04/10/2015 04:34 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2015

Yoga for Body and Mind Health

By: Alejandro Chaoul, Ph.D., Kira Taniguchi, and Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., Integrative Medicine Program

Yoga can strengthen your body and mind, but what role does it play in a cancer setting? Research shows yoga can lessen the severity of symptoms, improve quality of life at a physical, psychological, and spiritual level, and improve biological parameters.

Yoga is a quintessential mind-body practice combining movement, controlled breathing and breathing exercises, and meditation. The focus on the breath in all aspects of yoga helps to reduce stress, leading to a healthy balance between mind and body.

Yoga can help reduce our flight-or-fight response that is common in the face of stressful situations and instead activate a state of relaxation and calm that can help relieve feelings of anxiety and distress. This can lead to improvements in overall health, as chronic stress is harmful to all aspects of our lives, including biological functioning, and has been found to be associated with shorter cancer survival and to speed the aging process. Other health benefits of yoga include increased flexibility, increased balance, improved mood, and reductions in fatigue, sleep disturbances, and inflammation.

In October 2014, the Society of Integrative Oncology published guidelines to inform doctors and patients about the safety and effectiveness of complementary therapies specifically in breast cancer patients. Around 80 different therapies were analyzed. They rated yoga as having "A" level evidence, the top level, supporting its use for women with breast cancer. In fact, a study conducted by the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson found yoga helped improve aspects of quality of life and lead to better regulation of cortisol (a stress hormone linked to poor survival among breast cancer patients) in women with breast cancer undergoing radiotherapy through six months later.

The Integrative Medicine Center's own research at MD Anderson also suggests that yoga can be beneficial in the following ways:

Improved sleep outcomes
Decreased side effects of treatment
Improved physical functioning aspects of quality of life
Improve stress hormone regulation
Increase in finding meaning from the illness experience as patients transition from active treatment to cancer survivorship

There are many different types of yoga and there is no evidence that one style is more beneficial than another. Taking into consideration safety and your level of physical conditioning, it is important to find an instructor, class and type of yoga that best matches your individual needs. It is also important to consult with your primary medical care team before participating in exercise if you have any physical limitations.

People often ask which yoga style is the best for reducing stress and improving quality of life. The answer is the one they will do every day and make a part of their life. Yoga techniques are many and varied. The key is to find a yoga practice that works for you and to practice it daily.

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