The Power of Yoga Therapy in Cancer care

In the vast tapestry of human experience, few journeys are as profound and challenging as the one faced by those touched by cancer. When the unthinkable happens in life, the body, mind and spirit are often tested to their limits, leaving us to grapple with a myriad of physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges. Yet, amidst the darkness, there exists a beacon of hope – the gentle practice of yoga therapy, offering a path towards healing, resilience and inner peace.

Cancer, with all of its complexities and uncertainties, can leave us feeling disempowered and disconnected from our bodies; whether we are the ones with the diagnosis, or we are caring for someone with cancer. The relentless onslaught of appointments, treatments, surgeries, and medications can take a toll not only on the physical body but also on the psyche, leaving scars that extend far beyond the surface. In this landscape of adversity, yoga therapy emerges as a powerful ally, offering a holistic approach to healing that addresses the multidimensional needs of those affected by cancer.

At its core, yoga therapy seeks to cultivate a deep sense of awareness and connection between body, mind and spirit. Through gentle movement, breathwork, meditation, mindfulness and lifestyle practices, individuals are invited to embark on a journey of self-discovery and self-compassion, reclaiming agency over their healing process and finding solace amidst the storm.

Yoga therapy uses the panchamaya kosha model (the five sheaths of human experience) for assessment, observation and care planning, whether it be at the stage of diagnosis, treatment, recovery, remission, recurrence, survivorship or end of life. This approach reflects a deeper dive into the interconnectedness of the client’s body, breath, mind and spirit, along with lifestyle, social factors and cultural considerations. 

Culturally in the West we tend to focus on disease management (pathogenesis) whereas Yoga Therapy focuses on person centred health with a holistic approach (Salutogenesis), an example of this would be the Wellness Wheel. 

Pie chart of 6 aspects of wellness

The wellness wheel model is a process of goal setting, using the approach of holistic wellness that focuses on 6 key areas:

Achar (Conduct): Daily activities including exercise, body and breathing practices.

Vichar (Thinking): Healthy thoughts and activities for a balanced mind.

Ahar (Food): Nutritional diet including fresh food prepared mindfully with adequate water intake. 

Vihar (Relaxation): Recreational activities to relax the mind. Activities which cultivate stillness in thoughts and actions. Serving others. 

Vyavahar (Behavior/Actions): Interpersonal relationships.

Bhakti (Devotion/Faith/Love/Worship)

This system creates a tangible pathway to wellness through manageable, progressive steps. Clients are invited to bring awareness to their current state and envision where they would like to be, beginning with just one area of focus.

For someone with cancer, the devastation of disease and treatment is not restricted to the directly affected body part or organ system; the entire person has undergone a complete and unwelcome transformation. Yoga therapy can help reconnect to what has been lost and help them to take back a sense of agency.

Moreover, Yoga Therapy provides a safe and nurturing space for individuals to explore and process the emotional and psychological aspects of their cancer journey. The practice of breathwork, mindfulness, meditation and other yoga techniques can help to cultivate a sense of presence and acceptance, allowing individuals to navigate the complex terrain of fear, anxiety and grief with greater resilience and equanimity. By cultivating a sense of inner peace and self-compassion, individuals can find refuge amidst the turbulence of their emotions, forging a path towards healing and wholeness. 

Learning how to calm the mind can help to prepare for the more difficult tasks ahead, which may include addressing fears. For those with cancer, this perspective is crucial and potentially spiritually freeing.

Preparation for treatment or surgery may include practices to establish and maintain balance and health in the body and mind in order to improve the chances of a successful outcome, such as:

  • Having a firm belief that the chosen treatment/surgery is the most beneficial for you. 
  • Finding an Oncologist/Surgeon whom you can wholeheartedly trust. 
  • Creating a protective atmosphere through a regular simple yoga practice including healing Mantra and visualisation.
  • Keeping the mind relaxed, trusting and focused on what needs to be done, allowing the secretion of helpful chemicals that complement the healing process. 

One of the hallmark benefits of yoga therapy in cancer care lies in its ability to alleviate the physical symptoms and side effects associated with cancer treatments. From the debilitating fatigue and nausea induced by chemotherapy to the chronic pain and stiffness resulting from surgeries and radiation, yoga therapy offers a gentle yet effective means of symptom management and relief.

After cancer treatment the immune system may be compromised. Yoga has been shown to help to improve the immune system by lowering stress hormones and encouraging toxin removal via the lymphatic system, therefore rebuilding immunity. Through targeted asana practices (to the degree appropriate), individuals can experience increased flexibility, strength, and range of motion, easing the burden on their bodies and fostering a greater sense of vitality and wellbeing.

Cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery can be stressful on cancer patients and their loved ones. Research has reported that stress can increase the risk of heart disease, increase the risk of developing colds and infections, and decrease immune function, which can have a negative effect on cancer recovery. A Yoga Therapist can not only offer a bespoke yoga practice but also provide a listening ear and validate your concerns.

Cancer treatment may cause physical debilitation due to surgery and/or inactivity. Decreased ability in daily activities can be due to physical impairments resulting from cancer treatment as well as fatigue. Physical and mental fatigue and weakness are common during cancer recovery and may last weeks, months or years after treatment. Yoga therapy can guide you to conserve energy, exercise appropriately, eat healthily and manage stress in order to decrease fatigue.

Most cancer patients experience strong emotions during their journey from diagnosis to treatment to recovery including anger, anxiety and/or depression, and these emotions may persist after treatment. This can be a time of personal change in priorities and adjustment to any long-term impact. 

Holding hands

After treatment ends, one of the most common concerns that survivors have is that the cancer will come back. This fear of recurrence is a normal emotion. Depending on the type of cancer and type of treatment, the cancer survivor may have to manage chronic disease processes as a result. Living with chronic cancer is challenging and the person may feel anxious or worried living with uncertainty.  Having a survivorship plan should include regular health monitoring and incorporate a multidisciplinary team approach which may include Yoga Therapy to help manage this fear.

70% of cancer patients have some type of cognitive dysfunction and about one third continue to have this after treatment is over. Research suggests that regular practice of yoga and mindfulness can enhance cognitive function, nurturing mental clarity, focus, and memory retention. Harvard Medical School found evidence that yoga physically changes the brain, not only in brain structure but in function as well; resulting in improved cognitive skills such as learning and memory.

One of the final stages that a person goes through on their journey through cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery is acceptance. This can take on many forms and happen at different times. Yoga Therapy may use yogic philosophy to help the cancer survivor reach some acceptance related to their process, so that they may have a renewed sense of health and outlook. 

After cancer treatment, the patient may have to establish a new normal, at least initially, to be able to honor their healing process. They may need to adjust their life pace to accommodate their energy level. They may need to have modifications related to their impairments or disabilities. They may need to be more mindful of their emotions. One of the key ways that yoga therapy can help is to cultivate mindfulness and foster a mind/body connection.

In addition to its physical and emotional benefits, yoga therapy holds profound implications for the spiritual dimensions of the cancer journey. For many, facing a life-threatening illness can ignite a deeper inquiry into the nature of existence and the meaning of life. Through the practice of yoga, we can tap into a wealth of inner wisdom and resilience, connecting with our innate capacity for healing and transformation. By cultivating a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves – whether it be the divine, the universe, or the interconnected web of life, we can find solace and strength in the midst of adversity and anchor ourselves in the meaning and purpose to be found amid struggle and joy.

Lee Majewski: Yoga Therapist and Cancer Survivor explains that:

“Yoga therapy looks at the levels and quality of vital energy, at our lifestyle, our core beliefs, and ethics, at our emotional intelligence and finally at our ability to manage our minds and thought processes. Yoga postulates the disease in the body is an outcome of the lack of balance between all these levels of existence, which with time manifests as a disease in the physical body. While the medical doctors focus on healing the disease and symptoms of organ or body system malfunction, yoga therapy focuses on the human being and restoring the balance of all levels of human existence. Yoga therapy facilitates human transformation, which leads to long-term health, wellbeing, and quality of life improvements.” 

In summary, cancer is not a single entity, it is a complex, interwoven, convoluted set of factors to be navigated within an equally diverse, complicated set of protocols, and multi-disciplined teams and healthcare systems. Cancer affects every system of the body on every level. Every diagnosis of cancer is as unique as the individual dealing with it.

As you stand at the threshold of possibility, may yoga therapy provide you with hope and resilience in the face of cancer. May you take a moment to honour your courage and resilience and may you hold space for your healing and transformation. In the sacred space of the yoga mat, may you find solace. 

In gratitude to my teachers Jenny Orona & Mark Uridel for their heartfelt, uplifting and graceful approach to teaching this complex and emotive subject.

In recognition of my brave and inspiring Mum as we navigate this unexpected path together. And in appreciation of my dearest friends who have already paved the way for our journey and who selflessly continue to light our way and offer us shelter from the storm.

Sources

Burke, Dr. Michael: Importance of Social Support in Wellness 

Cancer Council Australia: Cancer and emotions booklet https://www.cancer.org.au/assets/pdf/emotions-and-cancer-booklet

Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) https://www.cnhc.org.uk/articles/cancer-act-1939#gsc.tab=0

International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) https://www.iayt.org/page/YTT_Landing

Khalsa, S., Cohen, L. et al. Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Care 2016

McLelland, J. How to starve cancer and then kill it with ferroptosis 2021

Majewski, L. & Balayogi Bhavanani, A. Yoga Therapy as a Whole-Person Approach to Health 2020

National Cancer Institute (USA) Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End results Programme https://seer.cancer.gov/

Orona, J. (2023) ‘Ayurveda & Cancer’ (Lecture), YT309.04: Ayurveda for the Yoga Therapist. 3 May.

Society for Integrative Oncology at https://integrativeonc.org/

Sri Balaji Vidyapeeth Centre for Yoga Therapy Education and Research (CYTER) https://sbvu.ac.in/

Uridel, M. (2023) ‘Yoga Therapy and Cancer – Approaches During Recovery’ (Lecture), YT306.24: Essential Applied Yoga Therapy. Practice School of Yoga Therapy. 10 May.

yestolife.org.uk

Yogatherapy.health Yoga Therapy & healing with brain cancer