Should Cancer Survivors Practice Yoga?

Should Cancer Survivors Practice Yoga?

by Po-Ju Lin, PhD, MPH, RD, and Karen M. Mustian, PhD, MPH

Yoga is a mind-body therapy that typically involves three components: physical alignment poses (called asanas), breathing techniques (called pranayamas), and mindful exercise (called meditation). The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means “to yoke” or join together. In essence, yoga is a practice that joins the mind and the body.

A growing body of research suggests that yoga may be useful in treating certain toxicities associated with cancer and its treatment. These include sleep disruption, cancer-related fatigue, cognitive impairment, psychological distress, musculoskeletal pain, and physical discomfort. These toxicities can reduce cancer survivor’s ability to complete treatments, limit participation in essential life activities, and lower survivors’ quality of life. Therefore, it’s important for researchers to find more effective ways of treating them.  

There are many distinctive styles and types of yoga. Restorative, Integral, and Svaroopa yoga programs focus on very gentle, low-intensity, meditative practices, while Ashtanga and Power yoga focus on moderate to vigorous practices. Hatha, Iyengar, and Kundalini yoga combine moderate-intensity yoga with meditation. Some yoga programs are performed in heated environments (like Bikram), and some use props (like blankets, blocks, and bolsters) to modify poses. You can attend group yoga classes at a gym, studio, or community center, or you can take part in a self-directed practice using online videos and DVDs.

Most people with cancer can safely participate in low- to moderate-intensity yoga.

Scientific evidence comparing types of yoga, their efficacy, and their safety for treating cancer-related toxicities is very limited. In addition, a lack of regulation and the wide variability of yoga formats raises the possibility that cancer survivors may spend time, money, and energy participating in yoga programs that may not be safe, effective, or useful for their specific needs. However, despite these limitations, current studies do support the benefits of yoga in managing insomnia, fatigue, memory loss, psychological distress, and musculoskeletal symptoms in cancer survivors. 

Most people with cancer can safely participate in low-to moderate-intensity yoga that incorporates gentle Hatha, Restorative, and Iyengar postures, breathing, and meditation exercises while they receive chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and after the completion of treatment. However, it’s important to discuss any potential contraindications (for example, bone or joint problems, limited range of motion, balance difficulties, or impaired cardiopulmonary function) with your healthcare provider before beginning a yoga practice. Some medical issues may affect the safety of certain yoga practices, or you may need to make modifications to some yoga postures or poses to meet your functional abilities. Your healthcare provider or community network can help connect you with qualified yoga instructors who have experience working with cancer survivors or other groups with chronic diseases.

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So, back to the question: Should cancer survivors practice yoga? The answer is yes, you should give yoga a try. While more large-scale studies are still needed to provide specific guidelines for types, frequency, intensity, doses, and delivery methods of yoga programs for treating cancer-related toxicities, current research suggests that yoga is a promising treatment option. And, though yoga may not remedy every cancer-related side effect, most cancer survivors will see health benefits – both physical and mental – from participating in a low- to moderate-intensity gentle yoga program. 

Dr. Po-Ju Lin

Dr. Po-Ju Lin (left) is a postdoctoral associate in the PEAK Human Performance Clinical Research Core Laboratory at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, NY. She is also a registered dietitian and an ACSM-certified clinical exercise physiologist. She works with Dr. Karen Mustian on nationwide, multi-center exercise and yoga clinical trials at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Dr. Karen Mustian

Dr. Karen Mustian (right) is a professor in the Department of Surgery, director of the PEAK Human Performance Clinical Research Core Laboratory, codirector of the University of Rochester Cancer Center NCI Community Oncology Research Program Research Base, and codirector of the Wilmot Cancer Institute Cancer Control and Survivorship Research Program at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2018.