by Tari Prinster. Excerpt from ‘Yoga for Cancer: A Guide to Managing Side Effects, Boosting Immunity, and Improving Recovery for Cancer Survivors’. Purchase your copy today.
What defines a strong body? Is it having sexy, toned muscles, or is it the ability to walk to your 8th floor apartment carrying 30 lbs. of groceries? Some people choose to build a strong body with weightlifting and cardiovascular exercise in the gym, but not with yoga. The physics of strength building is based on the same principle of creating resistance, regardless of where one pursues it. The difference between going to the gym and doing y4c yoga is the difference between using weights and using your own body.
Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation weaken the body in the act of eliminating cancer as a life-threatening disease. These treatments attack fast-growing cells, but healthy cells, such as bone cells, muscle cells, and the cells of most organs, are affected. Additionally, during active treatment, people face fatigue that makes normal activity challenging and contributes to further muscle atrophy.
Many methods of building strength exist from weightlifting to vigorous walking to running. For a cancer patient and survivor, safety is a primary concern and yoga can build strength in a gentle and effective way. For example, yoga uses a person’s body weight as resistance unlike weightlifting. The y4c method eases the body into positions or using support systems, like yoga props, enabling people to build strength over time and without harmful pressure on a weakened skeleton.
Bone Strengthening. Individually, bones are rigid organs; linked together, they form the skeleton, our internal support structure. Bone is living tissue made of calcium and collagens, and it is constantly changing—just like all body parts. New bone cells are always replacing old ones. There are two proteins in bone cells that are responsible for maintaining proper bones and density known as osteoblasts (which build bone) and osteoclasts (which diminish bone). As we get older, this balance gets disturbed and having thin, weak bones is considered an inevitable part of aging—especially in menopausal women. An overlooked side-effect of cancer treatments is the thinning of bones, which happens because the balance of these proteins is disturbed, much like they are in the elderly. Remember that chemotherapy is designed to interrupt the activity of cells that build. It targets osteoblasts in much the same way it targets cancer cells.
When bones are not stressed by how we use them, they do not build. Research has shown one of the common solutions for weak bones is weight-bearing exercise. In a study conducted at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in China in 2004, regular participation in weight-bearing exercise was beneficial for accruing peak bone mass and optimizing bone structure.[i] Weight-bearing exercise has been mostly limited to the kind done with barbells, so the common recommendation to build bones is to lift weights. A recent pilot study of osteoporosis and osteopenia sufferers suggested that 85 percent of the yoga practitioners gained bone in both the spine and the hip, while nearly every member of the control group either maintained or lost bone mass.5
I believe yoga is safer for bone building than many gym routines because it stresses bones (or puts weight on them) in a precise, deliberate way. Through y4c methodology, we use our body weight and focuses on alignment through simple activities like balancing on one foot.
Cardiovascular Strength and Fitness. Running is a popular exercise to improve cardiovascular fitness. The goal is to enhance the body’s ability to deliver larger amounts of oxygen to working muscles along with burning calories for weight management. Cardiovascular fitness, like from running, results from the improved efficiency of a lower heart rate and from improved oxygenation throughout the body. A 2013 study showed that yoga improved several cardiovascular health advantages, like heart rate and respiratory function, at the same level as running. However, running and other high impact exercises can be risky for cancer patients and survivors due to weakened bones and joints. Running has been proven to contribute to osteoarthritis, arthritis of the joints that causes swelling and pain. Therefore, a regular yoga practice can provide the same cardiovascular benefits as running without risk to joints and pain. Furthermore, heart disease can be reversed, or at least managed, through diet, meditation, and yoga, as reported in Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (Ballantine, 1992). Currently, Ornish is studying whether prostate cancer can be reversed by diet changes and yoga.
Research shows that yoga helps keep a heart healthy and strong, and this is where the y4c methodology is different from other approaches to yoga for cancer patients and survivors that focus only on gentle and restorative yoga. We teach patterned movement, ranging from slow and gentle to active, which sometimes may appear similar to cardiovascular exercise—heart rate and breathing increase and people sweat! An example is the inclusion of a modified sun salutations, which is a sequence of yoga poses designed to move the spine, arms, and legs in precise directions combined with deep breathing. The body moves, the heart beats, blood flows, and the breath deepens—all combining to build a strong heart muscle.
- Macmillan Cancer Support http://www.macmillan.org.uk/Cancerinformation/Livingwithandaftercancer/Lifeaftercancer/Bonehealth.aspx
- P. S. Yung and others. “Effects of Weight Bearing and Non-weight Bearing Exercises on Bone Properties using Calcaneal Quantitative Ultrasound.” British Journal of Sports Medicine 39(8) (2005): 547–51.
- Loren Fishman, Yoga for Osteoporosis: A Pilot Study, 2009. http://www.sciatica.org/downloads/YogaOsteoporosis_PilotStudy.pdf
- Society of Behavioral Medicine – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24163186
- Loren Fishman – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/loren-fishman-md/pilot-study-and-new-book_b_384430.html
- E.N. Smith and A. Boser. “Yoga, Vertebral Fractures, and Osteoporosis: Research and Recommendations.” International Journal of Yoga Therapy 23 (2013):17–23. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24016820