Basic Yoga for Cancer Remission

I’m happy to bring you a guest post this week by Heidi Hackler, RYT, CHHC

Where yoga was once considered “woo-woo” stuff that only vegetarians did, it has now become mainstream, and today most cancer centers in the US have some form of yoga program available.

Yoga can be beneficial for healing the body from a multitude of ailments, injuries, and illnesses, including cancer. This 8,000 year old form of gentle exercise, along with pranayama breathwork, is also a form of meditation, which eases stress and improves the mind-body connection.

Interestingly, as yoga becomes more popular (today 20-million Americans practice yoga regularly), more research is being done on the efficacy of yoga during and after cancer treatment. In fact the first medical text book on yoga has just been published: Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Care.

So what are some of the benefits of a regular yoga practice for cancer remission?

Adaptable – anyone of any age or ability can practice some form of yoga. If you’ve never practiced yoga before, or have difficulty getting down onto the floor for a traditional yoga practice, try a chair yoga practice like this one from yoga teacher Amanda at the Chopra Center.

Relaxation – Ever notice how in a stressful situation you may start to breath more or hyperventilate? This is the body’s way of bringing more oxygen to your cells to fuel your muscles for fight-or-flight. But it also helps to calm you down. The increased oxygen helps to dissipate stress, tension, and anxiety, all of which may be present during and after cancer treatment.

At the base level of yoga is breathing or pranayama. Before you start any yoga routine, or before going to bed at night try this simple 4-7-8 breathing exercise:

Inhale for count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, exhale for a count of 8. Repeat this three times, eventually building up to six times in a row, twice a day. Don’t repeat more than six times in a row or you may start to feel light headed.

Cleansing/Detoxing – A regular yoga practice stimulates your muscles, helping more blood to flow, and even helps your lymph to flow, all of which help to carry away toxins that may have accumulated during treatment.

Immune Boosting – The physical exercise involved with a yoga practice helps to boost the immune system, and even stimulate the body’s own natural anti-cancer defense systems. Regular exercise also lengthens telomeres at the ends of chromosomes, helping them to replicate correctly and not mutate into cancer. [source]

Range of Motion and Flexibility – A regular yoga practice can dramatically improve flexibility and range of motion. Always listen to your body, let it be your guide. Start out slow and easy, moving into your comfort zone and up to the edge. Yoga should never be painful – “no pain no gain” does not apply in yoga. While it’s ok to feel a “good” stretch, it should not be to the point of pain.

If a pose or movement is painful or difficult for you at first, move just to the point of pain, then back off and stay there for a minute or two. Try to move a bit deeper again, and when you feel pain, back off again. You may find that after trying a pose two or three times, you can get deeper into it as your muscles and ligaments warm up and loosen up.

If you commit to a regular daily yoga practice, even 20-30 minutes a day, you will see a marked difference in your range of motion and flexibility than if you practice just two to three days a week. I didn’t used to believe there would be a difference between 3-days a week or 5- or 6-days a week, as my yoga teacher told me there would be. But she was right! Once I started practicing 6-days a week instead of 3-days, my range of motion and flexibility significantly increased.

Where to start with a yoga practice?
If you’re new to a yoga practice you might not know where to start. If you’re looking for a class, I recommend trying a Restorative or Yin Yoga class which are both very gentle and good for beginners. There are also Apps for your phone like Pocket Yoga, and online classes for free or pay if you are looking for a guided class at home. If you are a beginner, I would recommend staying away from Hot Yoga (90% of yoga injuries happen in Hot Yoga classes!) And even a Vinyasa Flow class might be too much for a beginner recently recovering from cancer. If you have practiced yoga before and are wanting to step it up a bit, I recommend trying a Hatha yoga class which holds each pose a bit longer and isn’t as active as a Flow class. Once you’ve built your strength back up, if you really want more of a workout than a gentle stretch with your yoga routine, then check out a Vinyasa class.

Before you start, you’ll need to assess your own situation and listen to your own body to determine what’s best for you. Whether you want to do an at-home practice or attend a class at a yoga studio or gym, you’ll want to take precautions with your immune system as it may be reduced. Be aware of potential dust and germs on the floor and always practice on a clean floor or mat. Wipe your mat thoroughly after each use (see DIY Mat Spray recipe below) and allow to dry. Also wash your hands thoroughly after each practice or keep a natural hand spray in your bag.

What you’ll need for an at home practice
If you have a yoga mat already, great. If not, you can easily practice yoga on a beach-towel or bath-sheet, or just on the floor. I recommend at least using a rug or carpet for a bit of padding, and using a folded towel for extra padding for your knees.

DIY Yoga Mat Spray
1 cup white vinegar
3 cups water
20 drops tea tree oil
20 drops essential oil of your choice (e. g. peppermint, lavender, or lemon)

Directions: Mix ingredients in a spray bottle and shake well. Spray both sides of mat and let it sit for a few minutes. Then wipe down with a damp cloth and let dry.

Basic 20-minute Yoga In-Home Practice
You can use an app like Pocket Yoga or look online for other sources to build your own at home practice. Below is a recommendation for a beginner practice for people in recovery. If you can’t sit on the floor please begin with the chair yoga video mentioned above.

Start by sitting comfortably in a cross-legged position on your mat or floor. Bring the palms of your hands to heart-center. Take 5–7 deep inhales and exhales feeling your body relax more and more with each exhale. As you inhale and exhale recall three things that you are grateful for, and set an intention to recall throughout your practice. This could be something like “my body is well”, or “I am in permanent remission.”

On your last exhale, exhale audibly the sound OM. Om is the universal sound that encompasses all sounds and reverberates through your body connecting your mind, body, and spirit.

Seated and Reclined Poses for a Basic Practice
Maintain breath awareness and continue to inhale and exhale deeply throughout your practice, breathing into any tight areas. Work up to holding each pose for 1-2 minutes if possible.

  • Seated Shoulder Stretches (up/down, forward/backward – both sides)
  • Staff Pose (sit tall, legs straight in front of you)
  • Seated Bound Angle Pose (sit tall, bend knees and bring soles of feet together)
  • Seated Forward Bend (sit tall, bend forward at hips)
  • Seated Twist (sit tall, twist to left side first, then right side)
  • Reclined Bridge Pose (lay back on floor, knees bent, feet flat on mat, hips up to sky)
  • Reclined Spinal Twist (lay back on floor, twist right knee over to left leg and hold, switch sides, left knee over right leg and hold)
  • Reclined Happy Baby (lay back on floor, knees bent, feet in air, grabb toes with hands)
  • Savasana – Lie back on the floor with head supported and towel roll under knees if needed. Stay laying in this position for at least 5 minutes.

Savasana is actually the most import pose of the entire practice, and unfortunately one that is often skipped. This restorative pose turns off your sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) and turns on the parasympathetic nervous system. This helps integrate all the other poses into your mind-body-spirit for total relaxation and healing.

After Savasana, roll over to your right side and continue to lay there for a minute or two before sitting up. Again bring hands to heart center, recall your intention. Take a deep breath, and exhale an audible OM to reverberate your intention throughout your body.

Besides the benefits mentioned above, a regular yoga practice can help to quiet the mind, improve the body’s own ability to heal, balances the nervous system, boost the immune system, develop compassion and understanding toward yourself and others, and enhance your mood. Lots of great reasons to start your yoga practice today! Namaste. (The light and energy in me sees and appreciates the light and energy in you.)

Heidi Hackler is a Registered Yoga Teacher, Certified Holistic Health Coach, and Blogger at She has been practicing yoga for over 25 years and is currently sailing the Seven Seas, living the happy-well-lifestyle aboard her sailboat with her husband and two cats.

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