Yoga, long associated with Eastern mysticism and tony health clubs, is actually quite egalitarian. Once someone learns the moves and breathing techniques, no special equipment or clothing is required. What doctors have long suspected and scientists are now proving, is that yoga is remarkable effective in treating the side effects of the most egalitarian of all diseases – cancer.
According to a 410 participant study highlighted at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Annual Meeting in June, yoga was shown to improved sleep, reduce dependence on sedatives and help cancer patients resume the activities of normal life. “Clinicians should now feel pretty comfortable prescribing gentle Hatha yoga or restorative yoga for their patients,” said Karen Mustian, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the department of radiation oncology and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Doctors were particularly interested in yoga’s ability to clear mental fog and ease the fatigue that can afflict cancer patients for years after they are cured. The Rochester study focused on cancer survivors with half of the patients were assigned to yoga classes twice a week for one month. At trial’s end, 31 percent of yoga patients no longer had the sleep disruptions, twice the recovery rate of the control group. Yoga practitioners also reported a 42 percent reduction in fatigue, compared with a 12 percent reduction for those who didn’t take classes.
Dozens of smaller studies show similar results, yet health insurers and government programs won’t pay for yoga. It is hoped that this research in addition to more than $5 million in additional studies funded this year by the National Institutes of Health may provide enough evidence to allow coverage.
So promising is the idea of mind-body intervention into disease that the National Cancer Institute awarded its largest grant ever, $4.5 million, to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Researchers there will compare yoga to meditation and to stretching and will analyze the economic benefits from increased productivity at work. “Once we can show an economic impact, you’ll start to see changes,” Lorenzo Cohen, professor of behavioral science and cancer prevention at the University. “Companies want to provide services that keep their employees healthy and productive.
Fortunately for some cancer patients, one hospital isn’t waiting for more evidence. Beth Israel Medical Center in New York is one of the few facilities in the country to offer personal yoga-therapy instruction for all of its sickest cancer patients.
One of the patients benefitting is David Goldberg, a 30 year old computer programmer with leukemia, who receives yoga instruction at his hospital bed. Because his immune system is so compromised from five rounds of chemotherapy, Goldberg’s instructor wears a mask. Goldberg’s session includes slow gentle stretches, starting with his feet and ending with his shoulders, and breathing instructions to take him away from the hospital sounds and into his own body. “I’m hooked up to a machine, so I can’t totally forget that I have this. For me, it’s just an amazing experience to feel where my body is and what I’m experiencing,” he said.