Bending the Rules

Yoga has earned accolades as a complementary therapy, and now studies are confirming its value.

Meghan Kearney, a social worker in San Francisco, calls yoga her savior. In 2007, 32-year-old Kearney underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy for stage 1 breast cancer. 

“During all my surgeries and treatment, I felt like my body was not my own,” she says. “All the doctors had far more control over my body than I did.” Kearney says she began practicing yoga around two years after diagnosis. “I started very slowly. I was still in pain from my surgeries, and the rest of my body was very tight from all the stress.”

She began taking weekly restorative yoga classes and found two postures—chest opener and hip opener—to be very helpful.

“Yoga has been amazing, calming my body and my mind. Especially as I face a second potential diagnosis of cancer, the only thing that has kept me calm physically and mentally has been yoga.” 

Anecdotal evidence supporting the benefits of yoga for improving the quality of life for cancer patients and survivors has led to its acceptance as a complementary therapy, and new studies on yoga for specific long-term effects may expand that acceptance even further. 

Yoga as a philosophy and practice has existed for centuries. While its roots are thought to be in India, yoga is varied and is practiced in several different forms around the world (see sidebar). In the U.S., yoga commonly involves synchronizing various postures (asanas) and breathing methods (pranayama) in conjunction with meditation to release tension and increase a calm state of mind. 

Last summer at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting, researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y., presented results of a four-week yoga program created for cancer survivors that indicated yoga can reduce fatigue and improve sleep in cancer survivors. 

Karen Mustian, PhD, an assistant professor of radiation oncology and community and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center and an exercise psychologist specializing in cancer, oversaw the study, which included 410 non-metastatic cancer survivors. Although breast cancer survivors represented 75 percent of this group, survivors of all cancer types were initially recruited with the qualification of having sleep disturbances in the previous two years after completing treatment.

“Because many cancer survivors still have unresolved fatigue after treatment, we wanted to see if yoga could help reduce that quality-of-life issue,” Mustian says. 

Each week, study participants had two, 75-minute sessions for the four weeks using YOCAS (Yoga for Cancer Survivors), which was developed by Mustian and her team. This program included breathing exercises, gentle Hatha and restorative yoga postures and mindfulness exercises. Postures included those performed in standing, sitting and lying positions. 

Because many cancer survivors still have unresolved fatigue after treatment, we wanted to see if yoga could help reduce that quality-of-life issue.

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