In 2015, it’s estimated that more than 1.6 million people were diagnosed with cancer in the United States alone. They will undergo painful treatment regimens, stress, and emotional trauma.
Therapeutic activities like yoga can complement cancer-fighting medical treatment to help heal the body, mind, and spirit in the midst of the cancer battle.
“Several studies have demonstrated that yoga can combat fatigue and improve strength and range of motion for patients undergoing cancer treatment,” says Dr. Maggie DiNome of the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California.
So, what are the benefits of yoga in cancer patients, and how can you get started?
1. Lower Fatigue
Several studies have linked yoga with reduced fatigue in cancer patients. Several studies have reported a significant decrease in fatigue through the use of yoga, and three studies showed that patients’ fatigue decreased the more yoga sessions they did per week.
2. Reduce Stress
Battling a life-threatening disease is physically, emotionally, and mentally stressful. Yoga may be able to help with this aspect of cancer as well. One study found that practicing a seven-week yoga routine was able to reduce the likelihood of developing “mood disturbance” by up to 65 percent. Other research has found that the reduction in stress also improves quality of life, appetite, and could be responsible for reduction in pain.
3. Improve Physical Functioning
In addition to everything on your mind, cancer affects your ability to move. Spending time in the hospital or sick at home can make the body stiff and sore and make it more difficult to complete daily tasks. As a regular form of exercise, yoga is a gentle way to stay limber and active. A review of 16 trials found that regular yoga practice can improve functional well-being in both cancer patients and survivors.
4. Sleep Better
A combination of physical and mental stress can make sleep difficult, but healing the body requires ample rest. Yoga can help with insomnia and make it easier for cancer patients to relax at night. Some research has found yoga to be able to help improve sleep quality, efficiency, and duration.
5. Lower Risk of Recurrence
“It has been shown to result in decreased body fat density, which can help to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence,” says Dr. DiNome of regular yoga practice. Obesity is a risk factor for cancer, and managing your risks is important even after a diagnosis and recovery. Regular exercise through yoga is just one way of keeping the risk at bay.
So, Where Do You Start?
Cancer patients and survivors wholly unfamiliar with the practice of yoga should talk with their doctor about programs that may be specific to their condition. An increasing number of cancer centers offer such wellness programs, and yoga instructors are increasingly experienced in working with such patients.
“I have worked with cancer patients in the past,” says Jessica Bellofatto, founder and director of JBYoga in East Hampton, New York. “A yoga practice focusing on restorative postures, relaxation, and meditation is very helpful for fatigue, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment.”
Bellofatto recommends four poses to get started:
1. Seated Spinal Twist
Bellofatto says this pose can help with digestion and nausea. Start by sitting cross-legged on the floor.
- Breathe deeply.
- On the exhale, slowly twist your body to look over your right shoulder, placing your left hand on your right knee and your right hand behind your body.
- Breathe deeply and hold the stretch.
2. Legs up the Wall
Also known as Viparita Karani, this pose can help combat fatigue.
- Sit on the floor with your left side against the wall.
- Turn to the left and bring your legs up against the wall as you lower your body into a prone position.
- Scoot your buttocks against the wall.
- Your shoulders and head will rest on the floor while your legs stretch up the wall in this relaxed position.
3. Reclined Bound Angle
Supta Baddha Konasana can also reduce fatigue and stress.
- Begin seated and bring your feet together in front of you, with the soles facing one another, knees bent and heels pointing toward your groin.
- Slowly lie back, supporting yourself with your arms until your back is against the floor.
- Relax and breathe deeply, with arms out to your sides.
4. Seated Meditation
A beginner pose, seated meditation helps you to focus on breathing and mindfulness.
- Sit on the floor with your legs crossed in front of you.
- Feel your sitting bones in contact with the floor.
- Lengthen your spine to sit up tall, and gently drop your chin down slightly so your neck is aligned with your spine.
- Breathe deeply and try to keep your mind from wandering.
“We know that life is painful — that getting cancer and going through cancer treatment is extremely painful, emotionally as well as physically,” says Bellofatto. “But as yogis, we are also taught that suffering is optional, that we can transform our suffering into awakening with the recognition that everything in life is for our awakening.”
Bellofatto recognizes that this feat is easier said than done, but yoga can be transformative for cancer patients who are able to put it into practice.