Benefits of Yoga and Meditation for Patients with Cancer

woman lying on yoga bolster
Yoga is a complementary mind–body therapy that may help people manage cancer symptoms or adverse effects of treatments and improve their quality of life. The summary of research from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health on mind–body interventions suggests that yoga may help with anxiety, depression, distress, and stress in people with cancer.1 Results of studies of patients with early-stage breast cancer and survivors suggest that yoga may help to reduce fatigue. Meditation, one of the tools of yoga, has similarly been shown to address anxiety, stress, fatigue, and general mood and sleep disturbances.

Yoga is a synergistic system of knowledge and practices grounded in ancient Indian philosophy, with a goal of stilling the fluctuations of the mind and developing physical, mental, and emotional equanimity.2 It is widely popular in the United States: As of 2012, 9.5% of US adults had reported using yoga, with 8% using meditation.3

Physically challenging styles of yoga are less appropriate for patients with cancer coping with health challenges than are hatha, yin, therapeutic, and Viniyoga. Viniyoga adapts the tools of yoga (breath, movement, meditation) to the needs, goals, and abilities of the individual.2,4-6 There is a continuum, ranging from group classes to individual yoga therapy, in which the therapist customizes and supports a program for the client.7,8


Clinical oncology practice guidelines based on a systematic literature review from 1990 through 2015 detail a growing body of evidence for recommending mind–body therapies as supportive breast cancer care during and after treatment. Specifically, yoga and meditation appear to be highly or moderately helpful for reducing anxiety and stress, improving depression and mood disorders, and enhancing quality of life.9

A review of 11 randomized clinical trials (RCTs) and 6 non- RCTs found consistent support from the efficacy of yoga to improve mental health outcomes (such as distress, mood and anxiety) during cancer treatment. Some research found improvements in sleep, fatigue, and quality of life during treatment.10 A review of 9 RCTs and 6 nonrandomized studies of yoga use by cancer survivors suggests physical and psychosocial benefits. Preliminary findings show potential relief from fatigue, dyspnea, gastrointestinal issues, menopausal symptoms, pain severity, and improvements in respiratory function, heart rate, and HRV, as well as sleep-related benefits, emotional well-being, vigor, stress, and cognitive functioning.11


Neuroscience and psychology show that the default state of the human brain is mind wandering—ruminating about the past or thinking about the future.12-14 Yoga and meditation shift attention to the interoceptive neural network by directing attention to present-moment interoceptive bodily sensations such as breath. Genetics and life experiences contribute to individual capacity for interoceptive awareness.15 That capacity can improve with training. Regular practice develops an attentional habit and capacity to direct attention to interoceptive sensations.16-18 An increased capacity and propensity to direct attention to bodily sensations (interoceptive awareness) promotes emotional and bodily awareness. In other words, we notice how we are feeling when we get triggered, making it more likely we will make different choices, such as stop and take a deep breath, think and then respond, rather than just react.


Self-regulation is “our ability to control how we feel and act.”19 What self-regulation of bodily tries to do is to maintain homeostasis; and self-regulation of emotional states helps us maintain equilibrium, or balance. Interoception and bodily states are inseparable; interoception and emotional states are inseparable. The autonomic nervous system continuously makes metabolic and vascular adjustments to try to maintain homeostasis (and keep us alive). Conscious awareness of bodily states (through interoception) alerts our mind to make changes in the body or our environment to maintain homeostasis. Good emotional awareness means that someone detects bodily signals and can clearly differentiate how each emotion feels. That awareness enables that person to take steps to alter emotions or situations to maintain, increase, or decrease an emotion.15,19


Practicing yoga regularly can potentially support change in the way the mind and body function:

  • Inhibiting cognitive, emotional, and behavioral stress responses (such as negative self-appraisal, emotional reactivity, and rumination)
  • Inhibiting autonomic stress responses (such as vasopulminary constriction, inflammation, and muscle tension and pain)
  • Facilitating viscerosomatic processing of sensory– motor signals20

Another theoretical mechanism of yoga effects is that breath regulation (pranayama) during yoga practices improves vagal nerve tone. The vagus nerve contains the main bidirectional perceptual pathway of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Practicing yoga shifts regulatory systems toward optimal homeostasis, reducing allostatic load and correcting underactivity of the PNS and γ-aminobutyric acid systems.21 Allostatic load is the cost to the body of maintaining stability during reactions to chronic stress (such as high blood pressure and elevated heart rate). In this way, yoga supports the functioning of the autonomic nervous, neuroendocrine, hypothalamic-pituitary- adrenal axis, cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems and influences emotional states and thought processes.21 


Yoga interventions are noninvasive, low cost, and can be adapted for people who have functional or other impairments. Selecting an appropriate style of yoga and an experienced, certified instructor will minimize potential risks of harm for people undergoing cancer treatment, including elderly patients and those with limited mobility. Knowledgeable, experienced yoga teachers often offer private sessions adapted for the individual that can be practiced at home. Certified yoga therapists are trained to deliver individualized therapeutic yoga.22,23

Carrie Heeter, PhD is a professor of media and information at Michigan State University. She designs and researches cybermeditation. She is a certified Viniyoga and meditation teacher. Heeter has studied meditation one-on-one for 5 years with her teacher, Marcel Allbritton, PhD.

Rebecca Lehto, PhD, RN is an associate professor at Michigan State University College of Nursing. Her research focuses on symptom management and adaptation to cancer.


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Reprinted from Oncology Nursing News