Yoga for Breast Cancer

Research shows that a regular gentle practice can improve survivors’ quality of life.

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Recent studies indicate that yoga can yield significant health benefits and improve quality of life for breast cancer survivors. A seven-week yoga program for cancer survivors led by researchers in the faculty of kinesiology at the University of Calgary examined the physical and psychological benefits of an alternative, less rigorous form of yoga. Women practiced in small groups of 10 that included alarge number of breast cancer survivors, and each participant received enough individual attention to ensure she could safely perform the exercises. The style used was a modified version of hatha yoga called yoga therapy, influenced by the Iyengar tradition of yoga and the study of kinesiology. The yoga postures (or asanas) are modified for people who are stiff, immobile, injured, ill or under extreme stress. The study participants showed significant physical and psychosocial improvements such as diminished irritability, stress and depression.

“This form of modified therapeutic yoga has been specifically tweaked based on how much exercise is possible for cancer survivors,” says Susi Hately, a Calgary-based certified yoga instructor and owner of Functional Synergy, a yoga therapy studio that specializes in designing custom yoga programs for people with injury or illness.

As a yoga instructor, she saw the benefits first-hand and then connected with researchers at the faculty of kinesiology. “This idea came from the way I teach my classes. Particularly if someone is sick or in chronic pain, I will walk around the room and make sure they are working at their own level,” says Hately.

So while an individual’s body may be tight initially, stretching and strengthening through yoga therapy can dramatically alter physical agility over time. “It’s amazing what a 65-year-old body can do,” says Hately. Yoga therapy enables students to move slowly and safely into the modified posture, concentrating initially on relaxing their body, breathing fully and developing awareness of the sensations in their body and the thoughts in their mind. A DVD is slated to be produced early next year that will mimic the program completed in the study.

Hately adds that while the benefits of yoga (which dates back to more than 5,000 years ago) have long been well known in the Eastern world, the West has yet to trust its therapeutic effectiveness. “It’s true that many people don’t trust a new therapeutic approach until it’s been researched. A solid referral network and word of mouth have been key in spreading the good word about yoga and its benefits,” says Hately.

In another study, researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center focused on 61 women who had had surgery for breast cancer and were undergoing six weeks of radiation treatment. The women who took twice-weekly yoga classes in addition to radiation treatment reported significantly improved physical functioning when compared to those with only radiation. The yoga group had higher scores in almost every area and reported less fatigue and fewer problems with daytime sleepiness.

“Everyone was very open to the idea of conducting the research,” says Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, director of the Integration Medicine Program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston. “The main challenge was getting people to practice the yoga on a regular basis,” he says.

Until recently, the medical benefits of yoga had not been sufficiently researched due to lack of funding. “Although the study was small and preliminary, it’s one of the few to try to rigorously measure the benefits of this form of exercise,” notes Cohen. “Many medical centres in Canada realize the psychosocial benefits that yoga has to offer and provide programs based on this knowledge. Yoga allows us to age more gracefully and reduces the medical burden of an aging population,” he adds.

The National Cancer Institute in the U.S. recently awarded Cohen and his team US$2.4 million to study the effects of Tibetan yoga on women with breast cancer who are undergoing chemotherapy. It was the largest grant ever given for the study of Tibetan yoga in cancer patients.

Published in Canadian Living

By Sarah Snowdon