The Benefits of Yoga for Lung Cancer Patients

LUNGevity Foundation

Physical activity can be beneficial for lung patients; in fact, exercise has been scientifically proven to decrease tension, elevate mood, lessen fatigue, and generally improve quality of life. Even light exercise can release endorphins, which in turn can help improve sleep, stabilize mood, and reduce stress. 

Swimming, walking, and yoga are some of the best ways to exercise for lung cancer patients because they are moderate and low-impact. However, the best form of exercise is one you enjoy; liking an activity ensures you continue to do it.

We sat down with Debbie Berkelhammer, a certified yoga instructor, to discuss the benefits of yoga and how lung cancer patients can find a class that works for them.


How did you get involved with yoga for cancer patients?

My own personal story of survival has been a driving force to delve deeper into yoga and its health and wellness benefits. When I was 30 years old and a young mother, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor in my cervical spine and was told I had 1-3 months to live. At the time, I would’ve loved to know there was something I could do for myself that has so many benefits like yoga. Years later, my uncle who was like a second father to me was diagnosed with lung cancer. He originally introduced me to Yoga 4 Cancer, when he took a class at his local Cancer Center in Las Vegas, NV and I saw the benefits that yoga had on his health.


What are the benefits of yoga on lung cancer?

A lot of people think you can’t do yoga while undergoing treatment, but in a safe environment, yoga can have a huge benefits.  Yoga4cancer boosts your immune system, builds strength and flexibility, it helps you detoxify your system, and it gives you techniques to combat stress and anxiety. Yoga can also help with side effects, such as fatigue and stress and constipation; yoga keeps oxygen flowing and helps to manage side effects of cancer treatments.

Also, yoga breathing techniques are portable. A cancer patient can take them off the mat and practice at home, while waiting to see a doctor, during stressful times or while undergoing treatment. 

It is of course advised to practice yoga while undergoing cancer treatment under the supervision of an oncology trained instructor after discussion with a treating physician.


Tell me more about Yoga 4 Cancer.

Yoga 4 Cancer (Y4C) was created by Tari Prinster, a cancer survivor herself, who worked many years to develop a yoga methodology that is safe for cancer patients and long term cancer survivors. This methodology is based in the vinyasa Participants at the Survivorship Expo practicing yogalineage and uses a flow carefully crafted with safe transitions that can be done anywhere: on the mat, in a chair, or against a wall. It utilizes props to ensure safe accessible yoga for each participant.

Y4C includes many restorative poses and does not include poses that might be unsafe to patients.  For example, while child’s pose is a staple in most other yoga practices, it can be a challenging pose for cancer patients because breathing is inhibited and the position may cause pain to those having had surgery in the abdomen.

Many people might wonder how am I supposed to exercise when I feel like this? How can I show up for a class when I can barely walk? The movements in the methodology makes it possible to say, YES I CAN MOVE, I CAN DO YOGA. We want cancer patients and survivors to be able to benefit from yoga and exercise, and these classes help do that. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, cancer patients and survivors should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, or up to 320 minutes for those who are obese. Two 60-75 minute yoga classes each week can help to fulfill this requirement, as well as mitigate common symptoms and side effects

Y4C classes are held all over country and internationally.


How can someone find a Y4C?

If you are interested in finding a Y4C near you, you can visit the Y4C teacher directory to find certified instructors in your area using your zip code. The database links to teacher’s websites and contact information.  


If someone is looking to do yoga, but here is no local Y4C, what do you recommend they do?

Y4C offers free, online videos that people can do at home with step-by-step instructions and cues for modifications. There is also a Facebook page that highlights specific poses and gives detailed instructions on how to do them. Another great resource is Tari’s book, “Yoga for Cancer”, is available on Amazon or other book merchanizers.

There are some studios that offer classes for those touched by cancer, but the truth is, if the teacher is not oncology trained there can be risks (i.e., safe transitions and child’s pose, etc). I would not recommend hot yoga, as it is easy to overheat, have shortness of breath and the hot rooms are germ incubators. I would caution even gentle or restorative yoga classes taught by teachers who are not certified to work with cancer patients; these are not a replacement for the Y4C experience. Be sure to speak with the yoga teacher before class about your cancer and ensure they are knowledgeable about modifying for your needs and condition.

Exercise is important, but you need to be safe. We don’t want people to walk away discouraged from a class that was not the right fit.


What advice would you give someone with lung cancer looking to start exercising?

Be open to yoga. There is much research that demonstrates the benefits of yoga. Whatever goal you have to address taking up a yoga practice, be positive and believe you can do yoga. The only person stopping you is yourself. Just do it. Get up and do it. Even if you just come in and sit and watch. Believing you can do it is the hardest part, but you will feel better, you will get stronger, and a well-trained teacher will make it accessible to you not difficult. Find a class that’s right for you.

Seek out a class that meets your needs. And a trained professional who knows what you’re going through. Never be afraid to ask questions. If you go to a studio or clinic where the yoga teachers haven’t worked with cancer survivors then this might not be the right place for you.

I was at the International Lung Cancer Survivorship Conference Expo last year, and I was so impressed with the people who came out to the expo and were open to yoga. Some people just watching our class realized they could do the poses too and ended up joining in.  Give it a try; you might be surprised with what you can do and how much it helps you.

In closing I will quote Tari: “Cancer steals your breath. Yoga gives it back.”

Debbie will be joining us once again at the ILCSC Survivorship Expo on August 21. Be sure to join us then to try out Yoga 4 Cancer. To learn more about the ILCSC, check out our website.  


Related Reading:

Debbie has been an avid yogi for the last 20 years. She is a certified yoga instructor in Yoga 4 Cancer, a yoga methodology specifically for cancer patients/survivors. Debbie is also a certified Vinyasa yoga instructor, has trained and completed 65 hours in Tai Vedic Conservatory Yoga Body work,  is the founder of WYOGA® Wellness + Yoga and co-founder of TYOGA® , a yoga flow that targets key poses for tennis players to help strengthen their body and improve balance and flexibility. 

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