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Iyengar Yoga Promotes Well-Being in Cancer Survivors

Last year alone some 213,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer. The good news is that 2 million women have survived. Many women with breast cancer seek complementary interventions that will enhance their quality of life. However, research is lacking about whether programs such as yoga also benefit immune function.

A new study of breast cancer survivors practicing Iyengar yoga—a form of yoga that incorporates all of the components of physical fitness and focuses on structural body alignment as well as mental relaxation—has found that breast cancer survivors who practice yoga experience changes in the way their immune cells respond to activation signals. This may be important for understanding how physical activity and meditative practices benefit the immune system. The function of genes in immune cells can be regulated by proteins called transcription factors.

Active practice of Iyengar yoga, named for its creator B.K.S. Iyengar, differs from the gentle restorative practices typically offered to cancer survivors as it can include all the components of physical fitness. The active practice of asanas (postures) can incorporate cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and balance. Nineteen women, average age 61 years, participated in the study. All had been diagnosed with stage I-III breast cancer, were 4 years out of diagnosis and had received antiestrogen or aromatase inhibitor hormonal therapy. None had any experience with Iyengar yoga. The subjects were randomized to either yoga (n=10) or a wait-list control group (n=9).

Beginning level Iyengar yoga classes were conducted two times per week for 8 weeks and included the following: standing poses, chest and shoulder openers and inversions. The women were given an instruction sheet to practice once a week at home for a total of three yoga sessions per week. Researchers also took a survey of the subjects’ illness demands and a blood sample to determine lymphocyte NF-κB activation (a transcription factor linked to immune cell activation and stress response) prior to and following the intervention.

Preliminary findings indicate:
* Demands of illness, which reflects the burden and hardship of breast cancer survivorship, decreased following yoga participation.
* Compared with pre-intervention responses, women who participated in yoga had lower stimulated lymphocyte NF-κB activation after 8 weeks of yoga than did the control group.
* Decreases in demands of illness were associated with decreased lymphocyte NF-κB activation, but only in the yoga participants.

This study demonstrates that an active yoga practice taught in the Iyengar tradition can be successfully offered to breast cancer survivors who are approximately four years out from initial cancer diagnosis and who are receiving certain types of hormonal therapy. It also shows that the program can have important psychological benefits for breast cancer survivors.

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