Yoga for Cancer Survivors

“I cannot give you another regimen that has as many good health benefits as exercise. Hands down. Exercise improves life energy and sexual energy; your body image will improve. I can’t give you a better, free intervention.” So said psychologist Helen Coons in a recent speech to breast cancer survivors.

Any gentle exercise regimen during recovery is good. It helps ease many of the distressing symptoms of cancer treatment: insomnia, fatigue, weight gain, depression, poor body image, sexual dysfunction.

Yet, one of the best forms of exercise, according to several recent studies, is yoga.

Yoga combines gentle stretching and holding of various positions, which helps with balance, flexibility, and muscle tone. But it also involves a meditative component. The breath work in yoga “stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and causes the body to relax and the blood pressure to drop,” says Maureen Ryan, sex therapist and nurse practitioner.

Yoga also encourages a sense of mindfulness—being aware of the moment and present to it. When the recent past is full of pain and the future is full of fear, “mindfulness brings people back to the present moment,” says Ms. Ryan. In one study of women with gynecological cancers who were experiencing difficulty with sex, the most helpful component of the experimental program was the practice of mindfulness.

Yoga is so effective because it exercises the body and calms the mind.

A small but significant study found that several weeks of Restorative Yoga, which involves gentle poses, usually with support from pillows and other props, reduced depression by 50 percent in women with cancer. (All had breast cancer; about one-third were still in treatment.)

Another larger study focused on the effect of two types of yoga—Hatha Yoga and Restorative Yoga—on cancer survivors who were having difficulty sleeping, a common problem for survivors and one that isn’t easily alleviated with medication.

Half the group attended 75-minute yoga classes twice a week and also practiced yoga at home. At the end of a month, this group was sleeping better with less medication than the control group. The group also reported less fatigue during the day.

In yet another study, breast cancer survivors reported better body image and less self-consciousness. After doing yoga for two months both at home and in group sessions, these women also had less pain, better muscle tone, more flexibility, and greater weight loss than a control group that had just exercised minimally for 30 minutes a week.

In fact, yoga is seen to be so effective in recovery that several top cancer centers, such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering and Stanford Cancer Center, provide their own yoga classes to patients.

Any form of exercise is helpful, but evidence suggests that the kind of mind-body regimen that yoga offers is particularly effective. Yoga classes are also easy to find—most communities offer them, and they are affordable.

Besides, anything that reduces depression, increases energy, improves body image, and reduces pain has to be good for sex, too.

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