In the largest study to date to evaluate how yoga affects inflammation in breast cancer survivors researchers from Ohio State University tracked the fatigue and inflammation of 200 breast cancer survivors through 12 weeks of Hatha Yoga. The yoga practice was shown to advance post-treatment recovery over the control group significantly in the measures of fatigue and inflammation, a result which some oncologists were already aware of and approve.
For the participants in this study the healing benefits of their yoga practice only increased as time went on. Several months after the conclusion of the study researchers reevaluated the women and discovered a very important addition to their initial research; the women who had practiced yoga during the interim months achieved up to 20 percent reduction in inflammation, and reported 57 percent lower fatigue than the control group.
Other studies had already shown that exercise is beneficial in the recovery process for cancer patients, a part of recovery which most oncologists already encourage and approve. Yoga is unique among the various forms of low-impact exercise in how it can advance recovery because it can be easily adapted to each individual’s needs and limitations. Jaki Nett of the Iyengar Yoga Institute offers advice to breast cancer survivors in the form of yoga poses that can aid in recovery after treatment and surgery.
According to Nett, it is important for these women to focus on poses which “free up the shoulder area,” as the connective tissue and some of the major muscles of the breast and shoulder may have been affected. These muscles include the pectorals major and minor, latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior, and subscapularis. A few of the poses Nett recommends to rehabilitate and build strength in these muscles include Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), Urdhva Namaskarasana (Upward Prayer Position), and Paschima Namaskarasana (Prayer Position behind the back). Each of these poses are very gentle and can be done from a seated position.
To build strength in the muscles of the breast and shoulders after surgery, Nett recommends yoga poses which “demand holding the arms out in space against gravity.” These include familiar favorites such as Warrior Poses I, II, and III, though she cautions against practicing any yoga poses which are weight-bearing on the upper body such as Downward Dog. “Most importantly,” she says, “be very gentle. This is a different body now. Give it time to heal. Start on the path to recovery with slow, aware steps.”
Additional resources are available to empower breast cancer survivors to advance their own recovery with a yoga practice oncologists approve. An organization whose mission is to empower survivors and their families by connecting them with information and a community of support, Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC), provides resources in both print and digital format. They publish a series of guides to help women through the stages of their recovery including the a 33 page guide in clear and easy-to-understand language called the Guide to Understanding Yoga and Breast Cancer. Written by a certified yoga instructor and reviewed by a committee of more than a dozen oncologists, yoga professionals and LBBC staff; the guide serves as a reputable reference point on how survivors can incorporate yoga into an overall wellness plan.
By Mimi Mudd