Posted by: bcconnections | February 7, 2013

The Healing Power of Yoga

By Rebecca Olson, Life Science Research Assistant, Stanford Cancer Institute and Breast Cancer Connections Volunteer

Yoga BeachThe ancient practice of yoga originated in India some 5,000 years ago and has evolved into a discipline with well-documented healing effects. Yoga practice enhances physical, mental and spiritual well-being, and is proven to have significant clinical outcomes in patients struggling with cancer (Woodyard 2011).

The common view of yoga generally involves a variety of poses and stretches. The word “yoga” is derived from a Sanskrit root “yuj” which means union, or yoke, to join, and to direct and concentrate one’s attention. Modern yoga is a form of mind-body fitness that involves a combination of muscular activity and an internally directed mindful focus on awareness of the self, the breath, and energy (Woodyard 2011). Physical exercise is combined with traditional elements of Hindu philosophy to unite the body and mind.

Relaxation and meditation are the core elements of yoga practice. Most yoga classes conclude in ‘Savasana’ pose, a time spent laying relaxed on your yoga mat, calm and at peace. In my own yoga experience, mental relaxation and tranquility were difficult concepts to embrace. At the end of an evening class I would lay stretched out on my yoga mat in Savasana, reflecting on the worries and problems of my life. The concept of relaxation would fade to a distant memory behind the whirring of my preoccupied mind. Until one evening, my yoga instructor quietly offered one simple statement that stilled my busy thoughts:

“Know that you’ve done enough today…that you have enough…you ARE enough.”

I began to understand that the power of yoga comes through acceptance. To practice yoga is to unite the fragmented body and mind and regain the feeling of wholeness. Yoga is self-empowering; it teaches that healing comes from within, and shows the student how to play an active role in their journey toward health (Woodyard 2011).

Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer and undergoing treatment can create a high level of sustained emotional distress. Whether newly diagnosed or a long-term survivor, many cancer patients struggle with symptoms of pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. These individuals suffer from widespread impairment in physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being over  long periods of time (Smith and Pukall 2009).

Culos-Reed and colleagues reviewed the clinical significance of yoga in cancer therapy across 25 published works. Cancer survivors who practiced yoga demonstrated clinically significant improvements in health-related quality of life.  Clinically significant outcomes included reduced anxiety, depression and stress, as well as improved mood and sleep (Culos-Reed et al. 2012). Another study investigated the effectiveness of yoga in breast cancer patients through a randomized controlled trial. In comparison to a control group of 584 women, a group of 544 breast cancer patients participating in yoga reported greater quality of life, increased emotional, social, and spiritual well-being, and reduced distress and fatigue (Moadel et al. 2007). Other studies report positive effects on physical parameters such as lowered blood pressure and altered cortisol levels (Woodyard 2011).

The physical effects of therapeutic yoga can be traced to the body’s classical “fight or flight” response. The body deals with physical or psychological stress by firing up two major neuroendocrine systems called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). When triggered, these systems rapidly increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, resulting in widespread effects throughout the body such as increased heart rate, reduced digestion, and immune suppression. Repeated firing of the HPA axis and SNS and heightened cortisol can produce a state of hypervigilance that takes a severe toll on overall health. Chronic stress increases blood pressure, heart attack and stroke risk, vulnerability to anxiety, depression, and immune weakness.

Regular yoga practice can counteract the severe physical injury created by chronic HPA/SNS activation and heightened cortisol. A review by Ross and Thomas describes the physical effects of therapeutic yoga:

“Numerous studies have shown yoga to have an immediate downregulating effect on both the SNS/HPA axis response to stress. Studies show that yoga decreases levels of salivary cortisol, blood glucose,  as well as plasma rennin levels, and 24-hour urine norepinephrine and epinephrine levels. Yoga significantly decreases heart rate and systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Studies suggest that yoga reverses the negative impact of stress on the immune system by increasing levels of immunoglobulin A as well as natural killer cells. Yoga has been found to decrease markers of inflammation such as high sensitivity C-reactive protein as well as inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin-6 and lymphocyte-1B” (Ross and Thomas 2010).

In the Western world, yoga is now widely regarded as a holistic approach to health and is classified by the National Institutes of Health as a form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (Woodyard 2011). Yoga is not a cure for cancer, but can promote healing and substantially improve overall wellness in cancer patients. In teaching one to unite the mind, body, and spirit for health and self-awareness, yoga can bring about a sense of peace.

Surya Namaskar (the Sun Salutation) is a familiar sequence of eight poses that express the essence of Yoga. The second pose of the Sun Salutation is the upward salute, in which the feet remain rooted to the earth while the arms reach upward to infinity and the heart opens toward the horizon. The Sun Salutation exemplifies the true purpose of yoga: to be grounded while simultaneously stretching into the vastness of the unexplored self. To do yoga is to be fully rooted in the present while embracing the endless possibilities of the future (Rosen 2013).

REFERENCES

Culos-Reed, S. N., M. J. Mackenzie, S. J. Sohl, M. T. Jesse, A. N. Zahavich & S. C. Danhauer. “Yoga & cancer interventions: a review of the clinical significance of patient reported outcomes for cancer survivors.” Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2012, 642576.

Moadel, A. B., C. Shah, J. Wylie-Rosett, M. S. Harris, S. R. Patel, C. B. Hall & J. A. Sparano. “Randomized controlled trial of yoga among a multiethnic sample of breast cancer patients: effects on quality of life.” In J Clin Oncol, 2007, 4387-95.

Rosen, R.  “Here Comes the Sun. That most familiar of asana sequences, Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation)  is as rich in symbolic and mythic overtones as it is in physical  benefits.”  Yoga Journal, Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc., 2013.

Ross, A. & S. Thomas. “The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies.” J Altern Complement Med, 2010, 16, 3-12.

Smith, K. B. & C. F. Pukall. “An evidence-based review of yoga as a complementary intervention for patients with cancer.” Psycho-Oncology, 2009, 18, 465-475.

Woodyard, C. “Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life.” International Journal of Yoga, 2011, 4, 49-54.

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