Benefits of Yoga During & After Cancer Treatment



By Shannon Prescher RYT-200, TIYT

Yoga is an ancient practice that was born from northern India over 5,000 years ago. The practice has been supportively defined by the philosophies of Pantajali through a variety of “sutras” or teachings that date back to 900 B.C. Over time yoga has evolved significantly as its teachings and practices have traveled from east to west. During its travel, yoga has brought with it several variations from Restorative, to Kundalini, to Hatha, just to name a few. This beautiful practice has a long-standing history of bringing flexibility, relaxation, and strengthening.  More recently, however, yoga has made its way into medical journals speaking to the efficacy of its use to positively support and promote healing for health-related imbalances or dis-ease, such as cancer.

According to medical research, yoga has been increasingly used to support the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of cancer patients who practice this ancient art through asana (yoga postures and movements) and pranayama (breathwork). Guided imagery and yogic sleep, called Yoga Nidra, have also been found to have positive effects for individuals affected by cancer, because of the impact on the nervous system by way of the pre-frontal cortex. Yoga philosophy teaches the release of the three tensions, physical, mental and emotional to support optimal health. Therefore, the heart of yoga offered to cancer patients is brought forth with the intention to release tension in effort to support the whole self during a challenging diagnosis.

In the western world, yoga is often presented on the cover of magazines or in media as a glamourous physical practice embellished with beautiful flexible poses that can look intimidating for anyone who is managing pain or illness. However, the physical benefits of yoga are being discussed more widely in medical literature and the practice is becoming increasingly more evident of its bio-physical impact on health and healing. Gentle practices such as a gentle flow, restorative yoga or yin yoga have gracefully made their way into the lives of individuals, who are moving through a cancer journey, to support overall wellbeing. Yoga’s ability to physically affect the muscular system and neurological pathways, offers the opportunity to alleviate neuropathy, decrease pain, reduce fatigue, improve balance and release tension. Furthermore, research shows that yoga-based interventions were more effective in reducing post-chemotherapy and anticipatory nausea compared with supportive therapy and coping preparations. Yoga’s overall effect on the physical state of individuals affected by cancer not only has positive outcomes for those actively in treatment, but also those post-surgery by way of encouraging effective pain management, increasing range of motion (alongside physical therapy) and promoting a stress free emotional state to continue to improve overall recovery. When individuals who are post-cancer integrate a regular practice, it can have an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) affect, because of yoga’s efficacy in decreasing stress and tension in the body. Secondarily, individuals who are post-cancer become mindfully aware and attuned to their strength and can witness real time continued healing of the physical body allowing new truths to cognitively develop.

Alongside the beautifully supportive benefits on the physical body, both during and post-cancer, yoga’s effect on mental health is equally impressive. Yoga practices have significantly demonstrated their ability to reduce stress, symptoms of depression and anxiety making it an effective and supportive tool for managing mental health related symptoms both during and post cancer treatment. One easy and relatively accessible technique is that of pranayama (breathwork). For example, the well-known 4-7-8 breath has been shown to successfully activate the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for the relaxation response. In return, you receive a welcome decrease in constriction both physically and cognitively, thereby giving your immune system a natural boost.  Another form of breathwork, known as Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) supports increasing mental clarity and concentration, often which decreases due to the side effects of chemo known as “chemo fog” or “chemo brain”. Simple poses that require minimal effort are also effective for increasing the mental benefits of yoga in cancer patients. One pose, “legs up the wall”, as silly as the name sounds, has a calming affect on the nervous system secondarily to combatting fatigue. It is a cleansing inversion that promotes venous drainage and increases circulation as well. Alongside bio-physical elements of yoga, imagery has proven to have quite the impact on one’s mental and emotional well being during and after cancer treatment. Guided imagery is delivered through a variety of techniques in yoga, such as breathing “waves” of relaxation through the body, moving “pain” through and out of the body or simply following a guided meditation. One form of meditation that has grown with increasing popularity is Yoga Nidra, known as yogic sleep. It is a meditative state between awake and sleep where the individual is conscious that he/she is practicing Yoga Nidra. The practice is designed to increase relaxation by encouraging “letting go”. Yoga Nidra not only has efficacy in reducing pain, fatigue, anxiety and promoting sleep, it has copious research supporting its efficacy in reducing the psychological wounds affiliated with a traumatic experience, making it especially supportive for cancer patients.

A more subtly profound effect of yoga is the one on the spiritual self.  During a cancer patient’s journey spiritual suffering can sometimes create a barrier to hope, disrupt their religious faith, or create disconnect to purpose thereby affecting a patient’s overall quality of life. Yoga can be a beautiful way for patients to gently reconnect with their spirit self. Through guided imagery, meditation, gentle restorative movement and the practice of breath, patients are reminded of their essence being. Furthermore, because cancer can evoke feelings of mistrust, grief, disappointment and even betrayal from the body, yoga encourages individuals in re-establishing a compassionate and respectful pscyho-emotional relationship with the body. Through the practice of mindfulness, cancer patients can be a witness to what their body does well and how it demonstrates strength without being critical or judgmental of its form. By being a loving witness to breath and the heartbeat, one can begin to re-create feelings of trust, safety and predictability. Through body wisdom, one can re-connect with their innate ability to be a compassionate listener and responder to the body’s needs.

Cancer is a disruptive diagnosis that challenges the life of any individual it meets. It creates physical pain, disharmony in the mind and challenges the spirit. However, the effects of yoga on one’s physical, mental and spiritual well-being during cancer will last well beyond the diagnosis itself. It can bring comfort, emotional and mental balance and physical strength during treatment, after surgery and post-cancer. It is a practice that will remind you that you are a warrior. I wish you peace as you continue your healing journey, Namaste.

Shannon is a Registered Yoga Teacher with a specialty certification in Trauma Informed Yoga. She is founder and creator of The Rooted Self, a restorative practice that provides individuals with a beautiful collection of offerings, such as Mind-Body Integration, Yoga Nidra, Body Compassion and Manifestation Guidance, to support themselves during life transitions. Shannon offers weekly restorative yoga classes and a monthly Soul Garden Practice to the cancer community. She deeply enjoys her work and finds restoration through her own yoga practice, the art of hammock rocking and divine topo chico sipping.   – 512.626.3933

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