Taking up Yoga after a Mesothelioma Diagnosis

Women practicing yoga

When starting a new yoga practice, many people have to confront their doubts about their physical abilities. Many worry that they won’t be fit or flexible enough to finish the workout. Many others are afraid of looking out of place in a class of more experienced participants.

Mesothelioma patients may feel these fears on an even more intense level. After all, these patients are often coping with symptoms (like pain and shortness of breath) that make it difficult to exercise. Add to this a common preconceived notion that yoga involves legs behind your head or inverted balancing contortions, and it’s no wonder that patients are often intimidated by the perceived physical demands of yoga.

However, mesothelioma patients can gain so many mental and physical benefits from a yoga practice that it’s in their best interests to move beyond these mental roadblocks. And according to an encouraging new study in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the physical demands of a yoga practice may not be as great as patients fear.

The study – a joint effort from the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Southern California – set out to determine exactly what type of physical demands a 32-week hatha yoga program placed on older adults’ bodies.

The patients – 6 male and 14 female – attended two hour-long classes each week. The classes in the first half of the study focused introductory poses. In the second half of the study, participants progressed to slightly more intermediate poses. However, all of the postures were classified as gentle, senior-appropriate poses.

The most common included:

Researchers did find that most poses engaged the ankles, knees and hips. Side stretch pose placed the greatest demands on the hip extensors and knee flexors, while the one-legged balance pose required extra work from the ankle invertors. However, they found that the muscle stimulation that occurred during a yoga class was only slightly higher than the amount of muscle stimulation that occurred during a slow, casual walk.

How to Know if You’re Physically Ready for Yoga

The best way to evaluate your readiness for a yoga practice is to speak with your oncologist. Many mesothelioma treatment centers offer integrative medicine programs — or even rehabilitation programs — that give patients access to physical therapists and exercise physiologists with years of expertise. These medical professionals can run simple tests on your lungs, limbs and balance to make sure you’re physically ready to start yoga.

The study’s authors identified four mini-tests that they used to decide whether or not the patients could safely participate in the program. Patients were enrolled in the trial if they were able to:

  • Transition from a standing position to a seated position (on the floor).
  • Lift both of their arms to shoulder level.
  • Comfortably stand for 30 seconds with their feet side by side;
  • Comfortably stand for 60 seconds with their feet hip width apart.

If you can execute each of the above tasks, you may be ready to conquer most gentle yoga poses. Make sure to clear any exercise activity with your oncologist to confirm that your body is ready.

To make sure your practice respects each of your mesothelioma-related physical limitations, consider the following five tips:

  1. Look for classes that are specifically labeled as “gentle yoga,” “yoga for seniors,” or “yoga for cancer patients.” When planning these classes, instructors choose poses that require the least physical exertion but still provide mental and bodily benefits.

  2. Find a yoga studio that encourages the use of support props, such as yoga blocks, blankets or chairs. These items can make challenging poses more accessible to participants with lower levels of physical fitness.

  3. Allow yourself to enter a resting pose (such as child’s pose) if you feel your muscles shaking, find yourself out of breath, or experience any other signs that you’re pushing your body too hard.

  4. Don’t push through a pose because others in your class are; your practice is your own, and you’ll get the most out of it if you listen to your body and allow it to guide you through the physical aspects of the class.

  5. Remember that as your yoga practice gets stronger, so will your physical abilities. Be patient and gentle at the get-go; the reward will come soon. At the end of the study, the researchers concluded that a senior yoga program could be effective at gradually improving strength, muscular endurance and certain types of physical function (like balance).

If you took up yoga after your mesothelioma diagnosis, were you worried about whether or not you’d be strong enough for the classes? Did you find that they were less physically demanding than you’d originally thought? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook.


After graduating with an English degree from Southeastern University in 2010, Faith Franz came on board as a health and wellness writer for The Mesothelioma Center.

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