Yoga and Breast Cancer: the Science behind the Sweat
I recently started practising yoga regularly again, and I'm loving it. Over the course of the summer, I’ve found it increasingly easier to twist into awkward positions with deceptively-endearing names or hold my balance on one leg while impersonating a tree blowing in the wind. What I'm saying is, I’m feeling stronger, more flexible and more relaxed. As I lie on the grass after class (yes, in Seville we do yoga in the park 😍), it doesn’t take long for my mind to go to that place that surely all researchers’ minds default to - “I wonder what’s the evidence behind this?”. Then of course my inner physio voice chips in with “would this be good for my patients?!”
A quick look on pubmed tells us that a heap of research has been done on yoga – including plenty of work on yoga in breast cancer. However, we should bear in mind that this ancient practice is far far more than the handful of studies I present below. It is an art, a science and a spiritual discipline. Without being reductionistic, I want to share what I found from searching the scientific literature on where yoga meets research and medicine. So..without further ado…here’s the low-down on the science behind yoga during or after breast cancer.
First things first – what is the quality of the research out there?
Good place to start! There's some very well-conducted studies with sound, reliable results – but other studies are lacking key information, e.g. details about the yoga practice, or had methodological issues, such as small numbers of participants or the intervention was only studied for a short period of time. Suffice to say, it’s still early days in the world of yoga research.
A safe yogi is a happy yogi – is it ok to practice yoga if you have breast cancer?
Assuming that your consultant hasn’t put any restrictions on you taking part in exercise, then, yes, yoga is most definitely feasible and safe! A UK-based study found yoga exercises safe even in the early post-operative recovery period, and a separate study from 2014 found no increase in lymphoedema after an eight-week yoga intervention. The word is out now that exercise should be part of every person’s cancer treatment plan. When done with guidance from a qualified teacher, yoga is a great way to incorporate strength, flexibility, balance and body awareness training into your exercise regime.
Are there any benefits for those with stiff arms or decreased movement after breast-cancer surgery?
One study demonstrated an increase in shoulder range of movement after a 12 week yoga intervention, while a second study found improvements in shoulder strength, but no significant change in range of movement. It’s worth noting that both had fairly small numbers of participants, which makes it harder to draw true conclusions from… So the jury is out on this one, and we’ll probably have to wait for some more large-scale studies before we can draw clear conclusions about this.
Will yoga make me fit again after treatment?
This depends on what benefits you’re looking for, as there are different components to fitness (see pic). Yoga is great for improving flexibility, balance and strength, however it’s unlikely to improve your cardio-vascular fitness greatly, so it’s best to build in some more aerobic exercise into your week too – anything that gets your heart rate up and causes you to break a good sweat! Also, keep in mind that different styles of yoga are more flexibility-orientated, or relaxation-based, so look for a class that suits your needs.
... A relaxation class? Now you’re talking. Would you recommend this?
reduce stress and distress,
improve quality of life,
reduce levels of depression and depressive symptoms
reduce anxiety levels.
The bottom line is: if you like yoga, keep it up! If you’re curious – give it a go. If you’re not interested…..well done for reading this far! But always remember: the best exercise to do is the one you enjoy doing, so create an exercise routine that’s fun, achievable and balanced, and it's hard to go wrong. Namaste amigos! 🧘♀️🧘♂️
P.S. If anyone has difficulty accessing the full versions of the articles I’ve provided links to, just get in touch and I’ll send you a PDF 😊
Image 1: Purna Health. Image 2: Virtual Lancaster. Image 3: yogaworks.com. Image 4: ONS Voice. Image 5: Peak Synergy Fitness. Image 6: Muse Flower Retreat.