Yoga and cancer
There are several types of yoga. They all aim to help you relax by using breathing exercises, different body postures and relaxation techniques.
- Yoga works with the breath (pranayama).
- It improves strength and flexibility through a series of postures (asanas).
- Yoga uses meditation to aid deep relaxation.
What is yoga?
Yoga is an ancient form of exercise for body and mind. It aims to improve strength, flexibility and breathing through a series of postures and movements. It is a whole body philosophy that started over 5,000 years ago in India.
Yoga aims to create harmony between your mind, body and spirit to help you feel calmer.
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, Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga.
Some forms of yoga 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
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 illness. 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 practised 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 tell you which ones.
- 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 2017 a Cochrane review looked at whether yoga could improve quality of life in people with breast cancer. They included 24 studies. Most of the studies were small, so the results need to be used with caution. They found that yoga can sometimes help with sleep, tiredness, anxiety and depression.
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 yoga may have positive effects on mental well being. But the review results have to be used with caution because there were some weaknesses and differences in the research studies included.
A small study of men with prostate cancer also noted an improvement in their quality of life and general well being when they practised yoga regularly.
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 £6 and £15 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 practising?
- Do you have training or experience of teaching people with cancer?
- Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)
A word of caution
Before you begin any yoga practice make sure that you tell your yoga teacher about your condition. They can adapt the exercises to suit your needs. It is important to take things gently at first to minimise the risk of injury.
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
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