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.
Many different types of studies indicate that yoga can reduce anxiety.
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.
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.
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.
Several studies support use of yoga to reduce stress.
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.
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).