Benefit # 2: Yoga Strengthens the Body
Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation weaken the body in the process of eliminating cancer as a life-threatening disease. These treatments seek to attack fast-growing cells, but unfortunately, healthy cells, such as bone cells, muscle cells, and the cells of most organs, are also 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, these forms of strength-building may be challenging or harmful during and after cancer treatments, or for other reasons unrelated to cancer. In the y4c Methodology, safety is a primary concern and our goal is to 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, such as yoga props, to enable people to build strength over time and without harmful pressure on weakened or vulnerable areas of the body.
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. Two bone cells 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 post-menopausal women. An overlooked side effect of cancer and its treatment is bone thinning; a reduction of bone density, which happens because the balance between these two bone cells is disturbed. Remember that chemotherapy is designed to interrupt the activity of cancer cells that are building abnormal tissues. Unfortunately chemotherapy affects the osteoblasts in much the same way it targets cancer cells.i
When bones and muscles are not made to work by using them every day, they do not build. Worse, deterioration can start quickly, especially as we get older. Research has shown that an excellent solution 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 building peak bone mass and optimizing bone structure.ii Weight-bearing exercises, however, are commonly limited to the type 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% of the yoga practitioners gained bone density in both the spine and the hip, while nearly every member of the control group either maintained or lost bone mass.iii
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 focus on alignment through simple activities such as balancing on one foot.
Cardiovascular Strength and Fitness. Running is a popular exercise to improve cardiovascular strength and 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 such as running, walking, yoga or aerobics lowers the resting heart rate and improves oxygenation throughout the body. A 2013 study showed that yoga improved several cardiovascular health advantages, such as heart rate and respiratory function, at the same level as running.iv However, running and other high impact exercises may sometimes be risky for cancer survivors if they have weakened bones and joints. 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). Interestingly, Dr. Ornish is now 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.
Benefit # 6: Yoga Helps Manage Weight Gain
When people think of cancer patients, they imagine skinny, fragile bodies. And yes, this is often the case during active treatment, prolonged treatment, or late stages of cancer. But for many people weight gain is a common side effect of cancer treatment. Weight gain has significant impact on both physical and psychological aspects of a survivor’s life. However, an additional great concern associated with weight gain is the increased chance of recurrence.
Obesity is a key indicator of both cancer incidence and recurrence. The American Cancer Society recommends that obese individuals increase the standard weekly exercise from 150 minutes to 300 minutes per week to reduce the chances of cancer or recurrence.vi Thus, managing one’s weight should be a focus of any cancer patient or survivor (and all people).
Yoga provides a safe, gentle way to manage weight. But not all yoga is the same. And I would not argue that all styles will help you manage weight gain. Often, yoga for cancer survivors is focused on gentle or restorative yoga methods, which are necessary and beneficial approaches. But they are not an active yoga practice. Many yoga teachers are afraid to make cancer patients and survivors move and be active in class.
It is a mistake to coddle survivors, treating them as sick. I remember this from my own days of attending a yoga class with my bald head where the teacher encouraged me to lay in restorative poses, and not to participate in the active yoga class. I felt isolated, ashamed and annoyed. Worse, if I had listened to my teacher, I would not have benefited fully from the active yoga practice. Therefore, including an active practice is the foundation of y4c Methodology. Active does not mean aggressive or strenuous. We just want the body to move.
Yoga for cancer survivors can be active, therefore calorie-burning; and it can be safe, physically accessible, welcoming and inclusive. Yoga can help cancer survivors manage weight gain that will improve self-esteem, improve ability to function normally and ultimately reduce the risk of recurrence.