Yoga Therapy for Cancer Patients

Modern medicine faces formidable challenges in several key areas, in particular with "killer" diseases such as cancer. The strength of modern medicine is based on its scientific rigor, but what is lacking is emphasis on the power of the individual in influencing healing and emotions to influence physical health outcome. Mind-body techniques include cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation measures, and biofeedback. Mind-body healing methods generally combine muscle relaxation, body awareness, focused concentration, meditation, and spiritual upliftment. This approach is not just augmentative, but intrinsically integrative, with the potential for improving health care. If modern medicine's strength based on its scientific rigor is combined with the basic principles of yoga, it creates a balance in life, which can potentially evolve into active medical treatments of tomorrow.1  

Presently, there is a resurgence of interest in Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) outside of and in addition to conventional medicine. A growing body of evidence indicates the potential for control of certain tumors with CAM in general and yoga therapy in particular. This combination of yoga therapy and modern medicine leads healthcare professionals to consider yoga as a physical and mental discipline.2 Data from research, funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) discusses yoga for conditions such as low-back pain, depression, stress, elevated blood pressure, and insomnia.3   NCCIH is currently supporting research on how the practice of yoga may affect medical problems like diabetes, posttraumatic stress disorder, smoking addiction, immune dysfunction, and arthritis. Besides helping with cancer control, Yoga therapy can also help cancer patients with one or more of the above comorbidities.

Yoga is a multidimensional holistic philosophy developed in ancient India and is popularly known in the Western world as a form of exercise to maintain health and well-being.  Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Yuj,’ which means ‘union with' implying merging oneself with the real Self, the Universe or the Divine. In Yoga Sutras, compiled around 400 CE, Sage Maharishi Patanjali elegantly described eight limbs of yoga, called Ashtanga Yoga. Yoga practice involves physical exercises, breathing techniques, turning attention to one's internal world and less control by the external world. It also includes intense focus and holding one's mind onto a particular inner state, meditation, contemplation and reflection.

The peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE) study showed that constitutional changes in yoga occur through the well-defined Relaxation Response (RR). The RR mechanism turns off the fight-or-flight reaction, restores homeostasis, and enables the body to function optimally. It is a physical state of deep relaxation wherein the sympathetic nervous system is turned off, and the parasympathetic nervous system re-engaged.3   

How does Yoga Help with Cancer?
Stress is known to depress the body's natural immune function. Yoga practice relieves stress and enhances the immune response that promotes healing. While acute stress has the effect of stimulating the cells that protect the system, chronic stress, the kind of daily worry and pressure that a cancer patient typically experiences, markedly depresses the function of the natural "killer cells" that protect, thus leaving the individual vulnerable to disease.4 Various yoga practices offer stress management and lifestyle skills to improve the quality of life during and after cancer treatment, helping to put cancer behind to reinvigorate life. With Yoga, there is increased peace of mind, improved ability to deal effectively with short and long-term stresses and a decreased reliance on drugs.

Yoga is being increasingly used as an adjunct for cancer management—one breath at a time—to help relieve stress, calm the nervous system, and decrease lymphedema. The deep, relaxing breathing frequently emphasized in yoga also increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the cells, delivering vital nutrients to cells and further clearing out toxins.5 The natural healing force in each of us is the greatest force in getting well. Men are not prisoners of fate but are conditioned by their thoughts. The power of the conscious mind to promote self-healing is now recognized in the management of cancer. At the most fundamental level of consciousness, a sense of real health and vitality can spill over into other aspects of everyday life.6

Release of Endorphins and Improvement in Mental Well-being.
Regular practice of Yoga causes the body to release endorphins and experience a positive boost in mood.  Studies suggest that yoga enhances gamma amino butyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating the nervous system and managing mood, 8 presumably like Valium, Librium, Xanax and other Benzodiazepines, which work on the GABA receptors. In addition, yoga can boost self-esteem by feeling better about appearance, strength, and overall physical condition.

This article discusses treatment paradigms that healthcare workers can follow in drawing from both Eastern knowledge and Western medicine to offer patients a multi-faceted approach to healing and boosting immunity. Prioritizing daily yoga exercises can be energizing for cancer patients and survivors, as well as their family and friends. The practitioners of holistic and integrative medicine are indeed pioneers who can make a difference in the lives of millions of people. Application of the above strategies with care and understanding can help cancer patients worldwide. We are fortunate that modern medicine is experiencing this paradigm shift, an opportunity we must exploit.

Nick Shroff, MD, FACS
Board Certified Urologist with expertise in Uro-Oncology
Senior Yoga Teacher

1. Nick Nipan Shroff; Oct 2015,
7. For Cancer Patients | Om Grown Yoga Studio
8. The Effect of Yoga on the Psychological Distress of cancer.