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Restorative yoga may have positive effects for breast cancer patients

by Tara S. Kerpelman
Feb 26, 2009

Restorative yoga may provide some relief of fatigue and depression problems for women with breast cancer, according to a new study. Researchers found women who practiced this gentler version of the popular mind-body therapy had a 50 percent reduction in depression and a 12 percent increase in feelings of peacefulness.

“In restorative yoga you can hold the poses for longer because you’re being supported,” said Tara Parker, who teaches this type of yoga at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Props such as blocks, blankets and bolsters help women decrease muscular tension associated with yoga poses.

The pilot study, published Wednesday in the journal of Psycho-Oncology, assigned 44 participants to a restorative yoga or a control group. The average age of participants was 56 and more than a third of the women were undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy. 

The yoga group took 10 weekly 75-minute classes that combined physical postures, breathing and deep relaxation. By using props, the teacher was able to help the women find a comfortable position so they could hold the poses for several minutes.

By taking the pressure off the joints and muscles, Parker said, the person can focus on holding the poses, and this helps them to feel better.

Restorative yoga helps trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the automatic body control that slows heart rate and relaxes the muscles, Parker explained. “This also reduces cortisol levels, which decreases stress and lowers your blood pressure,” she said. Cortisol is a hormone that is released during times of stress, which helps to convert sugar into energy.

The study showed that women who started off with more negative emotions and a lower sense of well-being benefited more than the women in the control group, who also began with the same emotions. The study also found that the women doing restorative yoga needed less time to fall asleep.

“People who have cancer feel that their body has somehow betrayed them,” said Dr. Diljeet Singh, co-director of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s ovarian cancer early detection and prevention program. “Exercise gives people the sense again of being one with their body or understanding their body.”

Singh, who does yoga herself, said there is a lot of evidence that spiritual support and counseling does help people. “I talk to a lot of my patients about physical activity. Yoga is nice because [people with] a wide range of physical fitness [levels] can still do yoga.” But in the end, Singh said whether it is yoga or working out, physical activity is what’s important for patients.

Overall, the study found there were psychological benefits for the women who participated in restorative yoga, but the small size of the study means further investigation would be needed to determine exactly how helpful this mind-body therapy might be for breast cancer patients.

Parker has been teaching yoga for 14 years. She said she has observed that restorative yoga helps to reduce physical and mental fatigue and is useful to decrease anxiety and depression, but not just in breast cancer patients.

Parker got her teaching certification from the Temple of Kriya Yoga in Chicago and is one of several restorative yoga teachers around Chicago.