Science of Yoga
Yoga as a Complementary Medicine in Cancer Treatment and Recovery
People who practice yoga often live by their practice and swear by the health benefits that it provides. Online, we can easily find first-hand accounts of people promoting yoga not only as a mental/physical practice with added spiritual benefits but also as a cure-all for certain ailments. Some of these ailments can include conditions that are difficult or impossible to cure. Even with advanced new-age medicines, problems like arthritis, diabetes and cancers often are incurable. Those suffering from chronic conditions often find themselves seeking alternative and complimentary medicines which would help them improve their lifestyle. Research has shown that the negative side effects of medicine is one of the primary reasons why people search for supplemental ways to treat their conditions.
Col. Hansa Raval, M.D., a pathologist with the United States Army, received media attention around the 80’s and 90’s by noting her personal experiences with yoga. A native of San Antonio, Texas, Raval was a cancer specialist involved in specialized oncological research within the military. Contemporary physicians, of course, disputed Col. Raval’s claims despite her professional history in the field of cytotechnology (a diagnostic branch of medicine designed to pinpoint early stages of cancer).
As a cancer specialist, Raval claimed to have witnessed the use of yoga (specifically Raja yoga) and meditation techniques to cure common conditions such as arthritis, chronic headaches and – surprisingly – cancer. Raval continued her personal and professional pursuits to promote yoga as a holistic cure for cancer, even offering “proof” collected during her two years of study at the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University in India.
Ultimately, we see that Raval falls into an alternative school of thought that believes many of our diseases are psychosomatic and that disciplines like Yoga and meditation offer legitimate solutions (if not full blown cures) to certain types of problems. Assuming it is true that some of our physical ailments originate in the mind, Raval’s claims are not too extraordinary. We should note that Raval went out of her way to explain that her beliefs are not part of religious dogma or any cult-like philosophy that is dependent on blind faith. Nor was it a new-age, unproven, pseudo-science like biofeedback or the myriad of other energy-healing practices. Thus, Raval maintained that Yoga creates solutions to our deep-seated problems by penetrating into the heart of the matter – our mind.
Somewhat accurately, Raval maintained that medical schools downplay the study of non-conventional methods of cancer treatment in favor of conventional methods such as radiation, chemotherapy, and treatment through technological breakthroughs. Of course, nothing in this article or on the internet at large should act as a substitute to legitimate medical advice dispensed by a healthcare provider who is familiar with a patient’s condition. But, it is noteworthy that conventional medical schools tend to separate the body and mind and because of this, the correlation between the two does not always get the attention that it probably deserves. By definition, the word “psychosomatic” means a combination of mind (or spirit) and body. Perhaps more credence should be given to the notion that the mind has, in some cases, the power to cure the body.
But what does ‘hard science’ have to say about yoga as a cure or treatment for cancer? Well, as with any type of experimental research, the results are not as conclusive as we would like. Most peer-reviewed articles end with the suggestion that additional data and resources are needed to make a more accurate assessment on their hypothesis.
Researchers at Duke University Medical Center focused on the palliative effects (meaning pain relief which does not involve a cure) of yoga on women with terminal breast cancer. They concluded that “analyses showed significant increases in invigoration and acceptance” and “after a day during which women practiced more, they experienced significantly lower levels of pain and fatigue, and higher levels of invigoration, acceptance, and relaxation” (Carson). Clearly, yoga will not provide a “cure” for late-stage breast cancer but the ancillary benefits of practice should not be ignored because of it. After all, peace of mind at a time of turmoil and chaos in one’s life cannot always be purchased in the form of a medication or procedure. To increase one’s level of relaxation will mean an improvement in lifestyle – at least to some of us.
Several other studies also found that yoga can enhance the quality of one’s life. Researcher conducted by scientists from the Wake Forest School of Medicine, Northwestern University School of Medicine, and the University of Texas found that yoga improved the quality of sleep and decreased levels of fatigue felt by individuals undergoing cancer treatment (Danhauer).
A 2018 study published by the University of Rochester Medical Center found that “yoga… [is a] feasible, safe, and effective for treating sleep disruption, cancer-related fatigue, cognitive impairment, psychosocial distress, and musculoskeletal symptoms in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation and cancer survivors”. The team led by Dr. Po-Ju Lin went even further by recommending that clinicians consider yoga as a natural prescription to help alleviate the symptoms experienced by cancer survivors (Lin). As is common for underfunded research topics (such as yoga), the scientists call for additional research to be performed under more thorough guidelines.
Will research within alternative-science fields (like parapsychology) ever be accepted by the hard sciences? Can we conduct legitimate research on the treatment of illness and disease through the treatment of sometimes as abstract as “the soul”? On a long enough timeline, perhaps the sciences and meta-sciences will meet in the middle. Meanwhile, those inclined to focus on the spiritual aspects of the physical with continue to do so. The Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, which has branches in dozens of countries, teaches yoga as a means to attain peace, health and happiness. Many other smaller organizations exist around the globe. The university gained status as a non-governmental member of the United Nations and has offices at the U.N. building in New York.
Raja yoga is sometimes used as a means to answer abstract questions like why a disease is hurting our body, mind and spirit. In other words, yoga can be part of a holistic approach to the treatment and management of cancer. And, as with any topic that is inconclusive, additional research is required.
Danhauer, S.C., Addington, E.L., Sohl, S.J. et al. Review of yoga therapy during cancer treatment. Support Care Cancer 25, 1357–1372 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/
Carson, J. W., Carson, K. M., Porter, L. S., Keefe, F. J. (2007). Yoga for Women with Metastatic Breast Cancer: Results from a Pilot Study. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 33(3), 331-341. https://www.sciencedirect.com/
Lin, P. J., Peppone, L. J., Janelsins, M. C., Mohile, S. G., Kamen, C. S., Kleckner, I. R., Fung, C., Asare, M., Cole, C. L., Culakova, E., & Mustian, K. M. (2018). Yoga for the Management of Cancer Treatment-Related Toxicities. Current oncology reports, 20(1), 5. https://doi.org/10.1007/