Pranayama for healing
Yogi Breathing is beneficial for disease treatment
Facing a serious illness can be one of the most daunting life challenges faced by patients, caregivers and family members. We know this all too well, because all of us know someone who has been affected by disease. The dis-ease commanders the person’s physical, emotional and spiritual qualities and robs them of their vibrant life force energy. The diagnosis of serious illness catapults the person into the status of ‘patient.’ Outside of the medical context, the word ‘patient’ is a very good thing- a virtue meaning calm, considerate, tranquil, gentle, capable, willing to endure. But when describing a person affected by a disease, the word ‘patient’ takes on a much heavier meaning; sick person, sufferer, victim, invalid.
Pranayama can help treat and heal serious disease conditions. For example, people undergoing traditional, standard cancer treatments experience prolonged and debilitating symptoms such as disturbed sleep, stress, anxiety, fatigue, nausea, diminished mental functioning and inferior quality of life. The physical and psychological side effects of treatment often interfere with the person’s ability to function independently, perform normal activities of daily living, and live with a high, vibrant quality of life.
Common methods for managing cancer and other serious diseases require expensive pharmaceutical therapies that frequently produce additional side effects. Alternative and complimentary therapies may produce fewer side effects, but are often expensive and not covered by insurance. Life changes brought about by the disease and treatments, uncertainty and difficult challenges throughout all phases of treatment and post-treatment cycles often exacerbate patients’ adverse symptoms, and cause additional stressful conditions for caregivers and family.
Pranayama, the practice of conscious yogic breathing, improves many disease-related symptoms and quality of life. Medical studies show that pranayama improves fatigue, sleep disturbance, stress, anxiety, depression and quality of life in patients undergoing disease treatment. Pranayama has numerous advantages as a treatment modality. By its very nature, yoga breathing is easy to learn, can be done virtually anywhere, requires no equipment, nothing to purchase, and can be practiced by nearly everyone with no adverse side effects - even in states of compromised or fragile health. There are times during treatment when exercise and other forms of supplemental therapies are contra-indicated, yet pranayama may be performed during these phases when the patient is weak and ill. Pranayama programs are relatively easy to administer, requiring no special physical facilities or supplies; and training caregivers and support staff to teach basic pranayama techniques is straightforward and uncomplicated. Pranayama is safe, effective, nearly cost-free and should be made widely available to patients and caregivers.
Pranayama has been practiced and refined for thousands of years as a part of the system of yoga where regulating and expanding the breath is a means to obtain optimal health and well being. Pranayama is based on consciously controlling the breath. The very name, pranayama, can be translated as ‘breath extension’ or ‘life extension.’ Working with the mind and respiratory system, pranayama is both a physical practice and a form of meditation. It quiets the mind, builds physical stamina and tone, eases the practitioner into meditative states, and has proven health benefits. Research shows that pranayama practice enhances parasympathetic tone, which results in creating a relaxed state. Through regular pranayama practice, patients form lifelong healthy breathing habits improving quality of life well beyond cancer treatment.
Yoga programs utilizing physical postures, breathing and meditation are increasingly common as viable complimentary and alternative modalities for treating oncology patients, and numerous studies confirm beneficial outcomes. However, pranayama as a single modality improves symptoms and is a highly effective treatment on its own accord. Two recent and notable studies of pure pranayama intervention in populations of cancer patients successfully showed that yoga breathing is feasible and can be safely recommended for cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. These studies show that any increase in the yoga breathing practice is correlated with improvements in both chemotherapy-associated symptoms and quality of life. Conclusive results demonstrate that pranayama is helpful for improving the symptoms of cancer treatments.
A substantial number of studies (randomized and controlled trials) have been recently published on the benefits of yoga for cancer survivors. All the studies, while varied in objectives of specific research focus, share the common result that yoga improves patient quality of life. Additionally, multiple literature reviews of yoga and cancer studies conclude there is a growing body of evidence that yoga intervention demonstrates positive effects for treatment-related side effects; with the greatest impact demonstrated in quality of life, sleep, anxiety, depression, fatigue, distress, nausea and emotional well-being. Most yoga programs described in randomized controlled trials analyses specifically list pranayama as a component of the yoga classes. These studies show that yoga, which inherently includes a component of pranayama, helps cancer survivors deal with the side effects of cancer therapy and helps restore emotional wellbeing.
The latest market research conducted in 2012 by the Yoga Journal shows that 20.4 million Americans practice some form of yoga, and another 40 million Americans are interested in yoga and plan to give it a try. Given the explosive growth in yoga across all demographics over recent years, one can surmise that most patients have heard about yoga and its benefits, and many already practice yoga and have therefore practiced some form of yogic breathing. As yoga becomes increasingly mainstream, pranayama as a complimentary modality should be well received as a viable component of a full-spectrum disease treatment plan.
Many treatment centers offer some form of integrative mind-body support therapies, either on-site or through referrals to outside providers. Patients in many cases receive information about acupuncture, chiropractic, mind-body medicine, naturopathic medicine, nutrition therapy, oncology rehabilitation, pain management, spiritual support and survivorship support. As promising and effective as many of these complimentary and alternative therapies are known to be, unfortunately, most are not covered by insurance and many can be extremely expensive and out of reach for the patient. Cost of supplemental therapy has deterred patients from utilizing yoga and pranayama as a component in their overall care. Patients often do not discuss initiating or continuing physical or mind-body programs with their primary physician, oncologist or disease management specialist, and indicate that they want to receive information about these types of programs as a part of their overall course of treatment. Given the proven benefits of conscious yoga breathing, physicians and patient treatment staff should routinely discuss how to safely begin or continue a pranayama program during and after treatment.
Patients benefit from practicing pranayama. My program, Pranayama for Patients: Philanthropic Outreach, helps patients improve serious disease-related symptoms and quality of life. It is the mission of this program to make pranayama widely available to patients and their caregivers.