Along with the effects of their illness, many cancer patients also struggle with the consequences of a poor night's sleep.
Tibetan Yoga is helping change that. Researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center studied 39 patients who had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; they were randomly assigned to a seven-week Tibetan Yoga program or a control group. Participants were either currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments or in the first year of ending treatment.
The yoga program included controlled breathing and poses from the tsa lung (pronounced saw LOONG) and trul khor bon (TRUE core bahn) lineages of Tibetan Yoga. The tsa lung portion included practicing deep, mindful breathing and performing five simple movements while seated, all of which worked together to open the heart, throat, navel, and crown chakras. It was followed by the first cycle of trul khor (some of it done while seated), including more dynamic movements, like self-massaging different parts of the body and shaking and releasing the hands, arms, and legs. It concluded with many long exhalations.
The yoga participants met once a week for an hour-and-a-half-long class led by instructor Alejandro Chaoul-Reich and were encouraged to also practice on their own. (They averaged two extra sessions a week.) Prior to the study, patients completed tests to measure their levels of sleep quality, fatigue, and psychological adjustment; they redid the tests in one week, one month, and finally three months after the yoga program.
The results? Those in the yoga program had significantly better sleep quality and sleep duration, fell asleep faster, and used less sleep medication than the control group, according to Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., who spearheaded the study.
These findings are especially encouraging, because those who have cancer often struggle with many psychological problems, which often affect their quality of sleep. "Sleep disturbances are one of the most frequent complaints," says Cohen.
Chaoul-Reich believes that the Tibetan Yoga was effective because it played a dual role. "First, it helps calms the breath, which also calms the mind," he explains. "Plus, the movements open and release any obstacles—whether they be physical, emotional, or mental—which can impede your natural flow of energy. This allows you to be more at ease during the day, and it can carry over to your sleep."
Cohen adds that Tibetan Yoga, with its low-impact movements and emphasis on the breath, was particularly helpful, since many of the patients either had little flexibility or lacked energy because of the chemotherapy. Participant Ruth Piana, 77, agrees. "The beautiful part about the yoga was that it was slow and easy," she explains. "It helped me feel more energetic and more at peace with the world."