Alternative therapies for cancer treatment are being explored in a variety of settings. Even some conventional doctors are beginning to recommend complementary health practices like meditation, art therapy, prayer, and yoga to support people living with cancer.
Yoga therapy is a relatively new modality that is based on and derived from the ancient practices of yoga, when it was more of a one-on-one experience than it is today. It is proving helpful for people with all manner of physical and emotional ailments. But can this ancient science help people with something as immense and devastating as cancer?
Treatment versus Therapy
First it is important to understand that yoga has only been tested as a therapy for cancer, not a treatment. While many people make the choice to use only natural medicine and lifestyle choices to treat their cancer, that is a choice each person would need to make on his or her own. It has not been proven that yoga can effectively rid the body of cancer.
As a complementary therapy, however, yoga can be highly effective. Yoga can be adapted to be practiced by any cancer patient, even if all they can do is lie in Savasana and breathe deeply.
Yoga has been shown to enhance quality of life for cancer patients, including reducing insomnia, reducing chemotherapy side effects, improving recovery rates, and supporting a more positive outlook. Yoga offers a wealth of physical, mental, and emotional benefits for people working with cancer.
For the Body
The most direct way that yoga practice seems to support cancer patients is through reducing stress. Chronic stress is common for most people these days, and especially for cancer patients with all the tests and treatments and fear. It has been documented that stress increases the growth rate of cancerous tumors. And chronic stress has been shown to depress the immune system, making it that much harder for the body to rid itself of disease.
Yoga practice reduces stress by helping the nervous system relax. For many cancer patients, the only time that they actually relax is on the yoga mat. Yoga provides an opportunity for their bodies to receive attention that is not fear-based, but rather loving acceptance from the teacher and hopefully from the people themselves.
Yoga practice also improves ones breathing. Deep breathing is associated with increased energy, better circulation of both blood and lymph, improved glandular function, increased metabolism, better digestion, and improved immunity.
Yoga can help cancer patients in other ways because it improves flexibility, increases strength, and strengthens all the organs. Yoga is particularly helpful for detoxification. The deep breathing helps to carry toxins out through the exhalations. And the twisting, compressing, and extending of yoga helps to clear accumulated toxins from the cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments out of the lymph nodes, digestive system, circulatory system, and all other organs.
People who practice yoga while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation tend to experience less severe side effects and a faster recovery time than those who do not have any sort of mind-body practice.
Yoga therapy is particularly suited to support cancer patients because of its individual, specialized approach. Yoga therapists are trained to work with people one-on-one, and to be able to identify and instruct specific poses that would serve the particular needs of each person.
For the Mind
It can be easy for people living with cancer to feel overwhelmed, frightened, and frustrated. Yoga helps us cultivate mental space and a broader perspective. It can help to calm the clamor of voices that create more fear and confusion in our minds. The meditative aspects of yoga help us find peace and acceptance in what could otherwise be a terrifying time.
For the Heart
Beyond just physical and mental practices, yoga offers emotional and spiritual components. Yoga teaches us to be present with our current emotional experience and allow ourselves to feel whatever is real in the moment. In relation to cancer, yoga therapists are trained to help people explore the feelings associated with their conditions. This awareness and acceptance can go a long way in helping people transform their relationships to cancer, and may even help people receive benefit from the experience.
Yoga is the process of coming into union. It helps us remember that we are connected. We are connected internally, in that a persons body, mind, and spirit are interwoven. But we are also interconnected to each other and the vast web of life.
Remembering this web helps us feel a sense of connection to something beyond our bodies. This perspective can grant us peace in the face of uncertainty and acceptance in the face of potential loss. Some people have found that the peace, acceptance, deep breath, and sense of connection they found in yoga helped them overcome their diseases.
Yoga is not a guaranteed cure for cancer, and most conventional health professionals do not even consider it a viable treatment. But as a complementary therapy it holds great potential. Yoga offers many benefits for people living with cancer, including easing the symptoms of treatment, improving breathing, reducing stress, and increasing quality of life. Yoga therapy can support the body, mind, and spirit of a person with cancer to allow for a more peaceful experience, and a greater chance of healing.