Hatha Yoga for Cancer Patients

Yoga originated in India over 5,000 years ago and is still practiced today as a relaxation method to align the mind and the body. It involves a series of poses that focuses on posture alignment, breathing exercises, as well as mediation to quiet the mind and achieve a higher level of awareness without distraction [i].

The practice has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, leading to improved health and wellbeing. Supporters also claim that yoga can have beneficial effects on blood pressure levels, heart rate, and improved quality of sleep [i]. With so many potential health benefits, it is no surprise that many people have started to consider yoga for cancer patients as a way to cope with symptoms and treatments and their side effects.


An intro to Hatha yoga

Hatha yoga is the most common form of yoga practiced in the United States. It combines moving the body into various poses (asansas), meditation (dhyana), and focused breathing (pranayama).  The combination of exercises works synergistically to strengthen the mind-body connection. There are additional subtypes of hatha yoga, some of the more popular ones include vinyasa, which involves sequential movement of postures to form a continuous flow, and bikram yoga, which consists of a series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises practiced in a room heated between 95-105 °F.

Yoga can be practiced individually at home and in private or group classes led by an instructor. Classes typically run for 45 minutes to 1 hour. An instructor helps guide students into poses and ensures correct form to prevent injury. They also assist students in developing strength, balance, and flexibility.


Yoga for cancer patients

There is growing interest in the benefits of yoga for patients actively undergoing and recovery from treatment for cancer. As part of a growing foundation of integrative medicine, many cancer centers offer different types of yoga as a complementary therapy to their treatments. Regular exercise is important to help strengthen the body and boost the immune system. Additionally, the deep breathing exercises help to deliver oxygen-rich blood to cells and relax the body. Practitioners claim that the union of mind and body can lead to a reduction in treatment related symptoms, improvement in physical fitness and quality of life [i][ii].

A number of clinical trials have been conducted on the effects of therapeutic yoga. Patients actively undergoing chemotherapy who received yoga breathing exercises (pranayama) during treatment reported improvements in sleep, anxiety, and mental quality of life. Yoga has also been shown to yield positive effects on cancer survivors. One study identified that breast cancer survivors with persistent cancer related fatigue (CRF) who completed 3 months of an Iyengar-based yoga intervention reported declines in severity of fatigue as well as reduction in depressive symptoms and perceived stress [iii][iv].


Risks of yoga

Although yoga has been beneficial for patients undergoing treatment, it may not be appropriate for everyone. It is important to note that some of the positions may be difficult to attain and put added pressure on joints and muscles. As a result, poses may need to be modified to meet individual needs [i].

It is important that all patients consult their oncologist or healthcare provider before starting or undergoing any complementary therapy.


[i] http://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/herb/yoga. Accessed December 15, 2014.
[ii] Cassileth BR. The Complete Guide to Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care. World Scientific Publishing Co., USA, 2011.
[iii] Bower JE, Garet D, Sternlieb B, Ganz PA, Irwin MR, Olmstead R, Greendale G. Yoga for persistent fatigue in breast cancer survivors: A randomized controlled trial. Cancer. 2012;118(15): 3766-3775.
[iv] Dhruva A, Miaskowski C, Abrams D, Acree M, Cooper B, Goodman S, Hecht FM. Yoga breathing for cancer chemotherapy–associated symptoms and quality of Life: Results of a pilot randomized controlled trial. Altern Complement Med. 2012;18(5):473-9.

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