Yoga: Benefits for cancer patients

Handling the diagnosis of cancer includes experiencing the effects of the cancer itself, along with the effects that standard cancer treatments have upon both mind and body.


Battling cancer also means battling with possible cancer-related fatiguestandard therapy (e.g chemotherapy) side-effects, sleep problems, and anxiety and/or depression, to name a few.

Fortunately, in coping with cancer, physical exercise has generally been found to benefit the patient, including improving his or her overall quality of life related and improving psychological well-being.[1]

Even though knowing the perceived positive benefits of exercise, those with cancer may experience a number of barriers that prevent them from engaging in active physical exercise.[2,3,4] Physical discomfort and feeling crook (sick) have been listed as the top physical barriers.[5]  Fatigue and fear of overdoing the exercise, self-consciousness associated with physical appearance and body image, and low moods were some of the listed psychosocial barriers that keep some cancer patients from engaging in active physical exercise.[6,7,8]

These physical and psychosocial barriers push one out of every three adults [9, 10, 11] with cancer to seek CM (Complementary Medicine) techniques, like mindfulness, meditation and yoga to control their cancer-related symptoms.

What is Yoga?

A study done in 2008 [12] defined yoga as a ‘mind-body’ exercise, resulting from a combination of meditation and mindful, deep breathing while doing physical poses.

The Mayo Clinic defines the core components of yoga as:

  • Also referred to as ‘postures’, poses are a “series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility”.
  • Controlled breathing is vital in yoga. Controlled breathing allows you to “control your body and quiet your mind”.
  • Meditation or Relaxation.Both meditation and relaxation can be incorporated into yoga. Meditation helps create mindfulness and awareness “of the present moment without judgment”. [13]

There are about 100 different forms of yoga from which to choose, varying in intensity and pace. Remember though, that before engaging in any new physical exercise, please consult your medical practitioner. They may have input into which type of yoga best suits your energy level and interests.

Common examples of yoga forms [14] are:

  • Ashtanga:A series of poses, combined with a special breathing technique.
  • Bikram:Faster paced and more challenging form using a series of 26 poses in a heated room; also known as “hot yoga”.
  • Hatha:The most common form associated with yoga, combining a series of basic movements with breathing.
  • Iyengar:A slow and gentle practice that uses props like chairs, blocks, and strap to aid your body move into the proper alignment.
  • Power:A higher-intensity and faster form that promotes muscle development.
  • Vinyasa:Practice that uses serially and smoothly flowing poses.

Yoga targets the core muscles, builds upper and lower arm strength, works the quads (leg muscles), hips, and thighs. It tightens the glutes (muscle that extend the hip) and builds the muscles of the back. Yoga improves your flexibility and builds (especially core) muscle strength. Best of all, it is low-impact and easy on the joints! [14]

Yoga Precautions

However, if you have any of the following symptoms or conditions, please refer to your GP or cancer care specialist first to know if yoga is or is not for you:

  • Herniated disk
  • Pregnancy – some poses should be avoided
  • Uncontrolled high- or low-blood pressure
  • Eye conditions (e.g. glaucoma)
  • Severe problem with balance
  • Severe bone structure problems (Osteoporosis or spinal fractures)
  • Blood condition like increased risk of blood clots [13]

What can Yoga do for me?


A meta-analysis (“a process or technique of synthesizing research results by using various statistical methods to retrieve, select, and combine results from previous separate but related evidence-based studies”) [15] published in 2012 reveals that yoga has been found to largely reduce depression, anxiety, and distress in cancer patients.[16]  In addition, other studies have noted that yoga not only improves conditions of cancer-related sleep problems, it also greatly boosts mood and significantly decreases levels of stress. Overall, yoga improves the quality of life of people with cancer.[17, 18, 19]

Yoga can be beneficial to improve and alleviate cancer-related conditions. Know the precautions and talk to a member of your treating team or your GP about trying yoga.

Other Useful Resources:

Yoga Classes, Cancer Council Western Australia, 2016.

Yoga Information Sheet, Cancer Council WA (PDF)

Yoga Program. Cancer Council Northern Territory, 2016.

Yoga, Body-based Practices. Council Cancer New South Wales, 2015.

Yoga Australia
1300 881 451

Exercise & Sports Science Australia
07 3862 4122

Further Reading - References & Resources

  1. Knols R, Aaronson N, Uebelhart D, Fransen J, Aufdemkampe G. Physical Exercise in Cancer Patients During and After Medical Treatment: A Systematic Review of Randomized and Controlled Clinical Trials. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2005; 23 (16), pp. 3830-3842. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2005.02.148
  2. Courneya K, Friedenreich C, Quinney H, Fields A, Jones L, et. Al. A longitudinal study of exercise barriers in colorectal cancer survivors participating in a randomized controlled trial. Ann Behav Med, 2005; 29: 147-153.
  3. Courneya K, McKenzie D, Reid R, Mackey J, Gelmon K, et A. Barriers to supervised exercise training in a randomized controlled trial of breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Ann Behav Med, 2008; 35: 116-122.             doi: 10.1007/s12160-007-9009-4 (accessed May 2016)
  4. Midtgaard J, Baadsgaard MT, Moller T, Rasmussen B, Quist M, Andersen C, et al: Self-reported physical activity behaviour; exercise motivation and information among Danish adult cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Eur J Oncol Nurs, 2009; 13: 116-121. doi: 10.1016/j.ejon.2009.01.006 (accessed May 2016)
  5. Buffart L, Uffelen J, Riphagen I, Brug J, van Mechelen W, Brown W, et. Al. Physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga in cancer patients and survivors, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Cancer, 2012; 12, p559. doi: 10.1186/1471-2407-12-559 (accessed May 2016)
  6. Perna F, Craft L, Carver C, Antoni M. Negative affect and barriers to exercise among early stage breast cancer patients. Health Psychol, 2008; 27, pp. 275-279. doi: 10.1037/0278-6133.27.2.275 (accessed May 2016)
  7. Whitehead S, Lavelle K. Older breast cancer survivors’ views and preferences for physical activity. Qual Health Res , 2009; 19, pp.894-906. doi: 10.1177/1049732309337523 (accessed May 2016)
  8. Courneya K, Friedenreich C, Quinney H, Fields A, Jones L, Fairey A. Predictors of adherence and contamination in a randomized trial of exercise in colorectal cancer survivors. Psychooncology, 2004; 13(12), pp.857-866. doi: 10.1002/pon.802 (accessed May 2016)
  9. Molassiotis A, Fernadez-Ortega P, Pud D, Ozden G, Scott J, et. Al. Use of complementary and alternative medicine in cancer patients: a European survey. Ann Oncol, 2005; 16(4), pp. 655-663. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mdi110 (accessed May 2016)
  10. Ernst E, Cassileth B. The prevalence of complementary/alternative medicine in cancer: a systematic review. Cancer, 1998; 83(4), pp.777-782. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1097-0142(19980815)83:4<777::AID-CNCR22>3.0.CO;2-O (accessed May 2016);2-O/pdf
  11. Bernstein B, Grasso T. Prevalence of complementary and alternative medicine use in cancer patients. Oncology, 200; 15, 1267-1272 May 2016)
  12. Lipton L. Using yoga to treat disease: an evidence-based review. Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, 2008; 21(2), pp.34-41. (accessed May 2016)
  13. Yoga, Core Principles and Precaution. The Mayo Clinic Staff-The mayo Clinic, 2015.
  14. Watson S, Ratini M. Yoga, How it Works. WebMD, 2016
  15. Meta-analysis Definition, 2011.
  16. Buffart L, Uffeken J, Riphagen, Brug J, Mechelen W, et. Al. Physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga in cancer patients and survivors, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Cancer, 2012. 12, pp 559. doi: 10.1186/1471-2407-12-559 (accessed May 2016)*~hmac=7a5869ffa395514cd44d3de297d1e60479739bc75c11c8a6502d0680d02f3325(PDF)
  17. Lin K, Hu Y, Chang K, Lin H, Tsauo J. Effects of yoga on psychological health, quality of life, and physical health of patients with cancer: a meta-analysis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2011. doi: 10.1155/2011/659876
  18. Smith K, Pukall C. An evidence-based review of yoga as a complementary intervention for patients with cancer. Psychooncology, 2009; 18, pp.465-475. doi: 10.1002/pon.1411
  19. Bower J, Woolery A, Sternlieb B, Garet D. Yoga for cancer patients and survivors. Cancer Control, 2005; 12(3), pp.165-71. (PDF)