Purported Benefits, Side Effects & More


Purported Benefits, Side Effects & More

Common Names

  • Hatha
  • Vinyasa
  • Restorative yoga
  • Yin yoga
  • Many other forms

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?

Studies show that yoga can help patients with many types of chronic conditions. Cancer survivors report reduced fatigue, better sleep, less stress, and improved strength, mood, and quality of life.

Among less active cancer survivors, restorative yoga may be easier and also have benefits. Regular practice also increases benefits.

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

What are the potential uses and benefits?
  • Anxiety
    Many clinical studies indicate that yoga can reduce anxiety.
  • Depression
    Studies link yoga practice to reduced depression and positive mood.
  • Breathing difficulty
    Yoga may help shortness of breath and anxiety in patients with COPD and lung cancer.
  • Fatigue
    Several studies show yoga can reduce fatigue in cancer patients.
  • Hot flashes
    Yoga may help cancer patients with hot flashes and related symptoms.
  • Pain
    Yoga can help reduce pain and inflammation.
  • PTSD
    Several programs show it is possible to use yoga in certain populations with post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Sleep quality and sleep medication use
    A large study suggests improved sleep quality and less sleep medication use in cancer survivors with sleep problems.
  • Stress
    Several studies support use of yoga for reducing stress.
What else do I need to know?

What Is It:

Yoga is an ancient practice that uses breathing exercises, moving through specific postures, focused awareness, and meditation to achieve physical and emotional health benefits.

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, but may occur from inappropriate regimens or practicing without supervision.
  • Cancer survivors may have additional limitations due to surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy. That’s why MSK offers yoga workshops and our Integrative Medicine at Home program. Both help patients learn proper techniques and modifications with certified instructors who have experience working with cancer patients.
  • 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 workshops for patients and caregivers, and as part of our online program, Integrative Medicine at Home, to support recovery and well-being of cancer patients everywhere.

For Healthcare Professionals

Clinical Summary

Yoga is an ancient practice integral to Ayurveda, the traditional healing system in India.

Key components include regulated breathing (pranayama), moving through postures (asansas), meditation (dhyana), and optimal coping principles (swadhyaya) to cultivate physical and emotional health, and spiritual growth.

Yoga can help reduce

  • Anxiety, stress
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Inflammation

It can also help improve

  • Strength
  • Posture
  • Breathing
  • Sleep
  • Immune function

Cancer survivors may have special limitations due to surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy. That’s why MSK offers yoga workshops and our Integrative Medicine at Home program. Both help patients learn proper techniques and modifications with certified instructors who have experience working with cancer patients.

Yoga for chronic health conditions
In various patient-groups, yoga can help improve breathing (1) (5), inflammation (46) (50), pain (9) (10) (48), and blood pressure (16) (50). It may also help with weight maintenance (7), but time commitment was a barrier in both obese patients (63) and sedentary cancer survivors (54).

Benefits for psychological conditions
Studies of yoga for depression (11) (12) (49), anxiety (4) (11) (13) (14) (15) (16) (61) (62), and post-traumatic stress disorder (14) (17) (18) (47) have shown benefit. Yoga practice may also return a sense of control to one’s experience (4) (19).

Improved symptoms in cancer patients
The ability of yoga to reduce stress and distress (30) (31) (32), increase well-being and quality of life (34), and impart more restful sleep in both newly diagnosed and long-term cancer survivors is well documented (2) (23) (24) (25) (26) (27) (28) (29) (51) (64), with potential for reduced sleep medications (28) (29). It also reduced fatigue (56) (57) (64) and climacteric symptoms (22) (33).

Pilot studies also indicate yoga can promote an immune response, reduce inflammation (65), and improve neuropathy symptoms including objective measures like functional reach which is used to predict fall risk (66).

Oncology guidelines recommend yoga
The American Society of Clinical Oncology and Society of Integrative Oncology (ASCO and SIO) recommend yoga for anxiety, stress reduction, depression, mood disturbance, fatigue and improved quality of life in cancer patients (52) (53) (67) (68).

Cancer survivors may have special limitations due to surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy. Consulting their treatment team for appropriate referrals can guide patients to certified yoga instructors with cancer patient experience to learn proper techniques and modifications.

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

Purported Uses and Benefits
  • 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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