Yoga and Cancer: How Asannas and Pranayamas Help to Treat Cancer.

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In our North American society we are far too often swept into the mindset of instant gratification and impatience. We have become held back by the dredges of our past and frozen by worries of the unknown in the future. What Yoga and ultimately mindfulness has taught me is simply to be in the present. I treat Yoga like a tool in my health compendium;  it is the yin, the softer and slower side of my health practice, to the yang, the harder and more vigorous bodybuilding side, of my fitness. It works. Research is showing the application of Yoga as a novel drug in the treatment of cancer is something that is significant and important to the lives of people who are both undergoing and have gone through treatment.

We talked about the clinical use of exercise in cancer treatment and the types of exercise used in treatement in previous weeks and mentioned how the research is still in it’s early infancy. If the research on exercise and cancer is metaphorically considered a two year old, then yoga and cancer is considered a newborn.  There field is quite new and the studies are still in initial trials at the moment. Much of the research has been pointed towards the mental well being of the patient both during and after treatment but more recently the science is looking at how a persons practice affects cellular activity like inflammation and programmed death. Much of the research has been focused on breast cancer patients which seems fitting since we are a few weeks away from Bust A Move!

So what is yoga’s role in cancer?

1) Physiological: the focus on deep abdominal breathing has been found to stimulate the autonomic nervous system which assists in relaxing de-stressing the body(1,4).  Deep breathing has been found to:

  • reduce salivary cortisol levels – a stress chemical in your body
  • lower epinephrine and norepinephine levels
  • reduce blood glucose levels
  • reduce blood pressure
  • reduce heart rate
  • cardio respiratory fitness – note: the improvement is not as significant as that found in aerobic exercise (4)

This is important in our day to day lives but plays an even more significant role in cancer patients who are undergoing one of the most stressful times in their lives.

2) Mental Destress(2,3): during and after treatment, yoga has been found to decrease:

  • anxiety
  • fatigue severity
  • affect

Changes in fatigue symptoms were found to be more significant 3 months after treatment has been completed and the effect of yoga is far less significant than exercise (4)

Yoga also increases:

  • vigour
  • confidence
  • health related quality of life
  • emotional well being
  • social well being

3) Inflammation and Genes:

  • 3 months after cancer treatment, people who practised yoga saw a significant decrease in inflammatory signals in their body compared to non-practitioners(4).
  • Yoga practitioners who were undergoing chemotherapy also saw a decrease in damage to their DNA, an indicator of a cell’s health, compared to their non-practicing counterparts(5).

The keys to an effective yoga practice both during and after cancer treatment are(6):

  • Tailoring the practice specific to the patient’s needs: not all practices are the same and the instructors should be aware of the limitations and progression of the patient.
  • Independence and education: people should be encouraged to practice yoga as often as possible.  In actuality 10 minutes of mindfulness every day is far more effective than two 90 minute time periods a week(4).
  • Accountability: the instructor should keep the patients accountable with goal setting contracts, check lists, and check ups.
  • Social accountability and support: there should be an interchange between an independent practice and group yoga sessions.

The actual movement sequences (asanas) in a cancer patient’s yoga practice still need to be explored. What is known is that the core of Yoga, the breathing and meditative aspects, are vitally important. The physical and psychological benefits of yoga are real but yoga is not a replacement for cardiovascular or resistance exercise both in cancer patients and in the healthy population.  In fact, most studies that look at yoga and cancer exclude participants that exercise on a regular basis(1,2,4). As it is seen in the summary above, aerobic exercise still reigns supreme in the area of cardiovascular health, stress reduction, and treatment of fatigue. In both cases, yoga and traditional exercise, the more frequent the practice the better.  It should also be noted that, as with exercise, great yoga programs need a progression of intensity. People need to start with basic movements and programs catered to their needs and then encouraged to increase the complexity and difficulty. Future research will look at combining these two drugs together and compare it to controls like: no yoga and exercise, yoga but no exercise, exercise but no yoga, and vary the amounts.  What needs to be proven at the early stages is that these two forms of holistic health treatment are significant and important by themselves.

(1) Fouladbakhsh J., Davis, J., and H. Yarandi. Using a standardized Viniyoga protocol for lung cancer survivors: a pilot study examining effects on breathing ease. J. Complement Integr Med.2013;10(1): 175–187.
(2) Buffart L., et. Al. Physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga in cancer patients and survivors, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Cancer. 2012;12:559
(3) Harder H., Parlour L., and Jenkins V. Randomised controlled trials of yoga interventions for women with breast cancer: a systematic literature review. Support Care Cancer. 2012;20:3055–3064
(4)Kiecolt-Glaser, J. et. Al. Yoga’s Impact on Inflammation, Mood, and Fatigue in Breast Cancer Survivors: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JOURNAL OF CLINICAL ONCOLOGY. 2013;51.
(5)Banerjee B. et al. Effects of an integrated yoga program in modulating psychological stress and radiation-induced genotoxic stress in breast cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy. Integr Cancer Ther. 2007;6:242-50.
(6) Wurz, A. et. Al. Translating Knowledge: A Framework for Evidence-Informed Yoga Programs in Oncology. International Journal of Yoga Therapy. 2013;23:(2).

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About Chris Tse

I’m a scientist turned owner of Blitz Conditioning, a Fitness Columnist at CBC Radio on Thursdays at 8:20 am, and owner of Tse Social Strategy. Follow me on Twitter or Read my full bio.

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