Yoga is an ancient lifestyle practice that uses a series of movements and poses (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation to allow a deeper connection to one’s self. The word yoga means “to join” or “union.” Yoga focuses on joining the body, mind, breath and spirit together in harmony and focus, without mental distractions. Yoga has been practised for thousands of years. Strict followers of the discipline observe a number of beliefs and practices, including ethics, dietary guidelines and spirituality.

There are many different forms of yoga. Some types emphasize the physical poses and focus on alignment. Other types focus on the control and awareness of breathing, while others have a stronger focus on meditation, philosophy, service or cleansing techniques. Hatha yoga is the most common form practised here in North America in the yoga studios and is a general term for all forms of yoga that consist of classical yoga postures and breathing methods. Examples of types of Hatha yoga are Iyengar, Restorative, Sivananda, Kundalini, Anusara, just to name a few.

You can learn yoga from a book or video, but it’s best to learn from a qualified yoga teacher in a group class or with individual private lessons. This reduces your risk of injury and helps make sure you are learning the poses and breathing properly.

You may be more comfortable seeking private sessions with a certified yoga therapist. Yoga therapy is the specific use of yoga philosophy, poses, breathing methods and meditation for certain diseases or dysfunctions. It is a one-on-one experience that can address all layers of your being: mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. A therapist can come to your home to help you with specific concerns. For example, a yoga therapist can work with you when you are feeling physically weak, fragile, in physical or emotional pain, or if you want to enhance your immune system or help manage stress. Therapists often work on anxiety, insomnia and pain issues, which are common for people in cancer treatment.

As with any new exercise program or mental health intervention, it’s best that you talk to your healthcare team about whether yoga is safe for you. It’s also a good idea to have the yoga therapist communicate with your healthcare team.

Yoga as a complementary therapy

There is no evidence at this time that yoga can treat cancer itself. Research has shown that yoga can be used to help improve high blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, metabolism and body temperature. Yoga can improve your strength, mobility, bone health, cardiovascular health, breathing pattern and other physiological systems and decrease pain. Mentally, yoga can enhance well-being, lower your stress response, help manage your pain experience and help you feel more relaxed. People who practise yoga believe that it helps enhance their quality of life.

Research has shown that yoga can help people living with cancer relieve their anxiety and depression. It’s also been shown to increase a sense of spiritual well-being.

Some research has shown that yoga may potentially help with fatigue or sleeping problems.

Side effects and risks of yoga

Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about starting yoga or any type of exercise that means moving your joints and muscles in a way that you’re not used to. Let your yoga instructor know about your cancer diagnosis and any physical limitations that you have. Your instructor should be able to guide you in learning the safe way of doing poses and change the poses to suit your needs.

Side effects from yoga are rare, but yoga injuries are becoming more common, especially in people who haven’t had an individual assessment based on their needs and ability. Over stretching joints and ligaments can cause injury. It’s a good idea to start slowly, know your limits, not push past pain or discomfort, and let the yoga instructor know of any issues you may have before the class starts.

Some of the physical yoga poses may not be indicated if you have cancer that has spread to the bone (called bone metastases) and are at risk for fractures. However, gentle yoga breathing and meditation methods would likely be appropriate. Consult your healthcare team as appropriate.

If you are still having cancer treatments or if you have lymphedema, you should not do hot yoga, which is vigorous yoga in a very hot room (at least 40°C).

Finding a yoga teacher, yoga therapist or medical yoga therapist

The Canadian Yoga Alliance sets standards for training students and teachers of general yoga. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) sets standards for training yoga therapists. Visit the IAYT website to find a yoga therapist in your area. A medical yoga therapist is a healthcare professional who has training in yoga therapy. Ask the yoga teacher or therapist if they have training in and experience working with people who have cancer.

Expert review and references

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