Pranayama for Cancer Patients

Yogic breathing “pranayama” has been shown to be an effective treatment for cancer patients in improving their sleep, relieving anxiety and improving quality of life. In particular, a dose–response relationship has been found in numerous studies relating pranayama use and improvements in chemotherapy-associated symptoms and quality of life. Indeed, further studies have also shown that pranayama can have immediate down-regulating effects on the HPA axis response to stress. In the classes that I teach for cancer patients, I often teach a pranayama practice called “nadi shodhana,” or “alternative nostril breathing.” However, there is one key difference in the traditional practice – we do not hold breath. Due to the circumstances of their health, and all the other ancillary stresses that accompany a cancer diagnosis (financial, relational, occupational, etc.), cancer patients and survivors already experience vast amounts of stress. The “flight or fight” response of the nervous system is already on overdrive, and breath holding can intensify the feelings of stress and anxiety. So, no breath holding in the traditional nadi shodhana. But! We do want to practice alternative nostril breathing because it is the perfect tool to bring our attention to our breath and learn to control our breath, thus taking back control of our hyped up nervous systems. So try this with me today: Close your 2nd and 3rd fingers into your right palm, keeping the thumb and 4th and 5th fingers out. Take a deep inhale, and close your right nostril with your thumb, let go of your left nostril. Exhale out through your left nostril, close the left nostril with the 4th and 5th finger, open the right nostril, and inhale through your right nostril. Exhale through the left, and continue for 10 rounds. Switch hands for 10 more rounds, switching nostrils, exhaling through the right and inhaling through the left. Then let me know how it feels on your nervous system!