Yoga: Harnessing the calm during cancer
Yogis believe there is style of yoga for everyone. Hot yoga turns up the intensity. Vinyasa flow delivers an experience of constant movement. And then there is restorative yoga, the type of gentle yoga that cancer patients are increasingly turning to as a way to balance the mind and body.
Yoga has been shown to reduce stress and blood pressure, while improving flexibility, muscle stamina, lung capacity and a sense of well-being. It's also been shown to benefit cancer survivors specifically.
Such benefits are why some doctors are recommending yoga as a complementary therapy during cancer treatment.
In yoga classes at City of Hope, cancer patients focus on meditation techniques and deep breathing. Perhaps there is no other group of people who could benefit more from being present in their body, learning to accept that body, developing ways to cope with the stress and anxiety of their disease, and exploring how they can work around their limitations. Yoga gives them that.
Further, the practice in its restorative form is considered light exercise, which is actually recommended during chemotherapy.
“It stimulates the body to release endorphins, which can lower inflammation and improve a patient’s overall sense of well-being,” says Laura Kruper, M.D., director of City of Hope's Rita Cooper Finkel and J. William Finkel Women’s Health Center.
Some patients stop exercising during treatment, then find themselves weakened more than they otherwise would be, she says. Yoga has the potential to ameliorate that weakness.
Many practitioners believe that yoga helps ease nausea, insomnia, joint pain, and other side effects that come with chemotherapy. Additional benefits of yoga include increased circulation of lymphatic channels and flow of oxygen through the bloodstream; both are important during the healing process.
Restorative yoga may be especially helpful to patients after breast cancer surgery. Kruper recommends that, after treatment, women begin a post-reconstruction regimen of gentle stretching exercises to improve muscle strength and increase muscle flexibility – after they’ve been cleared to do so by their surgeon.
For Karen Butcher, a City of Hope patient who had a bone marrow transplant in 2011, yoga was the first thing she started doing physically after her transplant. “This yoga class gave me confidence that I could be more active after my bone marrow transplant,” she says.
Butcher still battles fatigue from chemotherapy, but has found solace in yoga and says that the movement and breathing exercises make a big difference in her quality of life, both mentally and physically.
Ana Delgado, one of four yoga teachers at City of Hope, says patients can even help themselves simply by doing breathing exercises. Examples include inhaling and exhaling, alternate nostril breathing and breath counting one through 10 – all while concentrating on their breaths. “Staying completely focused for 10 seconds is harder than you think,” Delgado says.
Below are simple yoga postures that you can try. All are used in City of Hope yoga classes and can be done at home and on a daily basis.
Also known as the “great rejuvenator,” this is one of the favorite positions in Delgado’s class, she says. It can be done anywhere simply by lying down where the floor meets the wall and putting one’s legs up, making a 90-degree angle.
Cat-cow is an excellent spine-revitalizing sequence, Delgado says. The inhale initiates movement from the tailbone to flex the spine. Look up with the exhale, then round the spine, draw the belly in and let the head hang. The key is multiple repetitions.
Like cat-cow, half-sun salute is also a series of movements guided by breath. Allow your breath to initiate each movement, Delgado says. Sweep your arms out and up on the inhale then, as you hinge from the hips, fold forward on the exhale. It’s a good way to warm up the body at the beginning of a class, she says, because the sequence opens up the hips and hamstrings, and stimulates circulation.
Lying on your back, extend your arms and legs to the side at a 45-degree angle. The spine should be as straight as possible as you relax every part of your body from the head to the toes. Stay in this position until you reach total relaxation.
Available scientific evidence does not support yoga as an effective treatment for cancer or any other disease, but feedback from patients has been overwhelmingly positive – suggesting promise in yoga's use as a viable therapy. In fact, clinical trials are currently underway studying the efficacy of a yoga program for patients with breast cancer as an adjuvant therapy.
Participants in City of Hope’s yoga class have reported an increase in flexibility and strength, as well as reduced anxiety and improved sleep. Most specifically cited the benefits of focused breathing, with even a Stage 4 lung cancer patient saying that the breathing exercises helped him tremendously.
One patient said yoga alleviated a chronic back problem he’s had for 15 years. Others said they’ve become more aware of their body’s functions and reactions, helping them acknowledge and confront their cancer.
In a cancer battle, it’s important to manage both mind and body. Cancer patients and survivors achieve this with yoga.
Yoga at City of Hope is provided through the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center.