- Conscious breathing and meditation can be used to ease anxiety: breathing impacts the nervous system, calming it or provoking its fight or flight mode.
- Yoga benefits include sleep, can build on fitness and motion and can help build bone strength and balance in the body.
- Bring balance to the body: when breathing, inhaling stimulates and energises the body and our exhales calm the body, so making the inhale and exhale equal in length will increase the balance.
Specialist cancer yoga instructor and Perci Professional Vicky Fox unpacks how to use complementary cancer therapies like yoga and meditation to reduce anxiety.
Being diagnosed with cancer can literally take your breath away. When we hold our breath or breathe erratically we send a message to the nervous system that something is wrong. Our body dials more into the fight or flight side of the nervous system, with our blood pressure and heart rate increasing and digestion and immune systems decreasing.
What we want to achieve is breathing consciously and using the breath to calm the nervous system and bring us more into a rest and digest mode which allows our digestion and immune systems to start functioning fully and our heart rate and blood pressure to decrease.
Our happiness and sadness is constructed in the mind so we give the mind the focus of breath to give us a break from, or some pauses in between, our thinking.Vicky Fox, specialist cancer yoga instructor
The amazing thing about breathing is we are all able to do it. How we breathe can affect how we feel and when we are aware of breathing this brings us into the present moment. Why is this important? Well, our mind can be wonderful and creative but it can also be scary and limiting. Our happiness and sadness is constructed in the mind so we give the mind the focus of breath to give us a break from, or some pauses in between, our thinking.
The benefits of yoga and meditation for cancer patients
- Yoga helps calm and soothe the nervous system.
- It can help induce a better night’s sleep.
- Yoga improves a range of motion, builds strength in muscles and eases out tension in the body.
- Yoga helps the lymphatic system which is part of your immune system and can help to reduce the pressure of lymphoedema.
- Yoga can help build bone strength and balance in the body.
- Yoga for cancer can help you feel more comfortable in your changing body.
- Yoga creates a community of people that are there to support you. We are all better when we are supported.
The best yoga for cancer: restorative practice
Restorative yoga classes are yoga classes to help calm the nervous system. These gentle classes will be slower and have more variations. Yoga for Cancer Classes will specifically address side effects of treatment for cancer.
I run yoga courses through my own website and Triyoga Studio, working with people with cancer specifically.
A practical breathing meditation to reduce anxiety
There isn’t a one size fits all approach to easing anxiety but one simple starting point is to count the breath.
You could do this lying down – for example if you were having a scan – or seated waiting for an appointment or during chemotherapy.
Start first by watching your breath as you breathe in and out. Notice where you feel the breath. Maybe you feel breath on your nostrils or you feel your ribs moving or your belly moving up and down as you breathe.
Start to count your breath in and your breath out. Counting just gives us another focus. As you count your breath in and out you might notice it is easier to breathe in than to breathe out or the opposite. Can you start to make the inhale and the exhale even? So, if you breathe in for 3, breathe out for 3 or in for 4 and out for 4. It doesn’t matter what your number is you are aiming to make the breath balanced. This creates a sense of balance in the body. Our inhales stimulate and energise the body and our exhales calm the body. So to create balance we breathe in and out for the same count.
If you were doing this practice at night and wanted to feel calmer and go to sleep, you might start to lengthen your exhale. So if you were breathing in for 3 you breathe out for 4 for example.
If you find counting frustrating then you can choose 2 words that mean something to you, hopefully something positive, for example ‘healthy’ and ‘strong’. As you breathe in say ‘healthy’ internally, and as you breathe out say ‘strong’. Continue to repeat these words on your inhale and exhale so you have given your mind something to focus on. Your mind will still wander, because that’s what it does, so don’t feel frustrated but notice it and come back to your breathing.
Find out more about Vicky Fox and her availability for yoga and meditation appointments.
While we have ensured that every article is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to one of our healthcare professionals or your primary healthcare team.
Ram P Agarwal and Adi Maroko-Afek, “Yoga into Cancer Care: A Review of the Evidence-based Research”. Apr 2018: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5769195/
Maria Gonzalez, Michaela C Pascoe et al, “Yoga for depression and anxiety symptoms in people with cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis”. Mar 2021: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33763925/