Margy completed the Yoga of Awareness for Cancer Professional Training at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, NC. She teaches yoga for cancer at Frederick Memorial Hospital’s James M. Stockman Cancer Institute and offers private yoga therapy sessions to individuals living with or recovering from cancer. An abbreviated version of Margy’s article below was published in Be Well World (2011).
About 15 million Americans who are alive today have had cancer. People living with or recovering from cancer often suffer from a variety of uncomfortable symptoms from the disease itself or the side effects of treatment—such as pain, stiffness, and loss of range of motion following surgery; fatigue; sleep disruption; hot flashes and menopausal symptoms; and anxiety or depression. For many cancer survivors, these symptoms continue long after their treatment has ended. It’s no wonder that more and more people are turning to complementary and alternative therapies to augment their conventional cancer treatments. Yoga, one of the world’s oldest mind-body health systems, can be exactly what individuals living with cancer need to help control some of their symptoms and improve the quality of their lives.
Benefits of Yoga for Cancer Recovery
A growing body of scientific evidence shows that a regular yoga practice can provide relief for a number of the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of treatment. Because yoga is a holistic system that involves body, mind, and spirit, it benefits us on multiple levels including physical, physiological, and psychological.
If you are healing from surgery, yoga can help rebuild muscle strength and stability, increase range of motion, and increase flexibility. If you are suffering from fatigue (a common side effect of chemotherapy), yoga can help you build stamina and endurance. And because yoga is a weight-bearing activity, it helps strengthen bones to ward off osteoporosis (another possible effect of treatment). In addition, yoga releases tension in tight muscles and can help relieve chronic pain.
One of the most profound effects of yoga is its effect on our autonomic nervous system—the part of our nervous system that controls involuntary physiological functions such as circulation, digestion, and gland secretion. Yoga helps turn off the body’s “fight-or-flight” response (our body’s response to stress) and activate the “rest-and-digest” or relaxation response. When we are in a relaxed state, the heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, stress hormone levels drop, blood sugar levels fall, digestion improves, the immune system is more efficient, and our bodies are better able to heal. In addition, yoga improves sleep quality (and sleep disorders are a common side effect of cancer treatment), helps reduce hot flashes associated with treatment, increases vitality and energy, increases blood flow and oxygenation of tissues (including areas that are healing), and increases circulation of lymph (which helps remove toxins).
Yoga promotes physical and mental relaxation, quiets the mind, and leaves you feeling calmer and more centered. It improves your mood and can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. In addition, it gives a sense of self-empowerment; when you practice yoga, you are doing something for yourself rather than being the passive recipient of medical care. And yoga helps you connect with your inner resources so you can experience greater overall well-being. And, last but not least, yoga can foster spiritual growth. Many people who practice yoga find that it helps them reach a more spiritual and more satisfying place in their lives.
Is Yoga Right for You?
You don’t have to be able to stand on your head or contort your body into a pretzel pose to do yoga. There is a yoga practice for every body, every age, and every condition. If you can breathe, you can do yoga! Cancer patients or cancer survivors interested in exploring yoga should start slowly. After getting your physician’s approval to exercise, look for a gentle or restorative yoga class or a class designed especially for cancer recovery. Many yoga studios allow you to take a single class on a drop-in basis so you can make sure that the class is appropriate for you. Let the instructor know about any physical limitations (such as lymphedema or neuropathy—common side effects of treatment) that may affect your practice. As you regain your strength, you then might decide to take classes that are more physically challenging.
So, if you are a cancer patient or cancer survivor exploring complementary treatments to provide relief from your symptoms, I invite you to give yoga a try! Although it is not a cure for cancer, yoga can enhance your physical and emotional well-being and prepare the ground for you to heal.
“Thanks so much for the tender, loving care you share with all of us in class. You continue to make such a positive difference in my life as you share the tools I need to grow and stay healthy.”—Student in Yoga for Cancer Class