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What yoga is

Yoga started over 5,000 years ago in India and is now very popular in Western countries. It is a whole body philosophy, involving working with breathing (pranayama), stretching exercises, postures (asanas) and meditation. These create harmony between your mind, body and spirit and help clear and calm your mind.

We have a separate page about meditation

Yoga teachers promote yoga as a way of staying healthy and preventing illness. They claim that the postures will stimulate your nervous system, make your muscles and joints more flexible, and relax your mind and body. The exercises combined with breathing improve your oxygen and blood supply. In turn, this helps your circulation and breathing, which promotes general good health.

There are about 80 main postures that you can do standing, kneeling, sitting or lying down. There are several different styles of yoga including Hatha yoga, Iyengar yoga and Astanga yoga. Some are quite strenuous, while others are gentler and focus more on meditation and breath work.


Why people with cancer use yoga

As with many types of complementary therapy one of the main reasons that people with cancer use yoga is because it makes them feel good. Yoga teachers promote it as a natural way to help you relax and cope with stress, anxiety and depression. Generally, it can help to lift your mood and enhance well being. 

Some people with cancer who have used yoga say that it helps calm their mind so that they can cope better with their cancer and its treatment. Others say that it helps to reduce symptoms and side effects such as pain, tiredness, sleep problems and depression. 

Yoga can sometimes help you to move around more quickly and easily after surgery for cancer.


Research into yoga in cancer care

There is no scientific evidence to prove that yoga can cure or prevent any type of cancer. But there are some studies to suggest that it might help people with cancer to sleep better and cope with anxiety.

In March 2010 a review of studies into yoga for patients with cancer was published. It included 10 trials. It found that yoga could help to reduce anxiety, depression, fatigue and stress for some patients. And it improved the quality of sleep, mood and spiritual well being for some people. The authors of the study said that overall yoga may be associated with some positive effects on psychological well being for people with cancer. But the review results have to be used with caution because there were some weaknesses and differences in the research studies included. You can read the review of yoga for people with cancer on the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE) website.

In 2012 researchers carried out another review of studies that looked at the physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga for people with cancer. 13 trials were included. In patients with breast cancer the reviewers said that they found that yoga helped to reduce distress, anxiety, depression and tiredness (fatigue). It also helped to improve quality of life, emotional wellbeing and social wellbeing. 

A small individual study in the USA in 2012 found that yoga reduced tiredness (fatigue) in women with breast cancer. Some studies seem to show that yoga may be able to reduce hot flushes in women with breast cancer. 1 small trial showed that people with lymphoma had fewer sleep disturbances, fell asleep more quickly, and slept for longer after a 7 week yoga programme. But we need bigger studies to confirm all  these findings.

Several US studies are currently looking at whether yoga can help to reduce the physical and emotional side effects of living with cancer or its treatment. 

Other research suggests that yoga may help people with other health problems such as

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Lower back pain
  • Joint problems, such as arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Epilepsy
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Anxiety and depression

If you have any of these conditions always tell your yoga teacher before doing yoga.


What yoga involves

This will depend on the style of yoga you choose. You can attend group classes or see a private teacher. 

A yoga session usually lasts between 60 and 90 minutes, and involves a series of postures with breath work, and relaxation time at the end of the class. Wear clothing that you find easy to move and stretch in. You usually need a non slip mat. Your teacher may provide these or you can bring your own.

You should only practise yoga on your own at home after you have learnt the safe and proper way to do the postures. If you don’t do them correctly, you could injure yourself.


Side effects and precautions

If you do yoga properly, under instructions from a qualified teacher, it is generally very safe. Qualified teachers usually recommend the following safety measures

  • Allow at least 2 hours after eating before doing yoga
  • To avoid injury, don’t do yoga alone at home until you’ve practiced it with a qualified teacher
  • Before beginning yoga classes, always tell your teacher about any medical problems you have, including back and joint problems
  • If any posture is painful for you, stop and let your teacher know
  • Never try difficult postures, such as head and shoulder stands, without first being shown how to do this by a qualified teacher
  • Women who are pregnant, or have their period, shouldn’t practice certain postures – your teacher will advise you about which these are
  • After a yoga class make sure that you drink plenty of water

The cost of yoga

A few cancer centres and hospitals in the UK offer yoga classes free of charge. So you can ask your nurse or doctor if this is available where you are having treatment. If not, they may be able to direct you to a voluntary organisation that offers free or low cost complementary therapy treatments to people with cancer. You can also contact the British Council for Yoga Therapy for a list of organisations that can give you information about costs.

Group classes can range between about £4 and £12 for a 60 to 90 minute session. Private sessions can cost between £30 and £60. It is very important that you have your classes with a qualified teacher. 


Finding a yoga teacher

Currently in the UK there is no single organisation that regulates yoga teachers. They can join several associations. But they don’t have to by law. They don’t have to have any specific training either. But many yoga teachers are registered with one of the organisations listed below.

The best way to find a registered teacher is to

  • Contact a yoga organisation and ask for a list of yoga centres and teachers in your area.
  • Ask the teacher how many years of training they've had, and how long they've been practising
  • Ask if they have taught people with cancer before
  • Ask if they have indemnity insurance (in case of negligence)

Yoga organisations

There are many yoga organisations. The British Wheel of Yoga is the main yoga organisation in the UK. The organisations below can give information and details of local yoga teachers.

The British Wheel of Yoga
BWY Central Office
British Wheel of Yoga
25 Jermyn Street
NG34 7RU
Phone: 01529 306851

British Council for Yoga Therapy

The Independent Yoga Network
PO Box 5525
Phone: 01902 689218

Holds the Yoga Register, which provides registration for yoga teachers and training schools that meet a standard based on fundamental yogic principles.

Iyengar Yoga Association
PO Box 4730
S8 2HE
Phone: 07510 326997

Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC)
CNHC is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners and covers yoga teachers. Its key function is to improve public protection by giving the general public access to a list of practitioners who meet national standards of competence and practice. Registered practitioners are able to use the CNHC quality mark on certificates and publicity materials.

Phone: 0207 653 1971

The Federation of Holistic Therapists (FHT)
18 Shakespeare Business Centre
Hathaway Close
SO50 4SR
Phone: 023 8062 4350

The Federation of Holistic Therapists is the leading professional association for complementary therapists. They have a register of therapists who are qualified, insured, and who follow the FHT strict Code of Conduct and Professional Practice.

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Updated: 5 February 2015