Last updated: March 20, 2020
This concern is pretty straightforward:
People with cancer should avoid Yin Yoga. The long-held stresses are contraindicated.
A major fear in working with yoga students who have cancer is the interaction between their cancer therapy and the physical stresses of their yoga practice. For example, chemotherapy uses toxic drugs to kill cancer cells, but to protect themselves, cancer cell create regions of high pressure inside the body to push these toxins away. If our yoga practice (or indeed even a massage session) increases the pressure in the tissues, this could prevent the drugs from getting to where they need to go. However, it is not true that massage or yoga cannot be helpful. They can—they just need to be done under the guidance of well-trained therapists and yoga teachers.
Benefits from massage for cancer patients include reduced anxiety, pain and fatigue while improving immune function. While yoga cannot cure cancer, the benefits from yoga are similar to those from massage: reduce anxiety, depression, tiredness (fatigue) and stress for some patients. Yin Yoga may be even better than active or dynamic yoga practices due to the time available to slow down, develop mindfulness and work with easy breathing patterns. In these cases the practice is not about building flexibility, so there is no need to go to a deep edge; the student can be content to relax and even use props to reduce any discomfort.
Some evidence that Yin Yoga may be effective in helping with cancer comes from the laboratory work of Helen Langevin. Her research team discovered that long-held stresses (10 minutes once a day over 4 weeks) can reduce tumor size by 52% compared to a control group. Unfortunately the subjects in her experiment were mice, and we have no studies on the effect with humans, but the reasoning is quite sound. The study reported
Recent studies have shown that gentle daily stretching for 10 minutes can reduce local connective tissue inflammation and fibrosis. Because mechanical factors within the stroma can influence the tumor microenvironment, we hypothesized that stretching would reduce the growth of tumors implanted within locally stretched tissues and tested this hypothesis in a mouse orthotopic breast cancer model…. Tumor volume at end-point was 52% smaller in the stretch group, compared to the no-stretch group.
(If you want to learn more, Langevin gave an interesting talk on this topic called Stretching, Connective Tissue, Inflammation and Cancer.)
As with so many things, we cannot make a dogmatic assertion and say that yoga in general or Yin Yoga specifically will help every cancer patient. We have no studies showing it can cure cancer, but there are indications that it may “help to reduce anxiety, depression, tiredness (fatigue) and stress for some patients. And it has improved the quality of sleep, mood and spiritual well being for some people.”
So, should cancer patients do Yin Yoga? Maybe! It depends on so many variables: the person, what type of cancer, the stage of treatment, doctor’s advice, etc. What we can say is that Yin Yoga might be helpful. If you have cancer and want to try Yin Yoga, here are some suggestions from Cancer Research UK to follow:
- Don’t do yoga alone at home until you’ve practised it with a qualified teacher.
- Tell your teacher about any medical problems you have, including back and joint problems, before you begin.
- Stop and tell your teacher if any posture is painful for you.
- Never try difficult postures, such as [inversions], without first being shown how to do this by a qualified teacher.
In general, yoga is well tolerated by cancer patients, but it would be a good idea to let your health care team know what you are doing.
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 See Gail Ironson and Maria Hernandez-Reif, “Massage Therapy for Reducing Stress Hormones and Enhancing Immune Function in Breast Cancer Survivors,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 57.1 (July 2004): 45–52.
 See Berrueta L. et al., “Stretching Reduces Tumor Growth in a Mouse Breast Cancer Model,” Scientific Reports 8.1 (December 2018).
 H. Cramer et al. “Yoga for improving health-related quality of life, mental health and cancer-related symptoms in women diagnosed with breast cancer,” The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 1 (2017). doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010802.pub2.