Healing Cancer with Yoga

With all the medical advances of the past few decades, it is discouraging that more hasn’t been accomplished towards finding a cure for cancer. While scientists search for a way to snuff out this dreaded disease once and for all, it’s comforting to know that yoga might be able to help in a variety of ways.

In Houston, Texas, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has been studying the effects of Tibetan yoga on the disease. Three promising clinical trials have been initiated, one already showing that this particular form of yoga can improve sleep quality and reduce stress levels of patients. The other two studies hope to look at the impact of yoga on immune and hormone function.

“Theoretically, if the Tibetan yoga intervention is found to decrease the patient’s stress level, it could, therefore, have an impact on their immune system,” said Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, principal director of the studies, in an interview for Cancerwise (the clinic’s own news publication). “There is evidence to suggest that stress suppresses cell-mediated immunity, a component of the immune system involved in tumor surveillance. Yoga might also have an impact on patients’ hormonal activity.”

Why Tibetan yoga? This form of practice, relatively rare in the United States, focuses greatly on meditation, visualization, and breathing. For the study, the participants, all cancer patients at the M.D. Anderson Center, were taught gentle flowing movements along with a strong mind-body element. For those struck with exhaustion or inertia due to
Chemotherapy or other arduous cancer treatments, this gentle form of exercise had many benefits. One patient told Cancerwise “the meditative aspect alone has helped (her) clear her mind and assume a positive attitude through her second bout of cancer… She used the breathing techniques to relax during CAT scans and still uses them today in everyday life, now that she is in remission.”

While the authors of these Texas studies had valid reasons for choosing Tibetan yoga as their practice of choice, many forms of yoga are thought to offer help and hope to cancer patients.  In Longmont, Colorado, teacher Laura Kupperman leads cancer survivors in a restorative practice that is adapted depending on what the participants are struggling with on any particular day. According to a story about this “Yoga for Survivors” in Gaiam Life, the class often includes “energizing poses to fight fatigue, strengthening poses to combat atrophy, and others to help with the common side effects of chemotherapy. Some poses help students focus on stretching certain muscles after surgery, and breathing techniques help with balancing the nervous system.”

Cancer is, quite literally, the body turning on itself. Cells in the body become abnormal and grow out of control, wreaking havoc in many terrible, life-altering ways. It’s easy to see why cancer patients might feel betrayed or suspicious of their own corporeal vessels. Yoga renews a sense of pride and faith in the body, connecting the spiritual and physical realms. In addition, yoga has been shown to improve sleep, digestion, and general health – all great boosts when dealing with a compromised immune system.

As an added bonus, participating in a yoga class specifically designed for cancer patients or survivors can act as a support group, offering hope and healing from people in similar situations. One 2007 study of ethnic minority breast cancer survivors from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, showed that women who participated in a gentle form of Hatha yoga once a week experienced far less loneliness and isolation.

It may be awhile until Western medicine finds the cure for cancer, but until then, perhaps yoga can offer some comfort – or even salvation – to those dealing with the disease.

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