“You have cancer.” About half of all men and one-third of all women in the United States will hear those words in their lifetime. That’s 40 percent of us. We each hope it’s not us. But hope is not a plan. And if you’ve heard those three little words, as I did, your life changes forever. But blaming yourself, retreating from life, and hoping for no recurrence, is also not a plan. Adding yoga to your daily routine—that’s a plan. And an effective one!
An increasing body of research shows that yoga can help prevent cancer, and help cancer patients and survivors manage risk and side effects after treatment. As a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2000, I have felt the impact in my own body after many surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. Yoga brings balance and alignment to all body parts and systems: muscles, bones, organs, and the mind. It’s a holistic path to wellness that focuses on interconnection.
Here are five reasons why yoga should be in everyone’s cancer-prevention and/or cancer-recovery plan.
Yoga strengthens the immune system. The goal of strengthening the immune system is to keep all of the body’s systems working together. It takes a village: Failure of any one system threatens the health of the whole community. Cancer therapies that seek to strengthen the immune system are increasingly proving to be helpfulin fighting a wide variety of cancers.
Research shows that yoga boosts immunity. A 2013 study in Norway found that regular practice of gentle yoga and meditation had a rapid effect at the genetic level in circulating cancer-fighting immune cells. Mindfulness meditation also appears to change the brain and immune function in positive ways.
Yoga detoxifies the body. Detoxification is the vital metabolic process by which dead cells and toxins (the flu virus, a rogue cancer cell, or another pathogen) are excreted from the body. Yoga is the muscle of the lymphatic system—the body’s plumbing and trash-removal system. Similar to how the heart muscle circulates blood, yoga increases lymphatic flow with specific breathing and movement practices. Inversions, a fundamental part of a strong yoga practice, utilize movement and body positioning to reverse the effects of gravity on our body, enhancing the process of cardiovascular and lymphatic drainage.
Another way in which yoga detoxifies the body is through compression. B. K. S. Iyengar called it the “squeeze and soak” process, which cleans internal organs in the same way that a sponge discharges dirty water when squeezed. For example, abdominal twists activate internal organs and guide the release of toxins into the lymphatic system.
Yoga detoxifies the mind as well. A survivor lives with the fear of cancer returning, and this daily anxiety is a mental toxin. We can detoxify the mind by using the movement of the breath, by relaxing into gravity in a restorative pose, and by quietly watching our thoughts in meditation.
Yoga builds bones. How are strong bones linked to cancer prevention? Our bones house bone marrow, where new red and white blood cells are constantly being produced. White blood cells are needed to form leukocytes, our natural cancer-fighting immune cells. If our bones are compromised from a break or from osteoporosis (a side effect of chemotherapy), so too is the production of a nourishing blood supply and immune protection.
A recent pilot study by Kripalu presenter Loren Fishman, MD, applied yoga practice to sufferers of osteoporosis (decrease in bone mass) and osteopenia (reduction in bone volume). The results showed that 85 percent of the yoga practitioners gained bone in both the spine and hip, while nearly every member of the control group maintained or lost bone mass. I believe yoga is safer for strong bone building than many gym routines, because it puts weight on the bones in a precise, deliberate way.
Yoga reduces stress. Cancer patients and survivors experience stress similar to that endured by military veterans. They are bombarded by frightening information, subjected to invasive procedures, and must endure cold clinics and blank stares.
A 2009 study of cancer survivors developed and tested a concept that measures how we respond to “post-traumatic stress growth,” the positive flip side to suffering with stress. This growth occurs when people make the traumatic event a pivotal point in their life, changing their situation by making lemonade out lemons—ultimately thriving after cancer, for instance. The thriving survivor enjoys her blissful moments, which can lead to further change and the ability to find positive ways to manage stress.
Yoga can enhance that positivity. The results of a 2009 study on the effects of yoga on emotions found an increase in positive emotions such as calmness and a sense of purpose in more than 50 percent of subjects. Women participating in a 10-week program of restorative yoga classes gained positive differences in aspects of mental health such as depression, positive emotions, and spirituality (feeling calm and peaceful), as compared to the control group.
Yoga is weight management. Obesity is a key, if not the largest, indicator of both cancer incidence and recurrence. In the United States, excess body weight is thought to contribute to as many as one out of five cancer-related deaths, and being overweight or obese is clearly linked with an increased risk of several types of cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends that obese individuals increase weekly exercise to 300 minutes per week to reduce the chances of cancer or recurrence.
Research on the impact of yoga on weight gain is still in the early stages. One study showed that yoga had a more positive impact on obesity and depression than aerobic exercise. While yoga for cancer survivors often focuses on gentle or restorative yoga methods (which are necessary and beneficial approaches), it can and should be active, and therefore calorie burning—while also being safe, physically accessible, welcoming, and inclusive. Yoga can help cancer survivors manage weight gain, which improves self-esteem and the ability to function normally, and ultimately reduces the risk of recurrence and mortality.
The benefits of yoga for cancer prevention are profound and well substantiated. For yoga teachers who work with cancer survivors and those in treatment, having specific knowledge about the benefits and modifications for this community is imperative. Teachers must understand the limitations and requirements in order to support this community to practice effectively and safely.
Tari Prinster, a cancer survivor, master yoga teacher, and author of Yoga for Cancer, developed Yoga4Cancer (y4c)methodology using contemporary research on cancer and yoga. Tari has trained more than a thousand yoga teachers and worked with thousands of survivors in her weekly classes and retreats. She is the founder and president of the Retreat Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to help underserved cancer survivors through yoga.
Recently, I was asked if our yoga4cancer classes in New York City are women only. ‘Good question!’ I responded, and ‘Thanks for asking.’ This gives me the opportunity to clarify my approach and my working policy for our classes.
First, a little history is needed. In 2003, I started a yoga class for women breast cancer survivors at OMyoga under the sponsorship of a foundation whose mission was to support women only programs. Within the first few years, we extended the program to help women beyond those suffering from breast cancer. For many years the classes continued under the title: OMyoga for Women Cancer Survivors, WCS. Two years ago when OMyoga closed the doors of its studio in Manhattan, I knew our yoga classes must continue but in a new form. This was the birth of yoga4cancer.
In setting the foundation for yoga4cancer, I knew I wanted to help as many survivors as possible – no matter race, gender, creed or background. Cancer doesn’t distinguish, why should we?! It seemed appropriate to offer them to all cancer patients and survivors. Plus in the 10 years since the inception of the program, more men were interested in learning & participating in our classes and in yoga in general. Many men had become teachers within the y4c family and using our principles everyday to heal. So I didn’t want to exclude any type of cancer or person it effects. Cancer is not gender specific and yoga is beneficial to all, male or female. Our instructors and classes are capable of helping anyone no matter the type of stage or type of cancer – male or female.
That being said, like most yoga classes, whatever style or specialty, the number of women usually outnumbers the number of men participating. So it often appears as if only women attend y4c classes. But in fact, we welcome all cancer survivors of both genders and all races to y4c classes. Spread the word. Bring your male friends to class!
Tari Answered: “Yoga for cancer patients is a specialization. When I was going through treatments, I found that there were few yoga teachers who understood what my needs and desires were as a patient. I went to classes that were designed basically as a series of restorative poses. Although this was lovely and relaxing, it was not satisfying nor inspiring.
I was surprised, and upset, that many yoga classes were offered by teachers without any supervised training, knowledge of cancer and Western treatments, and no personal experience with cancer. My feelings about the preparedness of yoga teachers beyond the 200-hr training programs are supported by the words of BKS Iyengar in Light on Life. ‘Is it an act of loving-kindness to assume you know the needs of those you come to you for help?”
Muriel W: Muriel completed her cancer treatments in May 2009. Her oncologist requested a CT scan for her first sixth month post treatment check up.
Muriel Asked Tari: Yesterday I was so nervous when I got onto the scanner, I stopped breathing before they told me to. My heart was pounding hard, I was feeling claustrophobic and extremely uncomfortable. Then I remembered your words, ‘Count your breath slowly and the mind will follow.’ I did. I immediately became calm, my muscles relaxed, and I finished the scan feeling optimistic and empowered. It was like magic. Thank you for this simple yoga lesson and breathing technique.
I was wondering at the time, was I doing yoga in a CT scanner?
Tari Answered: Yes, Muriel you were doing yoga. You don’t need a class, a mat or a teacher to give you directions. That is what makes yoga such an important tool in your recovery process. You can do yoga anywhere and anytime. And it helps you manage those naturally scary moments we all have, like being in a CT scanner.
Sometimes we need yoga most for places not designed for quiet sitting or exercise. You are stuck in traffic, or waiting for a doctor’s appointment, or expecting a phone call with test results, or in your case, in a the CT scanner.
Yoga is a portable prescription for relaxation and renewal. I am sending you ten more yoga things you can anytime or anywhere…in a bed, in a chair, in a car, at the store, in the air… I call it Pocket Yoga©.
Muriel, I hope that your scans were all ‘negative’ and that you kept breathing calmly all the way home. I love hearing stories about how yoga has been helpful and comforting to people in the simple ways. Thank you.
Question: Do your students talk about their cancers?
Tari Answered: “Absolutely! Again, that sense of community is hugely important to what we do. When I started looking into yoga for cancer survivors, I wondered why yoga teachers never use the big “C” word– the word cancer. Instead, they emphasized, “relax” and “feel peaceful.” Ironically, these pleasant words sent my mind racing into thinking about dying. It was not healing to avoid the reason the class was offered, nor was it spiritual.
I find my students are comforted by the exchange of questions we have when I first meet them as to what kind of cancer they have, how long, what treatments, side effects and how is it going in their recovery. The relief that I am not afraid to acknowledge their illness is a relief akin to spiritual. When the class includes an explanation of how yoga deep breathing will assist in cleansing the immune system, and why that is important to lower the risk of cancer reoccurrence, the response is a smile with each inhale.
At the end of class the glow on each woman’s face is the goal of yoga. Not some kind of nirvana, nor profound enlightenment, or even heightened awareness. But simple contentment in the sheath of Anandmayakosha, the Bliss Factor that yoga offers to aid healing. This is yoga’s gift to them and to me.
Cynthia Asked Tari: Since my mastectomy surgeries I have not been about to gain back all the strength and mobility in my right arm and the implant makes me nervous about moving it a lot. My sister has done yoga for years and is encouraging me to start yoga classes because she believes yoga can help me regain the use of my arm. I have never done yoga before. When is it safe for me to start?
About Cynthia: Cynthia had a mastectomy and then breast reconstruction using an implant. She is 45 years old and a single working mom.
Tari Answered: The unqualified answer is, Start Now! However, you used the most important word in your question to me. SAFE. I thank you for that. Our loved ones encourage us with ideas and suggestion to speed our recovery. You have to love them for that.
At first glance, the idea of yoga for cancer patients undergoing treatment and now in survivorship seems obvious, a logical step. What better way to manage anxiety, gain strength, increase flexibility and create feelings of well being? I agree. That is certainly what I did and continue to do. However, helpful ideas come in big packages and you are right to ask when is it safe to do yoga.
Yoga is a big package. In it there are some yoga secrets as well. What is good for your sister may not be good for you as a cancer survivor. The popular notion is that yoga is good for everyone, whatever its style, flavor or size. But we know that is not true. Just like cancer, yoga is not one-size-does-fits-all. Everyone’s cancer, treatments, side effects and body are different.
To help you understand how yoga can be good for you and when it is safe to start, here are questions back to you:
Are you ready?
It is a good idea to have your doctor’s permission. You may have other physical conditions not related to the cancer that should be considered. In relation to your cancer surgeries, however, it is critical that all surgical drains and staples have been removed and that your incision is healing well.
What Kind of yoga?
There are many. I have prepared a list of the yoga styles most commonly practiced and taught in the West with a short description of what to expect in a class that is based on these styles is included to help you discern what style is best for you.
A better question is: With whom?
Healing begins with feeling safe. Feeling comfortable with a yoga teacher is the most important factor to putting yoga into your life as tool of self-healing and creating health in your future.
Yoga teachers are trained to teach to a diverse yet general population. Awareness of the limitations imposed by surgeries, chemotherapy and the many life-long side effects and vulnerabilities of cancer treatments and reconstruction are not covered in most yoga teachers training. Observe what questions a teacher asks you. This is your best test of whether the style, class and teacher are a good solution for you to begin or continue yoga.
You ask the questions! Learn about the teacher’s training and experience with cancer patients undergoing treatment and survivors in general.
Where to find a yoga class?
In generic gym-based yoga classes, teachers are not usually trained and knowledgeable of the limitations and concerns of survivors. These venues can be intimidating and risky for someone who is trying not only to gain physical strength, but also, self esteem. Find a yoga class specifically for cancer patients and survivors. Get a schedule, visit a class and talk to the teacher. Again, if you would like to know about y4c trained teachers in your location, please here.
Yoga is a practice not an event. In order to feel the benefits of yoga finding time in your schedule to practice, 2-3 times a week or more, is important. Also, it is recommended that average weight survivors maintain at least 150 minutes of exercise per week to reduce reoccurrence, and for those that are carrying weight that amount should be 300 minutes per week. So do as often and as much as you can. Are the classes located conveniently and at times that will fit easily into your life? Large classes can be discouraging for beginners. Trust your intuitions.
I hope this helps you find a yoga teacher and class that allows you to thrive, as well as survive. Yoga can be a tool to help you reclaim your life during and after cancer. If used properly, yoga can also be a lifetime companion that will smooth out all the challenges of life, not just the ones we experience on the cancer journey. In the meantime, please send me more questions, share your findings and stay in touch.
Tari Answered: “Yoga makes you stronger in mind and body; gives courage, hope and confidence; breaks down barriers of isolation and stigma; and can be a great way to relax.
But not to be underestimated is the connection to others. When you are told you have cancer, often it feels like you are alone. You feel stigmatized because every one treats you differently. Yoga creates community. Knowing you are not alone in your challenge is a tool to finding courage and hope.”
November 2011 by Amanda Taylor
Tari Prinster doesn’t look like a woman who would let anything stand in her way.
She has a shock of bright red air, a lithe and strong body with killer arms, and broad smile that brightens any room. But 11 years ago, Tari was sidelined, with Stage 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, an invasive breast cancer.
“No matter what kind or stage, cancer steals the breath, clouds the brain, and weakens the body.,” Tari says. “The word cancer pried loose my hold on life and time seemed to stop.” And stop it did… seven months of treatment including three surgeries, chemo and radiation, not to mention unthinkable decisions for herself, her husband and children. There were also side effects, medications, expenses, insurance forms, phone calls, and empty hours waiting for test results—all floating past like debris on a sea of uncertainty and anxiety. ” My life stopped really, until I took the next breath as a cancer survivor.,” she says. “Since then, nothing has been the same.”
Nothing has been the same for Tari, or, thankfully, for other women living with cancer whose lives Tari has touched. Two weeks after her last surgery she was given her doctor’s permission to return to yoga. Before her cancer she had been into yoga for “vanity,” the workout and how it made her look. After cancer it was totally different. ”What interested me was not what I could not do but what I could do,” Tari says.
“I discovered things that I would have missed pre cancer. I learned to appreciate the ability to breathe. I could not take a really deep breath expanding the ribs, stretching the incisions around the surgical staples. But I was breathing mindfully, enjoying it—and I was doing my yoga. The idea of active, intentional rest was new to me, an opportunity to stop trying to be so athletic and to appreciate simple relaxation.”
During seven months of chemotherapy, Tari’s daily practice varied in frequency, duration and intensity as the challenges of her recovery unfolded. Her yoga practice became her personal tool for survival. And with that realization Tari also discovered her life’s purpose, to create a yoga class for women living with cancer who also wanted to move, to heal and to find community.
In 2003, Tari began teaching her Yoga for Cancer Survivors” class at OM Yoga. The class started with 2-4 women dropping by every week and quickly grew to classes of 20 and 30. A second weekday class was added, and Tari realized she needed more teachers to cover the demand. So in 2005, she began to offer Teacher Trainings at OM. These teacher trainings were the first specifically designed to address the needs of cancer survivors offered in New York City. The program has trained over 400 yoga teachers from all over the world. The weekly classes touch the lives of as many as 40 women a week ranging in ages from 24 to 80. Women with other cancers like, lung, pancreatic, brain and even eye cancers have used the classes to find a way back to feeling normal.
Tari Answered: “Maya Angeleo said, “I have learned that people forget what you say, forget what you did, but never forget how you made them feel.” My goal is to help cancer patients feel empowered, hopeful and not alone. I love what I do –teaching yoga to survivors– because it gives me a way to do all those things. And it gives me the same.”
Tari Answered: “My dream is that Western medical professionals and hospitals will recognize that yoga taught by a specially trained and specifically certified yoga teachers is the last prescription a cancer patient/survivor needs. Beyond all the treatments, when all that is over and they send the cancer patient/survivor home, there is something else they can prescribe. Yoga for life, Yoga for all the life-long side effects that will be there no matter if the cancer is not.”
Tari Answered: “My students come with curiosity, hope and a willingness to be partners in a joint exploration. They also come with fear, doubts and questions about both cancer and yoga. Cancer is scary. Chemo is scary. Even yoga can be frightening to some people. We can take some of that mystery out with knowledge and wisdom, through breathing, movement and community.”
Will yoga prevent a cancer recurrence?
Kathy Miller: A 10-year survivor, Kathy is concerned about recurrence and the effects of radiation from frequent mammograms.
Kathy asked Tari: I am confused by the current controversy over mammograms. Are they a preventative measure or not? If used to prevent cancer, I am concerned about the long-term effect of exposure to radiation. Surely, diet, exercise, good support systems all helpful in prevention. What about yoga?
Tari Answered: Thank you for asking me this question. I hope the answer will be helpful to many who do not understand what the current research and media coverage has been. Both are causing confusion for women. Your question is very valid and gives me an opportunity to promote my favorite topic: Yoga as a life long prescription.
The current controversy and discussions about the new guidelines on mammograms issued by the Preventive Services Task Force has covered a lot of newspaper space. In addition there were reports about vaccines and ‘pills’ that prevent cancer, specifically cervical and prostate cancers. Buried in the reporting, editorials and reader comments was another article on prevention. It had to do with theories about what we can do to protect ourselves from a cancer or cancer recurrence by making lifestyle changes. This approach gathers little support or interest from drug companies and even the government research initiatives.
About the Preventive Task Force recommendation, I think it is important to put it in perspective and understand the language. It was guidance for women and doctors. The decision to have mammograms was properly left to each woman.
Perhaps the confusion is in the word prevention. That word gets confused with risk reduction. Mammograms don’t prevent cancer. They identify a possibility that cancer exists. Where as, proper diet and exercise CAN reduce the risks. And who knows what really prevents cancer?
This is where yoga comes in. Adding yoga to your week, day and life can be as important as a mammogram, a vaccine or a pill. Yoga can help you reduce your risk by keeping your immune system strong and cultivating an environment in your body that is cancer resistant and healthy. When will they research and talk about the benefits of yoga?
I suggest you read the following article:
FORTY YEARS’ WAR – Medicines to Deter Some Cancers Are Not Taken
By Gina Kolata
Published: November 12, 2009
“Cancer steals your breath. Yoga gives it back” ©
Would HOT YOGA be good for me?
Sara G: Chemotherapy treatments for more than 8 months have left Sara weak and fragile. In addition, she experiences constant discomfort in her joints and neuropathy in her feet.
Sara asked Tari: Last week in yoga class you explained how yoga can help detoxify my body. This makes a lot of sense to me, especially when I think about how the lymphatic system removes toxins through sweat and urine.
I want to do more yoga to purify my body, but I am not very strong right now.
I was wondering if HOT YOGA would make me sweat more and help detoxify the chemo from my body faster?
Tari Answered: Thank you for asking me this question. I hope the answer will be helpful to many who do not understand what to expect in a HOT YOGA class. The answer is yes. HOT YOGA will make you sweat more.
I wish you had asked me the question, ‘Would HOT YOGA be good for me now’? The answer is a very strong NO! Not because HOT YOGA is bad, but because it is not the best choice for you now while you are still being treated and until you are feeling stronger.
The word YOGA can be misleading. There are many kinds of yoga and not all yoga is the same. Certainly not all yoga is gentle. HOT YOGA classes are vigorous and challenging. It is a method based on what is called, BIKRAM Yoga, using a series of 26 poses and breathing exercises in a room heated to 105 degrees. The purpose is to warm up the muscles quickly and promote detoxification via sweat. Classes are usually always the same. A similar style called Ashtanga Yoga is also a fixed set of poses linked by flowing movement and synchronized breathing to produce intense internal heat. One style uses external heat, and the other, internal heat, to produce the purifying effect of sweat.
Sara, I don’t think either of these yoga styles would be the best way to put more yoga in your life and experience the detoxifying benefits of yoga. However, I will offer you some simple guidelines and suggestions in finding the proper yoga for you while you are undergoing cancer treatments.
Things to ask and look for in a yoga class:
- Ask for a class description. The word ‘gentle’ should be in it.
- Make sure there are restorative poses included in that description. Restorative Yoga provides detoxifying benefits to your nervous system, as well as your lymph system.
- Before class, meet the teacher and explain your interest in practicing yoga as a cancer survivor.
- Feeling comfortable with a yoga teacher is the most important factor to putting yoga into your life as tool of self-healing and creating health in your future.
- Express concerns you have and ongoing side effects, such as; lymphedema, neuropathy, chemo ports or surgical drains.
- Tell the teacher you are in treatment. This is not a secret best kept.
- Ask the teacher if he/she has had specialized training teaching yoga to cancer survivors.
- Volunteer pre-existing health conditions to the teacher.
For example; high blood pressure or hip replacement.
Often those issues need more safety consideration when doing yoga, than cancer.
- Ask what the average class size is likely to be.
- Make sure the teacher knows your yoga experience.
- Trust your intuitions about the teacher and the environment.
- Have your doctor’s permission to do gentle yoga.
I want to applaud you for being curious about the different styles of yoga. Your goal to detoxify your body by doing more yoga is best found in balancing effort with ease.
Always keep in mind, that ‘the more peaceful you can become, the more healing you receive’©.
Please send me more questions, share your findings and stay in touch.
“Cancer steals your breath. Yoga gives it back” ©