Yoga for Cancer

What is Yoga?

Although in the Western World we identify yoga with stretching and postures, the real meaning of yoga is far more complex than this. Yoga, examined in both its classical and modern senses, holds great potential for anyone who wishes to feel more balanced and connected within themselves. It also has a range of possible health benefits.

Yoga means ‘union’ or ‘connection’. In Sanskrit, the word ‘yoga’ is used to signify any form of connection. Yoga is both a state of connection and a body of techniques that allow us to connect to anything. This connection may be experienced by regular practice of many different types of techniques, some of which involve the use of your body. Reaching the experience of yoga connection is to arrive at a blissful, fulfilling, joyful state.

The numerous physical genres of yoga aim to create harmony between your body, mind and spirit. This is achieved by working with pranayama (breathing) and asanas (postures) meditation and stretching exercises. Yoga is a whole body philosophy that can help you calm and clear your mind, but has a significant range of other benefits. Some of which have been studied in both cancer patients and cancer survivors.

Yoga and Childhood Cancer

Yoga has helped both childhood and adult cancer patients to cope better with their illness and its treatment. It can help reduce the expression of symptoms and the effect of side effects such as depression, anxiety and stress.

It can help you to feel good, generally enhancing well-being and lifting your mood. As mentioned by yoga teacher and co-creator of the Little Yogis program, Amie Koronczok, whom you can read about further below:

"I found it very significant that one child was given 45 minutes away from her illness — time to once again be the child she was meant to be, and not a cancer patient."

Yoga postures make joints and muscles more flexible, as well as stimulating the nervous system. Breathing is very much part of yoga practice, so these beneficial breathing techniques along with the exercises improve the oxygen supply to your bloodstream. This in turn triggers better quality breathing and circulation. All of this, of course, promotes better health.

Possible benefits overview:

  • Cope better with the illness (1)
  • Cope better with the treatment (1)
  • Reduce expression of symptoms (1)
  • Reduce anxiety (1)
  • Reduce depression (1)
  • Reduce stress (1)
  • Enhance well being (1)
  • Improve mood (1)
  • Stimulate the nervous system (1)
  • Improve strength (5)
  • Make joints and muscles more flexible (5)
  • Improve oxygen supply to bloodstream (5)
  • Increase hormone functions (5)

Research has shown that a single yoga session can help reduce anxiety in teens diagnosed with cancer (ages 13–18) and parents of children diagnosed with cancer. (2)

Yoga performed bedside has been shown to reduce pain in children diagnosed with sickle cell disease and tumors. (3)

Yoga may positively affect complex mental functions of the pre-frontal cortex, including execution of complex functions and planning abilities. (4)

Yoga for pediatric cancer patients during active treatment is feasible and potentially helpful in improving both patient and parent well-being (6)

Childhood cancer survivor & charity founder: Sierra's story

Sierra Preveza is a childhood cancer survivor and the founder of the charity Childhood Cancer Kids. In 2014 Sierra, then aged 7, was named America's Kindest Kid, by the NBC offshoot The Sprout Network, because of her work helping other children who are battling cancer.

She received her kidney cancer diagnosis on 4th June 2012, and on 6th June her tumor was removed during an operation at the Boston Children's Hospital. The tumor was a Wilms’ tumor stage 2, which was the size of a grapefruit. It had grown rapidly over a period of two weeks. She spent a week in hospital, making a good post-operative recovery.

Afterwards her chemo sessions were scheduled on Mondays. Tuesdays, after her chemotherapy, Sierra felt extremely tired, emotional, nauseous and was throwing up. However as her Mum is a yoga instructor, she had been practising yoga since she was a baby. Here's how she has reported yoga to have helped her:

  • Yoga helped her to deal with the stress of needles
  • Yoga breathing helped Sierra to deal with the side effects of her chemotherapy
  • It also helped calm her intense fears of having her chemotherapy port accessed. She went from having to be held down to being able to breath and relax during the process
  • Sierra has also benefitted from yoga in dealing with the testing that follows on from cancer treatments

Central to her charity work is Sierra's mission to bring yoga to other children who are undergoing chemotherapy, as well as those who have finished surgeries and treatments, but still have to deal with medical procedures like "getting pricked with needles."

Yoga teacher & Little Yogis program co-creator: Amie's story

Amie teaches a special yoga program called Little Yogis, which was specifically designed for pediatric cancer patients. These childhood cancer patients are undergoing aggressive treatments, in Houston, at the MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital.

The Little Yogis Program was set up in response to requests from families who were seeking some form of integrative therapy, which had a more hands-on approach and could involve both the young patients and their loved ones. When the program started in the summer of 2014, the goals were to:

  • Alleviate physical pain
  • Alleviate stress
  • Make treatment more bearable both for the children and their families
  • Improve their quality of life

Research

1. Cancer Research UK summarises a number of research studies in their section headed - Research Into Yoga In Cancer Care – on this page about Yoga As A CAM Therapy for Cancer. (1)

2. The Peaceful Play Yoga: Serenity and Balance for Children With Cancer and Their Parents study was published in the Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing 2010; 27(5) 276–284, authored by Thygeson MV, Hooke MC, Clapsaddle J, Robbins A, Moquist K.

The study examines different age groups and their parents in an in-patient setting for one yoga session (2).

3. Yoga for Pain and Anxiety in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Patients: Case Series and Review of the Literature. Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology, 2004; 8(3) (Summer), 2010: p. 95. The study was carried out by Moody K, Daswani D, Abrahams B, Santizo R.

This study concluded that further research on yoga as an effective intervention for pediatric hematology-oncology patients for pain and anxiety is needed. Patient quotes had suggested that yoga was beneficial, in pàrticular for relaxation. Literature review also offered preliminary support for the use of yoga for anxiety in children (3).

4. Improved performance in the Tower of London test following yoga, published in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 2001; 45(3),351- 354. Authors: Manjunath N, Telles S.

The study concluded that yoga training for a month reduced the planning and execution time in simple (2-moves) as well as complex tasks (4, 5-moves) and facilitated reaching the target with a smaller number of moves in a complex task (4-moves) (4).

5. Role of yoga in stress management. West Indian Medical Journal, 2004; 53(3), 191-194. Author: Parshad O.

This study notes that yoga stabilises the autonomic nervous system with a tendency towards parasympathetic dominance. Physiological benefits follow (5).

6. Yoga May Help Kids with Cancer – Special Issue of Rehabilitation Oncology Highlights Physical Therapy for Pediatric Cancer by Wolters Kluwer.

This study concluded that yoga for pediatric cancer patients during active treatment is feasible and potentially helpful in improving both patient and parent well-being (6).

What happens during a yoga class

Because of the vast range of types of yoga, it is hard to be specific of what to expect in a class, much in the same way as this will also depend on the teacher, as well as the yoga style. However teacher Amie, mentions how she tailors her classes to what is needed of the families she has present. Therefore if there is a yoga teacher that your child and other members of the family feel comfortable to work with, this type of customised approach would be best, if possible. If there isn't someone like this in mind, why not talk to your medical team to find out if they could recommend someone.

Deepak Chopra's website has a good practical article about How To Prepare For Your First Yoga Class

Practising yoga at home

According to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, you should always be present when your child practices yoga. Additionally all doubts should be cleared with the doctor firstly. However practising yoga with your child is a wonderful way to spend quality time, and younger children may especially like to do animal postures.

St. Jude's have produced a very helpful document that includes some possible yoga postures for your child and you.

A brief history of yoga

Yoga’s history has been transmitted orally and has been further obscured because of the secretive nature of its earlier teachings. In fact early writing about yoga was carried out on fragile palm leaves.

Typically yoga is thought to be over 5000 years old, although some researchers believe it may be closer to 10,000 years old. Its development has passed through significant phases, which were: Pre-Classical Yoga, Classical Yoga, Post-Classical Yoga and Modern Period.

The opening of Indra Devi's yoga studio in 1947, in Hollywood, is considered to be the beginning of its increase in popularity in the Western World.

If you would like to understand the various phases of yoga, then go to the Yoga Basics – History of Yoga page.