Yoga can help people with cancer both mentally and physically, research shows. While it can't fight cancer itself, yoga may ease some side effects of the disease and its treatments. Some studies have found that yoga might:
- Ease cancer-related fatigue
- Improve sleep
- Help with recovery from cancer surgery
- Reduce depression, anxiety, and distress
Yoga is a mind-body practice long thought to help reduce stress and boost flexibility. It has three main elements:
Look for classes that include each of these. There's no one type of yoga or yoga pose that's best for people with cancer. But research suggests that less strenuous types can help with some side effects of treatment. These include gentle hatha yoga and restorative yoga.
Effects on Fatigue
Most people with cancer have fatigue at some point. But many of the studies on yoga and fatigue were done only in women.
One overview study found that yoga reduced fatigue in women during and after treatment for breast cancer. It found that yoga brought:
- A major improvement in fatigue after treatment
- A small improvement during treatment
It helped most with physical fatigue, though it eased mental fatigue somewhat, too.
Other research shows similar benefits. In one study, women with breast cancer did a yoga program twice a week. By the end of 8 weeks, most of them felt it helped with their fatigue.
Another study looked at yoga breathing exercises. One exercise involved deep inhalations, followed by long exhalations while making a humming sound. (It's known as Bhramari pranayama.) Even without physical yoga poses, the breathing exercises reduced fatigue in some people who were getting radiation for cancer.
Yoga and Sleep
- Too much daytime napping
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Waking up too early
A review of several studies suggests that yoga could help. A yoga program combining gentle poses, breathing, and meditation reduced insomnia in people with cancer as well as cancer survivors.
Another study looked at how a Tibetan yoga program affected people with lymphoma. This type of yoga includes breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, and low-impact poses. It helped some of those with lymphoma:
- Fall asleep faster
- Get more sleep
- Use less sleep medication
Recovery From Cancer Surgery
Those women who did yoga before surgery had better results, including:
Chemo Side Effects
Chemotherapy kills cancer cells, but it can come with serious side effects. One is a type of nerve damage called chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). It usually happens in your hands and feet. It can cause:
- Tingling, or a "pins and needles" feeling
- Pain or a burning sensation
- Muscle weakness
One small, preliminary study looked at how yoga and meditation affected people with CIPN. After 8 weeks, they saw:
- More flexibility
- Better balance
- Less risk of falls
Study participants also felt that the yoga program eased their pain, improved function, and helped them relax.
Mental Health Benefits
Distress, depression, and anxiety are common in people with cancer. Many studies suggest yoga may ease them. An overview study linked yoga to improvements in:
- Spiritual well-being
Not all studies have found that yoga improves the mental well-being of people with cancer. If that’s the case for you, ask your doctor about different options. And stick with yoga for its other benefits.