Port in a Storm
Yoga helps people with cancer find inner calm—and reclaim their lives.
by Lisa James
A standard physical turned into anything but when Paul Bryan’s doctor referred him to a hematologist. That’s when the 63-year-old retired teacher was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, in which abnormal white blood cells build up in the bone marrow and eventually spill into the bloodstream.
A normal white blood cell count is between 4,500 and 10,000; at 16,000, Bryan’s count put him in a “watch and wait” period. When his WBC reached 25,000, Bryan decided to take turmeric, a curry spice known for its anti-cancer properties; his count dropped to 21,000.
A year later Bryan started doing yoga, beginning with a gentle class because “I didn’t have too much flexibility.” Eventually he started doing a type of energy-based yoga called kundalini—and within a year his WBC dropped to 16,000.
“Yoga teaches the whole idea of balance,” says Bryan, who also meditates twice a day. “You learn to take care of yourself better. You learn to nourish yourself.”
Going to the Mat
Like Bryan, a number of people are using yoga to help wrest command of their lives away from cancer.
“We as patients surrender to treatment,” says Tari Prinster, breast cancer survivor and author of Yoga for Cancer (Healing Arts Press). “Yoga helps us gain back control of our bodies by allowing the survivor to become part of the healing process.”
This trend is a recent phenomenon. Yoga “wasn’t even suggested when I was going through my treatment 15 years ago,” recalls Prinster. She says if more healthcare professionals are suggesting yoga to people with cancer, “that is a good thing and an improvement but I would say that it’s probably not the majority.”
At one time yoga “wasn’t even considered a form of exercise,” says Karen Mustian, PhD, MPH, associate professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center School of Medicine and Dentistry. Even after yoga had become more popular for fitness purposes, “it wasn’t adopted as any form of treatment.”
People like Mustian and Prinster stepped into the breach by adapting yoga to the needs of cancer patients. Prinster built her yoga4cancer program on elements such as learning how to sit in stillness, breathe properly, quiet the mind and move with ease. Besides providing such benefits as greater strength and reduced anxiety, Prinster says this program can help a patient “learn to listen to her own mind and body” in the face of potentially overwhelming decisions regarding healthcare choices, such as treatment options, and other issues, such as employment or relationship difficulties.
To target the common problem of poor sleep, Mustian and her colleagues developed Yoga for Cancer Survivors (YOCAS). They worked specific postures and activities into a 75-minute class to “emulate a 24-hour rhythm,” the first part designed to “engage the body and increase metabolic expenditure” and the second to help people “completely and fully relax.” In clinical trials, “there was a significant improvement in the yoga group,” says Mustian. “We saw that participants in the yoga group were able to reduce the amount of sleep medications they were taking” (Journal of Clinical Oncology 9/10/13).
Stress Relief and Beyond
The use of yoga in cancer patients has been the subject of “what I would call a preliminary, growing body of research,” says Mustian. “There are a lot of schools of yoga that haven’t been studied. I have not seen any studies on cancer patients with heated yoga, for example (Bikram being the best-known form). There are other types of yoga that are very vigorous, and we haven’t seen any studies on this.” In the research that has been done, yoga shows promise as a way to not only ease insomnia but to also reduce the anxiety, fatigue and stress that can affect people with cancer as well as improve their quality of life (International Journal of Yoga 1-6/15, Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2013).
“I think the research will turn more towards active yoga, not just yoga for relaxation,” says Prinster. She notes that active yoga promotes better lymph flow—a crucial consideration for cancer patients dealing with the swelling and discomfort associated with lymphedema, which can occur when lymph circulation is disrupted. “Active yoga is not only a way to keep lymph moving through the body but also a safe way to gradually gain back function after surgery,” Prinster says. In one small study of breast cancer patients with lymphedema, yoga didn’t reduce the swelling but did help ease a hardening of soft tissue known as induration (BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2014).
Mustian says much of the research done by her own team is so recent it hasn’t yet been published; currently they’re looking at how yoga affects factors such as gene expression. She believes that in a decade, “we’re going to be able to target outcomes people wish to address through yoga. The field is still so young.” Prinster says, “I think the new wave is going to be that yoga is seen as an exercise modality that can stimulate the immune system to stay strong, to foster recovery and as a means of prevention.”
Both Prinster and Mustian recommend that people with cancer do their homework before embarking on a yoga practice, including finding teachers who have experience in dealing with cancer patients. “Ask about their background and training—where they trained and how long they trained,” suggests Mustian. “If you don’t understand the training ask more questions so you feel comfortable.” Prinster says that one’s practice may need to be adapted to account for specific limitations. “For example, chemo weakens our bones and this has a long-term effect on someone who had cancer. There are things to avoid.”
Energy in Motion
Paul Bryan is seated cross-legged and barefoot on a blanket-covered mat at Satya Yoga Shala in Farmingdale, New York, within a five minutes’ walk from his house. Another student, a woman, sits on another mat.
Teacher Christopher Grodski, LAc, DiplOM, sits facing them. He says the idea of kundalini is to work with prana, or life force, “to open that energy and have it stay open.” (Grodski’s Oriental medicine training allowed him to prescribe an herbal formula for Bryan in response to a small white blood cell increase and platelet decrease; Bryan had not yet gone for tests to see how well the formula was working.)
The red and blue flashing lights from the firehouse across the way, playing across the studio’s sage-green walls, barely register; everything from the busy street outside is filtered through a carved wooden screen. Grodski starts the day’s program, known as a kriya, by telling his students to “connect with the breath, just become aware of the breath. Forget the world. Begin to experience your internal world.”
The students then start to rotate their torsos in ever-widening circles as Grodski touches an iPod; the sounds of Indian music fill the room. He then has the students stand and hug themselves (“a nice little squeeze to the ribcage”), kicking out one leg then the other like a jig; he says this helps the liver detoxify not only physically but also “from thoughts and emotions.” Both students stop every once in a while to catch their breath.
Back on their mats, after lying on their backs during a resting phase called savasana, the students sit up, make circles with their thumbs and pinkies, lift their hands to shoulder level and breathe slowly. They then fold their hands in front of their hearts and start chanting to the music that flows from Grodski’s iPod. Bryan gently rocks in time to the chant, his head bent over his hands. People pass by on the street, unaware of what’s going on in the studio.
“The energy makes you feel elated,” Bryan says afterwards. “I float home.”
Yoga is “so far-reaching in terms of healing and empowerment if you get the right instructor,” says Mustian. “I would suggest people give it a try.”