, and reduction in allostatic load which optimizes homeostasis in stress response systems (14), thereby replacing the flight-or-fight response with the relaxation response (19). By eliciting the relaxation response, long-term practice has been shown to promote mitochondrial resiliency via ATPase and insulin function upregulation and downregulation of NF-kB-dependent pathways (35).

Pregnant women and individuals with hypertension or glaucoma should use caution when practicing certain yoga postures.

Rare, due to improper practice: hematoma (12)(37) , nerve damage (38), aggravation of glaucoma (39)(40), embolism (41), ligament rupture (42), and spontaneous pneumothorax (43)(44).


  1. Norweg A, Collins EG. Evidence for cognitive-behavioral strategies improving dyspnea and related distress in COPD. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2013;8:439-451.

  2. Bower JE, Woolery A, Sternlieb B, et al. Yoga for cancer patients and survivors. Cancer Control. 2005;12(3):165-171.

  3. Garfinkel MS, Singhal A, Katz WA, et al. Yoga-based intervention for carpal tunnel syndrome: a randomized trial. JAMA. 1998;280(18):1601-1603.

  4. Kuttner L, Chambers CT, Hardial J, et al. A randomized trial of yoga for adolescents with irritable bowel syndrome. Pain Res Manag. 2006;11(4):217-223.

  5. Manocha R, Marks GB, Kenchington P, et al. Sahaja yoga in the management of moderate to severe asthma: a randomised controlled trial. Thorax. 2002;57(2):110-115.

  6. Rajesh B, Jayachandran D, Mohandas G, et al. A pilot study of a yoga meditation protocol for patients with medically refractory epilepsy. J Altern Complement Med. 2006;12(4):367-371.

  7. Kristal AR, Littman AJ, Benitez D, et al. Yoga practice is associated with attenuated weight gain in healthy, middle-aged men and women. Altern Ther Health Med. 2005;11(4):28-33.

  8. Malhotra V, Singh S, Tandon OP, et al. The beneficial effect of yoga in diabetes. Nepal Med Coll J. 2005;7(2):145-147.

  9. John PJ, Sharma N, Sharma CM, et al. Effectiveness of yoga therapy in the treatment of migraine without aura: a randomized controlled trial. Headache. 2007;47(5):654-661.

  10. Posadzki P, Ernst E. Yoga for low back pain: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Clin Rheumatol. 2011;30(9):1257-1262.

  11. Cramer H, Lauche R, Langhorst J, et al. Yoga for depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Depress Anxiety. 2013;30(11):1068-1083.

  12. Streeter CC, Jensen JE, Perlmutter RM, et al. Yoga Asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: a pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2007;13(4):419-426.

  13. Cabral P, Meyer HB, Ames D. Effectiveness of yoga therapy as a complementary treatment for major psychiatric disorders: a meta-analysis. Prim Care Companion CNS Disord. 2011;13(4).

  14. Staples JK, Hamilton MF, Uddo M. A yoga program for the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. Mil Med. 2013;178(8):854-860.

  15. Williams-Orlando C. Yoga therapy for anxiety: a case report. Adv Mind Body Med. 2013;27(4):18-21.

  16. Carson JW, Carson KM, Porter LS, et al. Yoga for women with metastatic breast cancer: results from a pilot study. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2007;33(3):331-341.

  17. Carson JW, Carson KM, Porter LS, et al. Yoga of Awareness program for menopausal symptoms in breast cancer survivors: results from a randomized trial. Support Care Cancer. 2009;17(10):1301-1309.

  18. Rosenbaum E, Gautier H, Fobair P, et al. Cancer supportive care, improving the quality of life for cancer patients. A program evaluation report. Support Care Cancer. 2004;12(5):293-301.

  19. Mustian KM, Sprod LK, Janelsins M, et al. Multicenter, randomized controlled trial of yoga for sleep quality among cancer survivors. J Clin Oncol. 10 2013;31(26):3233-3241.

  20. Moadel AB, Shah C, Wylie-Rosett J, et al. Randomized controlled trial of yoga among a multiethnic sample of breast cancer patients: effects on quality of life. J Clin Oncol. 2007;25(28):4387-4395.

  21. Culos-Reed SN, Carlson LE, Daroux LM, et al. A pilot study of yoga for breast cancer survivors: physical and psychological benefits. Psychooncology. 2006;15(10):891-897.

  22. Bower JE, Garet D, Sternlieb B, et al. Yoga for persistent fatigue in breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial. Cancer. 2012;118(15):3766-3775.

  23. Chandwani KD, Perkins G, Nagendra HR, et al. Randomized, Controlled Trial of Yoga in Women With Breast Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy. J Clin Oncol. 2014.

  24. Naveen GH, Thirthalli J, Rao MG, et al. Positive therapeutic and neurotropic effects of yoga in depression: A comparative study. Indian J Psychiatry. 2013;55(Suppl 3):S400-404.

  25. Choi Y, Lee D. A case of rectus sheath hematoma caused by yoga exercise. Am J Emerg Med. 2009;27(7):899 e891-892.

  26. de Barros DS, Bazzaz S, Gheith ME, et al. Progressive optic neuropathy in congenital glaucoma associated with the Sirsasana yoga posture. Ophthalmic Surg Lasers Imaging. 2008;39(4):339-340.

  27. Gallardo MJ, Aggarwal N, Cavanagh HD, et al. Progression of glaucoma associated with the Sirsasana (headstand) yoga posture. Adv Ther. 2006;23(6):921-925.

  28. Bertschinger DR, Mendrinos E, Dosso A. Yoga can be dangerous—glaucomatous visual field defect worsening due to postural yoga. Br J Ophthalmol. 2007;91(10):1413-1414.

  29. Patel SC, Parker DA. Isolated rupture of the lateral collateral ligament during yoga practice: a case report. J Orthop Surg (Hong Kong). Dec 2008;16(3):378-380.

  30. Kashyap AS, Anand KP, Kashyap S. Complications of yoga. Emerg Med J. 2007;24(3):231.

  31. Johnson DB, Tierney MJ, Sadighi PJ. Kapalabhati pranayama: breath of fire or cause of pneumothorax? A case report. Chest. May 2004;125(5):1951-1952.

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