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Yoga is a whole body philosophy that started over 5,000 years ago in India.

What yoga is

Yoga is a whole body philosophy that involves:

  • working with breathing (pranayama)
  • stretching exercises
  • postures (asanas)
  • meditation

These create harmony between your mind, body and spirit to help clear and calm your mind.

Yoga is promoted as a way of staying healthy and preventing illness.

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
  • Astanga yoga

Some are quite strenuous, while others are gentler and focus more on meditation and breath work.

Yoga teachers claim the postures:

  • stimulate your nervous system
  • make your muscles and joints more flexible
  • 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.

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 say it helps calm their mind so that they can cope better with their cancer and its treatment. Others say 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.

What it involves

A yoga session usually lasts between 60 and 90 minutes. You can attend group classes or see a private teacher.

What it involves will depend on the style of yoga you choose. But you will usually do a series of postures and breath work, which will end with some relaxation time.

Wear clothing that you find easy to move and stretch in.

You usually need a non slip mat. Your teacher might 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. You could injure yourself if you don’t do them correctly.

Side effects and precautions

Yoga is generally very safe if you do it properly, under instruction from a qualified teacher.

Qualified teachers usually recommend the following safety measures.

  • Allow at least 2 hours after eating before doing yoga
  • Don’t do yoga alone at home until you’ve practiced it with a qualified teacher
  • Tell your teacher about any medical problems you have, including back and joint problems, before you begin
  • Stop and tell your teacher if any posture is painful for you
  • 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)
  • Drink plenty of water after every class

Research into yoga in cancer care

There is no scientific evidence to prove that yoga can cure or prevent any type of cancer.

But some studies suggest that it might help people with cancer cope with symptoms and side effects.

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, tiredness (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 on the link below.

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.

The reviewers said that the people with breast cancer found yoga helped to reduce distress, anxiety, depression and tiredness (fatigue). It also helped to improve quality of life, emotional wellbeing and social wellbeing.

Also in 2012, a small individual study in the US 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.

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

Tell your yoga teacher if you have any of these conditions before you begin.

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

What yoga costs

A few cancer centres and hospitals in the UK offer yoga classes free of charge. Ask if this is available where you are having treatment. If not, they may be able to direct you to a voluntary organisation that does so, or for a low cost.

It is very important that you have your classes with a qualified teacher.

You might pay between £4 and £12 for a 60 to 90 minute group session. Private sessions could cost between £30 and £60.

Contact the British Council for Yoga Therapy for a list of organisations that can give you more information about costs.

Finding a yoga teacher

There is no single organisation that regulates yoga teachers in the UK. They don’t have to join any organisation by law, or have any specific training either. But many are registered with one of the organisations listed below.

Contact a yoga organisation and ask for a list of yoga centres and teachers in your area.

You might want to ask them these questions.

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practicing?
  • Do you have training of experience teaching people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Yoga organisations

The organisations below can give you more information and details of yoga teachers in your area.

The British Wheel of Yoga is the main yoga organisation in the UK.

BWY Central Office
British Wheel of Yoga
25 Jermyn Street
NG34 7RU

Phone: 01529 306851

The Independent Yoga Network holds the Yoga Register. This allows yoga teachers and training schools that meet a standard based on fundamental yogic principles to register.

PO Box 5525

Phone: 01902 689218

Yoga Alliance Professionals aims to promote high teaching standards and encourages its members to take part in continuous training. They have a register of yoga teachers who can demonstrate that they have trained to a high standard.

Phone: 0131 659 9922 or Freephone 0800 088 6067

CNHC is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners. It protects the public by giving them access to a list of practitioners who have met national standards of competence and practice. Registered practitioners can use the CNHC quality mark on certificates and publicity materials. Most NHS services only use CNHC registered practitioners.

46-48 East Smithfield

Phone: 0203 668 0406

The Federation of Holistic Therapists is the largest 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.

Phone: 023 8062 4350

Last reviewed: 
05 Feb 2015
  • Physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga in cancer patients and survivors, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
    L M Buffart and others        
    BMC Cancer, 2012, Volume 12

  • Yoga for persistent fatigue in breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial.
    J E Bower and others
    Cancer, 2012, Volume 1, Issue 118 (15)

  • Yoga for cancer patients and survivors.
    J E Bower and others
    Cancer Control, 2005, Volume 12, Issue 3

  • Breast Cancer Survivors and Hot Flashes: The Search for Nonhormonal Treatments
    N E Avis
    Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2008,  Volume 18

  • Psychological adjustment and sleep quality in a randomized trial of the effects of a Tibetan yoga intervention in patients with lymphoma.
    L Cohen and others
    Cancer, 2004, Volume 100, Issue 10

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