Yoga for People with Cancer and Cancer Survivors

By Sherry Ogle and Mandy Gard; Students of Balance Yoga Lounge, Balanced Breath School of Yoga, RYT 200
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Whether for cancer patients or cancer survivors, the healing power of yoga has many benefits. Utilization of the various yoga tools - poses, breathing techniques, relaxation exercises and meditation, can provide successful methods for combating the physical discomfort of cancer and cancer treatment. 

As detailed by Timothy McCall, M.D. in Yoga as Medicine, cancer is included in a long list of health conditions that have been demonstrated in scientific studies to be benefited by yoga. Yoga can be useful to help people feel better, heal after major illness or surgery and to live better with chronic disease. 

Yoga brings together physical and mental disciplines that may help achieve peacefulness of body and mind. This can help individuals relax and manage stress and anxiety.


For those unfamiliar with yoga, the core components of most general yoga practices include:


Poses. Yoga poses, also called postures, are a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility. Poses range from lying on the floor while completely relaxed to difficult postures that may test physical edges.


Breathing. Controlling the breath is an important part of yoga. Yoga teaches that controlling breathing can help control the body and quiet the mind.


Meditation or relaxation. Meditation may help with developing mindfulness and assist in being aware of the present moment without judgement.


The Importance of the Breath

Cancer is a stressful diagnosis. Having reliable methods to help to calm and alleviate stress can make all the difference in feeling better. Pranayama, breath work, is an important part of yoga and an essential practice for calming the mind and body, especially as a part of integrative cancer care. Pranayama includes techniques that direct breath and energy. Breathing techniques, done as part of a yoga class or on their own can help to increase awareness, slow the breath and reduce stress hormones, all of which can improve quality of life for people affected by cancer.


Research on Breathing Techniques and Cancer

A study published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2012, titled Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama: A State-of-the-Art Review, shared, “A growing body of research evidence supports the belief that certain yoga techniques may improve physical and mental health through down-regulation of the hypothalamo pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system.”

Another study done at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, showed that yoga breathing techniques may improve cancer chemotherapy-associated symptoms, including sleep disturbance, anxiety and mental quality of life. One of the keys that the researchers noted in this pilot study was that there was a “dose response”—that is, the more that the subjects practiced, the better that they fared.


Exploring the Breath

Simple breath awareness can be a profound technique for moving toward the relaxation response, a calming of the sympathetic nervous system associated with the production of stress hormones. 

Before starting any breathing techniques described below, it is helpful to just observe the breath.  Explore the following elements of the breath: length, sound, depth, origin, movement and whether the breath moves through the nostrils or mouth. As thoughts and emotions arise, simply observe without judgment and let them go, bringing awareness back to the breath.

Techniques for people in cancer treatment should always be very gentle and mindful. Anyone with medical concerns should check with their physicians before undertaking any practices and work with a teacher who is familiar with cancer-related guidelines and precautions. Breathing techniques should be approached slowly and if any dizziness or other discomfort occurs, the practitioner should immediately return to normal breathing.

The following provides a very simple breathing technique.


Abdominal Breathing

Many people chest breathe without moving their abdominal area, so it is helpful to learn the abdominal breath as the first breathing technique. It calms the mind and body and brings awareness to the fullness of the breath. Begin in a comfortable position, usually reclining is easiest to start.

Start with a full inhalation through the nose and a big sigh out of the mouth. Do this three times. This is sometimes known as three conscious exhalations.

Bring your hands to the abdomen and feel the belly expand as you inhale slowly and feel the abdomen soften and expand.

Upon exhalation, feel the abdomen fall and contract. Continue this breath for a few minutes or as long as is comfortable, without any strain or discomfort.


Guided Classic Pranayama

To explore pranayama further, follow the link below to YouTube to experience a voice guided “three-part breath”, the foundation of all yogic breathing techniques to counter shallow chest breathing.


Three-Part Breath Guided Audio
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