The mental and physical benefits of yoga for cancer patients
Mind over matter – the use of willpower to overcome physical problems – is an integral part of solving the puzzle after you have been diagnosed with cancer. Yoga is an exercise that focuses on “asana,” which is designed to purify the body and provide stamina. Yoga is recommended to improve psychological outcomes among adults undergoing treatment for cancer, with the potential for improving physical conditions.
While yoga has been practiced for more than 10,000 years, Swami Vivekananda first lectured in the West at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The embrace of yoga in the United States continued at a trickle until Indra Devi opened her yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947.
“We know that exercise is important,” biochemistry researcher Nick Delgado said during the 2014 Cancer Control Society annual meeting. “We know that your emotional status is important. We know that better sleep is important. We have a big challenge – and that is when cancer develops in the body, and a cell divides and mutates.”
By now, you’re probably wondering why or even how yoga fits into oncology. Well, believe it or not, there has been ample research on yoga and cancer patients – and it’s not merely New Age mumbo jumbo. (And you won't have to twist your mind around conflicting conventional and natural modalities; everyone agrees: exercise is good.)
And let's be honest: Everyone wants to rock a pair of yoga pants, right? So, why yoga? Because it's good for your mental and physical well-being. You look better, you feel better, you eat better, you sleep better – it's a better you.
What is yoga?
Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to unite. If you’re a male who practices yoga, you are called a yogi; females are called yogini.
(Don’t confuse this with baseball great Yogi Berra, who famously noted, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Or Yogi Bear, who was the first breakout star in animated TV. Now, where is that pic-a-nic basket, Boo Boo?)
Sanskrit is an ancient Indo-European language. More than 2,000 years ago, Indian wiseman Patanjali is believed to have collected yoga practices into the Yoga Sutra, a collection of 195 statements regarded as the philosophical guidebook for today’s yoga.
The Yoga Sutra has eight branches:
- Asana (postures)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyani (meditation)
- Niyamas (observances)
- Pranayama (breathing)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)
- Samadhi (absorption)
- Yamas (restraints)
The belief is that as we clarify our behavior and focus inward, we achieve samadhi (enlightenment).
Hey, no one expects you to be a human pretzel the first time you try yoga. But improved flexibility will be one of the primary benefits of continuing to practice yoga. Stick with it, and you’ll be touching your toes in your sleep (figuratively, of course).
Soon enough, aches and pains will disappear. You’ll notice a loosening in your hips, which will relieve strain on your knees. Also, your spine will adjust, easing back pain in the process. Your posture will improve as muscles and ligaments become more flexible.
“You need to maximize the oxygen in your body,” says Delgado, who authored Healthy Aging Breakthrough. “You have to exercise. You have to move away from toxic substances and alcohol. You have to really make some important changes in your life to have a quality of life.”
As your flexibility improves, your muscles will become stronger. If you’re older, strong muscles help protect against arthritis and back pain.
During yoga, muscles stretch and contract. These movements increase lymph drainage, which helps the lymphatic system fight infection.
Yoga also lowers cortisol levels. Adrenal glands secrete cortisol in response to a crisis, which temporarily boosts immune function. However, if cortisol levels remain elevated after the disaster, this may compromise your immune system.
Researchers have found high cortisol levels lead to “food-seeking behavior” – eating when you’re upset or stressed. Those extra calories ultimately contribute to weight gain.
You know exercise and diet go hand in hand – move more, eat less – and yoga encompasses both. Yoga gets you moving and burns calories. You may even become a more conscious eater.
Studies also suggest regular yoga practice leads to better sleep. Researchers noted yoga for cancer survivors is useful for treating cancer-related fatigue. In one study of 410 cancer patients, 22% to 37% of the improvements in cancer-related fatigue from yoga therapy resulted in improved sleep quality. 
Why yoga for cancer patients?
In 2020, an estimated 1.8 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed, and 606,520 cancer deaths in the United States. Risk factors – i.e., alcohol abuse, being overweight, tobacco use, and unhealthy diets – contribute to cancer progression and outcomes. 
Cancer diagnosis and treatment also can increase stress. Yoga is one of the most used complementary modalities to manage the effects of cancer. Results from existing studies suggest yoga leads to improvements in mental health, fatigue, sleep quality, and other aspects of quality of life. 
Cancer-related fatigue and sleep disruption contribute to cognitive impairment and psychological distress. These symptoms reduce cancer patients’ abilities to enjoy essential life activities – work, errands, eating, exercise – and diminishes recovery and quality of life. In severe cases, there is a significant increase in mortality. 
According to one review of cancer-yoga studies, yoga improved the physical and psychological symptoms, quality of life, and markers of the patients’ immunity, providing strong support for yoga’s integration into routine cancer care. 
Some conventional scientists are embracing the mind-matter relationship and its importance in treating cancer. Because of its health-related benefits, yoga is an integral part of Ayurveda, India’s indigenous medical system, as described in Charak Samhita and Susruta Samhita.
A 2019 review of 58 randomized controlled trials suggested that yoga can help cancer patients reduce stress during treatment. Yoga also was found to minimize post-treatment sleep and cognition problems. 
Benefits of yoga
Understanding the importance of exercise is only part of the equation. The restorative aspects of a good night’s sleep cannot be overlooked.
In 2018, based on 24 Phase II and one Phase III clinical trials, researchers found low-intensity yoga was effective for treating sleep disruption and cancer-related fatigue in patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation. 
Also, yoga may be beneficial in treating fatigue and depression in cancer survivors. (The researchers included all randomized controlled trials of yoga-based interventions that examined effects on fatigue in adult patients diagnosed with any type of cancer – not specific cancer(s) – in the current systematic review and meta-analysis.) 
Yoga focuses on your body’s natural tendency toward health and self-healing.
While there are more than 100 different types of yoga, most sessions typically include breathing exercises, meditation, and assuming postures (sometimes called asana or poses) that stretch and flex various muscle groups.
Among the health benefits of yoga: 
Drains your lymph and boosts immunity
When you contract and stretch muscles, move organs around, and come in and out of yoga postures, you increase the drainage of lymph (a viscous fluid rich in immune cells). This helps the lymphatic system fight infection, destroy cancerous cells, and dispose of the toxic waste products of cellular functioning.
Boosts your immune system functionality
Asana and pranayama probably improve immune function, but, so far, meditation has the strongest scientific support in this area.  It appears to have a beneficial effect on the functioning of the immune system, boosting it when needed (for example, raising antibody levels in response to a vaccine) and lowering it when needed (for instance, mitigating an inappropriately aggressive immune function in an autoimmune disease like psoriasis).
Lowers blood sugar
Yoga lowers blood sugar and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and boosts HDL (“good”) cholesterol. In people with diabetes, yoga has been found to lower blood sugar in several ways: by lowering cortisol and adrenaline levels, encouraging weight loss, and improving sensitivity to the effects of insulin. Get your blood sugar levels down, and you decrease your risk of diabetic complications such as heart attack, kidney failure, and blindness.
Prevents cartilage and joint breakdown
Each time you practice yoga, you take your joints through their full range of motion. This can help prevent degenerative arthritis or mitigate disability by “squeezing and soaking” areas of cartilage that normally aren’t used. Joint cartilage is like a sponge; it receives fresh nutrients only when its fluid is squeezed out and a new supply can be soaked up. Without proper sustenance, neglected areas of cartilage can eventually wear out, exposing the underlying bone-like worn-out brake pads.
Betters your bone health
It’s well documented that weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and helps ward off osteoporosis. Many postures in yoga require that you lift your own weight. And some, like Downward- and Upward-Facing Dog, help strengthen the arm bones, which are particularly vulnerable to osteoporotic fractures. In an unpublished study conducted at California State University-Los Angeles, yoga practice increased bone density in the vertebrae. Yoga’s ability to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol may help keep calcium in the bones.
Drops your blood pressure
If you have high blood pressure, you might benefit from yoga. Two studies of people with hypertension, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, compared the effects of Savasana (Corpse Pose) with simply lying on a couch. After three months, Savasana was associated with a 26-point drop in systolic blood pressure (the top number) and a 15-point drop in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number – and the higher the initial blood pressure, the bigger the drop.
Yoga founds a healthy lifestyle
Move more, eat less – that’s the adage of many dieters. Yoga can help on both fronts. A regular practice gets you moving and burns calories and the spiritual and emotional dimensions of your practice may encourage you to address any eating and weight problems on a deeper level. Yoga may also inspire you to become a more conscious eater.
Maintains your nervous system
Some advanced yogis can control their bodies in extraordinary ways, many of which are mediated by the nervous system. Scientists have monitored yogis who could induce unusual heart rhythms, generate specific brain-wave patterns, and, use a meditation technique, raise the temperature of their hands by 15 degrees Fahrenheit. If they can use yoga to do that, perhaps you could learn to improve blood flow to your pelvis if you’re trying to get pregnant or induce relaxation when you’re having trouble falling asleep.
Keeps allergies and viruses at bay
Kriyas, or cleansing practices, are another element of yoga. They include everything from rapid breathing exercises to elaborate internal cleansings of the intestines. Jala neti, which entails a gentle lavage of the nasal passages with salt water, removes pollen and viruses from the nose, keeps mucus from building up, and helps drains the sinuses.
Uses the placebo effect, to affect change
Just believing you will get better can make you better. Unfortunately, many conventional scientists believe that if something works by eliciting the placebo effect, it doesn’t count. But most patients just want to get better, so if chanting a mantra — as you might do at the beginning or end of yoga class or throughout a meditation or in the course of your day — facilitates healing, even if it’s just a placebo effect, why not do it?
Summary of science
Overall, studies show yoga has benefits as a mind-body modality for cancer patients – but the majority of the research has centered around breast cancer patients. More clinical trials are needed to evaluate the effects of yoga on other cancers.
Studies have linked yoga with reduced fatigue in cancer patients and shown fatigue decreased the more yoga sessions they did per week. Researchers found that regular yoga practice can improve functional well-being in both cancer patients and survivors.
Also, yoga helps decrease body fat density, which reduces the risk of cancer recurrence.
Yes! Yoga is for everyone, whether you are naturally flexible or not. All poses can be modified, and your teacher will help you use props as needed to make each posture accessible.
Choosing a style that best suits your interests will depend on age, activity/exercise level, and fitness goals. Some yoga is fast-paced, while other forms are slow. Some yoga practices are meditative, some restorative. You should experiment with different styles and keep searching until you find the style of yoga that is right for you.
You should practice once a day, even if it’s for 5 minutes when you roll out of bed. Take a yoga class as often as you’d like – once a week, once every day – but remember you can practice yoga anywhere. Practicing in your living room is no less beneficial than taking a class.
Yoga is a philosophy, not a religion. Yoga is practiced by people of widely differing beliefs. In order to practice, you only need to believe in the possibility that we can transform ourselves. Yoga seeks to put us in touch with our spiritual core.
It depends on the style of yoga, the frequency, and the intensity with which you practice. While not an intense aerobic workout, yoga does burn calories as you create long lean muscles and cultivate flexibility and greater range of motion in the joints.
- Influence of Yoga on Cancer-Related Fatigue and on Mediational Relationships Between Changes in Sleep and Cancer-Related Fatigue: A Nationwide, Multicenter Randomized Controlled Trial of Yoga in Cancer Survivors. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31165647/
- Nutrition and Physical Activity Cancer Prevention Guidelines, Cancer Risk, and Mortality in the Women's Health Initiative. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4090781/
- Review of Yoga Therapy During Cancer Treatment. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28064385/
- Impact of Cancer-Related Fatigue on the Lives of Patients: New Findings From the Fatigue Coalition. https://theoncologist.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1634/theoncologist.5-5-353
- Yoga Into Cancer Care: A Review of the Evidence-based Research. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29343927/
- Yoga for Symptom Management in Oncology: A Review of the Evidence Base and Future Directions for Research. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30933317/
- Yoga for the Management of Cancer Treatment-Related Toxicities. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29388071/
- The Impact of Yoga on Fatigue in Cancer Survivorship: A Meta-Analysis. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32368719/
- Maintaining a regular yoga practice can provide physical and mental health benefits. https://osteopathic.org/what-is-osteopathic-medicine/benefits-of-yoga/