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Yoga Therapy for Cancer Survivors

by Michelle Stortz

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Yoga has been a rich healing art in India for centuries. More recently, yoga has become the subject of increasing attention from the American medical community, as clinical research studies evaluate and confirm its many benefits. For cancer survivors, yoga can be especially help­ful in managing the side effects of treatment, as well as some of the more difficult emotional aspects of cancer.

Our Western society sometimes mistakenly views yoga as limited to stretching and practicing difficult poses. However, this ancient art is a combina­tion of practices, including physical postures, breathing techniques, medita­tion, and deep relaxation. Each of these practices offers physiological benefits, which in turn support optimal condi­tions for recovery.

Here’s a simple yoga movement that is good for increasing lung function and circulation: Inhale as you raise your arms as high as they will comfortably go, and then exhale as you lower them.

Author of Article photo

Michelle Stortz

Yogic postures and movements can induce many physiological changes in the body, by combating in­flammation; supporting the immune system; helping with lymph fluid drainage, thus reducing the incidence and severity of lymphedema; and reducing side effects like anxiety and sleep disorders, which may improve chemotherapy response. For example, here’s a simple yoga move­ment that is good for increasing lung function and circulation: Inhale as you raise your arms as high as they will comfortably go, and then exhale as you lower them. Repeat this several times, allowing the movement to last for the duration of the breath. Do not push your arms higher than they will comfortably go.

Yogic breathing techniques can help the body cope with stress and help calm the nervous system. Slow, deep breathing increases oxygen in the blood, allowing the cells to produce energy more efficiently. Deep breathing prac­tices also help reduce fatigue and calm and strengthen the nervous system. In addition, the active exhalation used in these techniques can help alkalize the pH level of the blood, as slow, deep exhalations release more carbon diox­ide, the byproduct of breathing, which is actually toxic to the body.

A simple and effective breathing technique is diaphragmatic breathing. To do this, let your belly expand as you inhale, and let it soften as you exhale. On the exhalation, you can use your abdominal muscles to pull the belly in toward the spine. Then, on your next inhalation, you will feel much more diaphragmatic expansion.

Meditation is also an effective tool for reducing stress. Deep relaxation (sivasana and yoga nidra) helps the body repair and restore, as the body enters a hypometabolic state, which allows energy resources to focus on restorative activities, such as repairing tissue and improving cognitive function.

Research shows that there may be a link between psychological stress and immune dysfunction. Yoga helps relieve stress by calming the sympathetic ner­vous system while also engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls the “fight or flight” response. It sends adrenaline and cortisol through the body, which in turn diverts blood to the arms and legs and away from the organs at the core of the body, thereby interfering with their ability to function well. Prolonged stress and continuous exposure to these stress hormones puts you at risk for numerous health issues, including sleep difficulties, digestive problems, and depression. By calming the sympathetic nervous system, yoga helps combat these side effects.

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, tells the body that everything is OK, that it can relax. It returns the blood to the organs so they can operate efficiently. Because yoga stimulates the parasympathetic ner­vous system, many people describe feeling calm, peaceful, and blissful after completing a yoga session.

Yoga not only is an excellent tool in relieving stress, but it also provides an opportunity for you to deepen your understanding of your body while offering numerous physical and emotional benefits. Through yoga practices, you may come to under­stand the value of movement, breath, meditation, and deep relaxation.

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Michelle Stortz has been specially trained to teach yoga to people with cancer through the YCaT program ( di­rected by Jnani Chapman, RN. Michelle facilitates several programs at cancer centers and hospitals in the Philadelphia area and is also a massage therapist and a practitioner of mindfulness meditation. She has been practicing yoga for 17 years and has been teaching group and private classes for 8 years.

When choosing a yoga class, keep in mind that the teacher should be specially trained to work with cancer survivors. The movement curricula should be adapted to accommodate survivors’ needs and conditions. Many teach­ers are willing to offer private, in-home sessions upon request. Always speak with your doctor before starting a yoga practice.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2013.