By Isabelle Z.

Many people who practice yoga report that it reduces stress and helps them gain a sense of inner calm. The ancient practice, which combines movement with breath, is being explored by researchers as a way to help cancer patients alleviate symptoms and boost their outlook and quality of life.

A number of studies have already explored the effects of yoga on cancer patients, but one oncologist who also happens to be a yoga instructor reports that the evidence she has seen firsthand in her work with patients over the past decade has been all the proof she needs that it helps.

Dr. Lisa Mueller is an oncologist and yoga instructor for the City of Hope. She said: “It’s a no-brainer. It helps. Everyone I have known and taught has been helped by yoga.”

Some of the benefits she has seen in cancer patients who practice yoga include improved strength and flexibility, relief from nerve pain, and reductions in other pain, nausea and fatigue. Many patients have found that it helps them get more sleep, and it also reduces their fear and anxiety. In addition, some have reported better memory, helping to stave off the brain fog that is known as “chemo brain.”

Mueller emphasises that yoga does not have to be particularly vigorous in order to be therapeutic.

She points to five simple poses that can be adapted to a person’s physical ability. When combined with deep, conscious breathing, these poses can provide substantial benefits:

• Table pose: The goasana pose can bring about balance.

• Shoulder stand: The sarvangasana pose can be modified using a wall to support the body.

• Corpse pose: The savasana pose can be supported using bolsters on the neck.

• Child pose: The balasana pose can calm the mind, a vital benefit during a stressful time.

• Tree pose: The vrksasana pose can help with balance, and people can perform it with both feet on the ground if needed.

Not every patient can get to a class, but Mueller says that conscious breathing in small doses throughout the day can bring people some of the same benefits that a yoga class provides. Slow and steady breaths from time to time can help “reset” the mind and body.

Plenty of studies back the notion that yoga is therapeutic

A 2011 study from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center showed that yoga helped improve quality of life for women who were undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer. Some of the benefits noted were reduced fatigue, overall health improvements, better physical functioning and a reduction in the level of the stress hormone cortisol. This is a particularly significant benefit because elevated levels of stress hormones throughout the day are believed to worsen the outcome of breast cancer patients.

Another study, which was published in Cancer Nursing in 2010, showed an overwhelmingly positive response to a specialised Iyengar yoga program geared toward breast cancer survivors, with 94 percent of participants reporting an improvement in their quality of life, 88 percent saying they felt better physically, 87 percent saying they felt happier, and 80 percent saying they felt less tired. Other benefits noted in the two-year study included a reduction in stress, depression and anxiety, and improvements in body image.

Breathing makes all the difference

Breathing is an important component of yoga, and clean air is vital for deriving the most benefits from any breathing technique. Heading outdoors for a yoga session can be particularly beneficial.

Mueller believes that yoga can benefit absolutely everyone, regardless of their condition.

“There is no person who wouldn’t benefit from a yoga practice, no matter what stage of treatment they are in,” she said. “Even in a hospital, sick in bed, learning how to breathe can help.”