Physicians are beginning to understand the relationship between stress and cancer. As a result, a growing number are advising patients to practice their downward and upward dogs as they undergo conventional cancer treatments like surgery and chemotherapy. By complementing the state-of-the-art biomedical therapies of Western medicine with practices like yoga and counseling, oncologists hope to improve quality of life and symptoms while aggressively attacking cancer cells. There are many factors to consider when deciding which type of yoga therapy is best. Here are some guidelines that cancer patients can discuss with their physicians.
Finding a Yoga Instructor
A properly trained teacher will ensure safe practice, and provide the best opportunity to reap the benefits of yoga. Look for a teacher that is a graduate of a registered school, and is a member of the Yoga Alliance or the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT). A yoga teacher should also be up-to-date with continuing education coursework. When researching potential teachers, ask questions. Some examples provided by the Yoga Alliance include: • Do they practice themselves? • How long have they been practicing? (At least 3 years is preferred.) • Could they become a mentor? In other words, are they trustworthy? Experience teaching yoga to people with cancer is a plus. The IAYT and Holistic Practitioners section of the Know Cancer Directory are great resources for locating yoga teachers with those types of qualifications.
Choosing a Yoga Class
The most common yoga form practiced in the United States is called hatha yoga, which emphasizes physical postures (asanas) with the goal of physical, mental and spiritual balance. There are many types of yoga classified under the umbrella of hatha yoga, but some are more vigorous than others. For example, power yoga, called ashtanga yoga, is physically demanding. Therefore, individuals with bone metastases, who are at risk of fractures, may not want to engage in this type of practice. Hot yoga, or Bikram yoga, is the practice of postures in a room warmed to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This exercise utilizes high temperatures to stretch muscles and tendons. Again, this may not be recommended for cancer patients undergoing treatment. Most likely a physician will suggest yoga practices that are restorative and focus on breathing and meditation. Integral yoga is an example. Lyengar yoga involves the holding of poses for extended lengths of time, but is less demanding than power yoga. Kundalini yoga emphasizes the effects of breath on posture. Viniyoga postures accommodate an individual’s needs and abilities. Another consideration is whether to choose one-on-one teaching or a group class. For individuals at risk of infection, personal or DVD instruction may be best. In a case study published last fall in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapy, physicians at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA wrote that, “part of the beauty of a yoga practice is that it can be adapted to the ever-changing condition and needs of the individual patient.”