What You Didn't Know About Yoga and How it Helps Treat Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • The National Institutes of Health celebrated its first annual Yoga Week last week. A five-day series of events in Bethesda, Maryland, attracted participants who took part in yoga classes, heard expert speakers, and were invited to attend a dinner. Part of the celebration included information on a $2.4 million grant recently awarded for the study of yoga and its effect on breast cancer patients.

    So what IS yoga, and how might it help YOU? Read these FAQS to find out.

    Q. My girlfriend says she’s heard that yoga might help me feel better as I go through chemo. I thought yoga was a bending and stretching class. Why would that make me feel less nauseous?

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    A. Yoga is more—MUCH more—than simply exercising your body, though that’s a big part of it. Yoga is classified, by the National Institutes of Health, as a complementary therapy for cancer; about 10% of women undergoing treatment for breast cancer do yoga as a complement to their mainstream treatment. That doesn’t mean it replaces surgery, radiation, and drugs. But it can help you feel better as you go through treatment: less tired, more positive. And in some women, the breathing exercises taught in yoga help  with their nausea, too.

    Q. So what exactly is yoga?

    A. Yoga is what’s known as a mind-body practice. It helps link your mind (and heart, soul, spirit—whatever you consider the essence of YOU) with your body, so that you gain some control over (or make peace with) what’s happening to you physically. Other mind-body practices include Reiki, tai chi, and prayer, among others.

    Yoga began thousands of years ago in India, as a method of disciplining the body in order to reach spiritual enlightenment. It combines meditation; breathing exercises; and different “poses” (variations on sitting, standing, and lying down). A yoga class will typically begin and end with quiet meditation time, with the teacher speaking softly as the students relax, prone on the floor. In between, students will go through a series of controlled, traditional movements designed to relax and “balance” the body and mind/spirit.   

    Q. There’s a yoga class at my local gym. The description uses words like “hatha” and “asana” and “pranayama.” What’s all that about? Do I have to learn a new language?

    No, not at all! If you introduce yourself to your yoga instructor before class and tell him or her you’re new to yoga, (s)he’ll no doubt interpret for you as you go along. (Also, tell the instructor you’re receiving breast cancer treatment, and alert him or her to any physical issues you might have, so that (s)he can help you modify any stretches that might be  painful.)

    Hatha yoga is the style most often practiced in the United States. It focuses on asana (physical postures; the movements you’ll do during class); and pranayama (breathing exercises). So when the teacher refers to an asana, (s)he’s alerting you to a new movement or posture you’ll be doing. And when (s)he says pranayama, you know you’ll be concentrating on your breathing.

  • Q. I still don’t understand how all this will make me feel better…

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    A. While there’s no scientific explanation for what yoga does for you, studies have shown that it improves a person’s sense of wellbeing. In a recent study involving breast cancer patients, it was shown that those taking a yoga class rated their “quality of life” higher than those not taking the class. Similar studies have produced similar results.


    Perhaps it’s the relaxation that comes with slow, controlled breathing; maybe it’s the endorphins that are produced in your brain when you exercise. But however it works, why not just accept the fact that yoga will quite possibly make you feel better as you go through treatment? No harm in giving it a try. Contact your local recreation center, adult education program, or health club for information about classes.

Published On: May 25, 2008