The Namaste Counsel


Yoga for Cancer Patients

More and more, doctors are prescribing yoga for people recovering from injuries, or for those that may have high blood pressure, degenerative bone loss, or arthritis. Next: yoga for cancer patients.

There are more and more clinical studies to prove that Yoga Therapy can help those recovering from cancer.

In Texas, MD Anderson is recognized as the best facility for cancer treatments. People travel from all over to Houston with the hopes of beating their cancer. Among Yoga Therapists, MD Anderson is the pinnacle for successfully integrating allopathic treatments with Yoga Therapy, and having measurable results to prove it.  We’re not talking about just making people “feel better” when they’re filled with chemo. Although that is definitely one of the outcomes. We’re talking about real, measurable results that convince both oncologists and patients of the benefits of Yoga Therapy.

Yoga Therapy at MD Anderson

As director of MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Program, Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, the grandson of one of Europe’s premier female yogis, has been instrumental in bringing the multi-faceted branches of yoga to modern medicine.  Cohen is a founding member and past president of the International Society for Integrative Oncology and is active in the International Association of Yoga Therapists.

Cohen has a team of complementary health specialists, that provide music therapy, acupuncture, and yoga therapy, among other things.

Dr. Alejandro Chaoul joined MD Anderson 15 years ago when his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He’s not an oncologist, although he works alongside them. He received a Ph.D. in Tibetan Studies, after spending time with Tibetan masters in Nepal. He brings the ancient learnings into many research studies with cancer patients at MD Anderson.

For over 2,000 years, the yoga masters in the East understood the healing powers of the spirit, mind, body, and breath. In today’s Western world, modernization oftentimes skips over time-tested best practices, rather than integrating the best of the old and the new.  Or, East and West.

Collecting the Evidence to Corroborate the Effectiveness of Yoga Therapy

With his extensive experience in the area of mind-body practices, both academically and in clinical practice, Chaoul brings the wisdom of the East to Texas. Currently, as part of the University of Texas faculty, he oversees the mind-body medicine components of randomized controlled clinical trials, in collaboration with Cohen, examining meditation, stress management, Qi Gong and Tibetan Yoga.

While more and more medical studies indicate that almost a third to half of cancers are lifestyle-related, Chaoul focuses on interventions and prevention. His drugs of choice, which he says should be taken several times a day, are the active ingredients in Yoga Therapy. And, as Yoga Therapists, they seek comprehensive lifestyle changes in their patients, including nutrition, exercise, and socialization.

“Chemo has side effects. Very difficult side effects and many our programs can help with people who have them” he said at the 2015 Texas Yoga Conference in Houston. His team at MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Program has produced reams and reams of analysis attesting to the validity of Yoga Therapy for cancer patients.

Under the rubric of the Department of General Oncology, the mission of Cohen and Chaoul is to empower patients with cancer, and their families, to become active partners in their own physical, psycho-spiritual and social health through personalized education and evidence-based clinical care to optimize health, quality of life and clinical outcomes across the cancer continuum.

“We’re looking for evidence (to the validity of Yoga Therapy) … Biomedicine, by itself, is not enough. Following the model of George Engel, we look at the Bio-Psycho-Social as a way of optimal health.”

Chaoul and Cohen’s team have measured cortisol levels, sleep quality, reduction of meds, management of anxiety, fatigue, and less intrusive thoughts, and even the level of spirituality.

“It’s quite remarkable, some of the experiences we’ve had. It’s amazing how much patients, and caregivers, take some of the tips we give them into their everyday lives. However, I wish they would continue to practice more and benefit from those effects.”

One of his practical suggestions, as part of mindfulness, is to take a moment and stop and breathe when you get to a red light. Be thankful for the brief pause, rather than be anxious to get your foot back on the accelerator.  Or as his teacher, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, would say, “take a meditation precious pill.”


Smitha Mallaiah is another researcher and Yoga Therapist at MD Anderson. She leads studies regarding yoga and meditation. “I tell my students, your primary focus is your state of mind. So far, we have three studies, two completed, and one ongoing underway. The one we have right now, is the largest yoga trial, with 600 patients, funded by NIH.”

The current study began in 2010 and will run until 2016. Its aim is to prove the benefits of yoga therapy on women with breast cancer undergoing radiotherapy.

Mallaiah studied Yoga Therapy at VYASA in Bangalore, India. VYASA is possibly the world’s foremost Yoga Therapy University and centers for Yoga Therapy research. The mission of VYASA is to combine the best of the East (Yoga and Spiritual lore) with that of the West (modern scientific research).

Based on Wisdom of the Sages

“We go back to see what our sages told us.  Yoga is not just a practice of the physical level, but a way of life. The way you spend your day…not until you transform off the yoga mat into every activity you do, you won’t change. Once you get off your mat…you have a huge platform.”

It’s hard for people to grasp the breadth and value of Yoga Therapy. “People ask, ‘what do you do’? I teach a protocol to a set of people. Every day, it’s a different person. Every day, it’s a challenge, as well as a reward. When they are going through this cancer journey, it’s great how you can support them (through Yoga Therapy).”

She affirms, “mind/body can help them in a way we can’t imagine. The benefits are so much. In one word, it’s truly rewarding. It’s a promise that definitely will improve their quality of life. Conventional treatment adds years to their life, but yoga adds life to their years.”

Smitha has two other workshops this summer.  Pranayama – Power of breath Couples yoga – strengthening relationships.

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Somehow, in the I me mine world that we live, emotional and physical well being has escaped the vast majority. The Namaste Counsel encourages simple proven practices to live a healthier and happier life. Any time. Any where. By anyone.
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