Common Names

  • Yoga

For Patients & Caregivers

Tell your healthcare providers about any dietary supplements you’re taking, such as herbs, vitamins, minerals, and natural or home remedies. This will help them manage your care and keep you safe.

What Is It

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.

How It Works

Studies have shown that yoga can be helpful for patients with irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, diabetes, migraine headaches, depression, and anxiety. It is also practiced for weight maintenance. Cancer survivors including those recently diagnosed reported better sleep, less stress, and improved mood and quality of life with the practice of yoga. Among less active cancer survivors, a restorative yoga practice may be easier to maintain, and also have benefits. Regular practice also increases benefits.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO) recommend yoga for anxiety, stress reduction, depression, mood disturbance, and improved quality of life in cancer patients.

Purported Uses
  • Anxiety
    Many clinical studies indicate that yoga can reduce anxiety.
  • Depression
    Some studies have linked yoga to reduced depression and positive mood.
  • Breathing difficulty
    Small studies show that yoga may help problems such as shortness of breath and anxiety in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer. More research is needed.
  • Fatigue
    Many studies indicate that yoga can help reduce fatigue in both cancer patients and 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 for reducing stress.
Special Point

Cancer patients interested in beginning yoga should first ask their physician, because certain cancer treatments can cause physical limitations.

Is It Safe
  • Side effects from yoga are rare. However, blood clots, nerve damage, torn ligaments and difficulty breathing have been reported.
  • Musculoskeletal effects including osteoarthritis, chronic back, neck or shoulder pain, tendon shortening or sciatica were associated with hand-, shoulder- and head stands; and following yoga self-study without supervision.
  • Pregnant women and individuals with hypertension or glaucoma should use caution when practicing certain yoga postures.
Who Can Provide this Service

Certified instructors who have experience working with cancer patients.

Where Can I Get Treatment

Yoga classes are offered at hospitals, major cancer clinics, and at community centers. MSK offers yoga courses for our patients and caregivers, and as part of a new online program, Integrative Medicine at Home, to help support the recovery and well-being of cancer patients everywhere.

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For Healthcare Professionals

Clinical Summary

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 helpful in reducing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome (3), irritable bowel syndrome (4), asthma (5), and drug-resistant epilepsy (6). It also has shown benefit for weight maintenance (7), diabetes (8), migraines (9), low back pain (10) (48), depression (11) (12) (49), and anxiety (4) (11) (13) (14) (15) (16). In a randomized preference trial, yoga was similar to cognitive-behavioral therapy for reducing late-life worry and anxiety, and no preference or selection effects were found (61) (62). Long-term yoga practice was reported to have beneficial effects on inflammation in adults with metabolic syndrome and high-normal blood pressure (50). Other evaluations suggest yoga is beneficial in those with arthritis (46) and post-traumatic stress disorder (14) (17) (18) (47). Yoga may improve symptoms and quality of life in patients with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (16); and as an adjunct to pulmonary rehabilitation, contributes 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).

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) (52) and Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO) (53) recommend yoga for anxiety, stress reduction, depression, mood disturbance, and improved quality of life in cancer patients. It is widely available in many cancer centers across the country, and patients now use this modality at all disease stages to relieve various symptoms (20) (21) (22) (55). 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). Yoga practice during chemotherapy resulted in modest short-term benefits in sleep quality, with long-term benefits emerging over time (51). It was also reported to reduce fatigue in patients with different types of cancer (56), as well as in cancer survivors (57). Furthermore, 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 reduced fatigue, joint pain, and 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 in lymphoma survivors (29). Among sedentary cancer survivors, patient adherence was greater with restorative yoga compared with vigorous yoga (54).

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 physician. 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, or radiotherapy.

MSK offers yoga courses for our patients and caregivers, and as part of a new online program, Integrative Medicine at Home, to help support the recovery and well-being of cancer patients everywhere.

Purported Uses
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Fatigue
  • Hot flashes
  • Pain
  • PTSD
  • Sleep
  • Stress
Mechanism of Action

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 meditative 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 levels (36). Yoga relieves stress and anxiety by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (13) and improving hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal 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.
  • Cancer patients interested in beginning yoga should first consult their physician. Because of limitations due to surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, it is also advisable to learn the proper technique from certified instructors who have experience working with cancer patients.
Adverse Reactions
  • Rare, due to improper practice: Hematoma (12) (37) (58), nerve damage (38), aggravation of glaucoma (39) (40), embolism (41), ligament rupture (42), spontaneous pneumothorax (43) (44) and bilateral ulnar artery thrombosis (59).
  • Musculoskeletal effects including osteoarthritis, chronic back, neck or shoulder pain, tendon shortening or sciatica were associated with hand-, shoulder- and head stands; and following yoga self-study without supervision (60).
Practitioners and Treatments

Yoga classes are offered at hospitals, cancer clinics, and community centers. MSK offers yoga courses for our patients and caregivers, and as part of a new online program, Integrative Medicine at Home, to help support the recovery and well-being of cancer patients everywhere.

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  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.
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  30. 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.
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  34. Chandwani KD, Perkins G, Nagendra HR, et al. Randomized, Controlled Trial of Yoga in Women With Breast Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy. J Clin Oncol. 2014;32(10):1058-65.
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  38. Choi Y, Lee D. A case of rectus sheath hematoma caused by yoga exercise. Am J Emerg Med. 2009;27(7):899 e891-892.
  39. 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.
  40. 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.
  41. 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.
  42. Reutter D, Hunziker R, Husmann M. Computed angiogram of the upper extremities for diagnosing a rare cause of brachial arterial embolism: the ’Pitcher Syndrome’. Eur Heart J. 2010;31(22):2782.
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  46. Moonaz SH, Bingham CO, Wissow L, et al. Yoga in Sedentary Adults with Arthritis: Effects of a Randomized Controlled Pragmatic Trial. J Rheumatol. 2015 Jul;42(7):1194-202.
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  50. Supriya R, Yu AP, Lee PH, et al. Yoga training modulates adipokines in adults with high-normal blood pressure and metabolic syndrome. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2018 Mar;28(3):1130-1138.
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