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Mental Health Month: Yoga and Cancer Treatment


Many of us associate yoga with the image of young, Lycra-clad women doing impossibly pretzel-like poses. However, the ancient practice can be tailored to suit any level of flexibility and promises significant benefits for those with cancer.

Derived from a Sanskrit word that means “to yoke,” yoga is often used as a way to bring mind and body together so movements can flow in a more focused manner.

There’s a wide range of yoga styles, from an intensely physical practice that moves from pose to pose quickly to a more restorative type that involves deep relaxation. But all of them emphasize connecting thoughts with actions, which is what separates yoga from other forms of exercise.

Since May is Mental Health Month, this is a great time to consider how yoga can provide a boost for the mind and body — and be a powerful and effective tool for everyone, especially those with mesothelioma.

No Lycra Required

Yoga isn’t just about those mind-boggling poses. It can also entail simply sitting still and becoming aware of your breathing, or trying to calm what yoga teachers call the “monkey mind.”

Chaotic and stressful thoughts, which are common for people facing difficult situations like treatment for mesothelioma, can lead to physical issues such as insomnia, depression, headaches, anxiety, and irritable bowel syndrome. These problems can cause further harm to mental health, making the body-and-mind connection a vicious cycle.

With a yoga practice that emphasizes stilling the mind — even when the body is in full-on movement mode — it’s possible to enhance awareness of that monkey mind and then use techniques to quiet it down.

So even if you’re reaching for a box of cereal in the grocery store or waiting in the doctor’s office during a checkup, you can adopt some yogic strategies by becoming more aware of your breath and movement. The simple act of focusing your attention can be yoga. (In other words, Lycra is very optional.)

Yoga and Cancer

According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, meditative practices and yoga techniques can not only help with mental health, but also improve sleep and lower stress levels. When you add more movement into your yoga practice, you may also see benefits from improved flexibility, balance, and circulation.

For people with mesothelioma and other forms of cancer, gentle yoga and meditation can be particularly helpful for addressing the fatigue and depression that might come as a result of chemotherapy or radiation.

Yoga can be integrated with physical therapy or occupational therapy to assist with muscle strength and mobility —2 major issues for those with cancer. Those results, in turn, can lead to a better mood and brighter outlook.

Those with mesothelioma might be concerned about the type of deep-breathing exercises that are common in yoga classes. However, many lung cancer patients have realized considerable benefits from simple breath awareness. With the right level of practice, breathing issues often get better with yoga, and that relief can have a profound effect on mental health.

Getting Started

Yoga studios have popped up all over the country, but sometimes having so many choices makes it harder to find just the right fit. With intense, hot yoga just down the block thanks to options like Kundalini, Ashtanga, and YogaFit, it takes some research to figure out what’s best for you and your needs.

You can start by talking with your doctor or physical therapist about appropriate fitness levels and whether the healthcare clinic or hospital where you’re being treated offers yoga classes. Many cancer centers now have classes or 1-on-1 instruction geared specifically toward cancer patients.

Also, check out some local yoga studios. Talk to the teachers about their training with cancer patients or what yoga styles they prefer to teach. Plus, discuss your mesothelioma-related symptoms, treatment, and limitations with them so they can offer advice about what types of classes would suit you best. Although there are many great books that can lead you through a series of poses, classes are far more popular than home practices for a good reason: having a guide can be helpful, especially for training that focuses on breathing and mental wellness.

The Cancer Care of Western New York website features a quick guide to yoga styles and resources on choosing a teacher whose approach will be a good match for your mind and body goals.

No matter what kind of yoga you pursue, even a few minutes a day of meditative practice can be helpful as you navigate your cancer journey.

Kim Neuhauser is a sponsored contributor to Mesothelioma Help Now.