What is yoga therapy? Lessons from my experience with cancer

By Lee Majewski

My friends often ask me, “What is yoga therapy?” Initially, I struggled to find the words to explain this emerging healthcare field. From years of experience running retreats for cancer and chronic disease patients, I knew that yoga improved people’s lives in near-miraculous ways, but how to explain that to my friends?  

While medical doctors and researchers perfect the science of the body and the diagnosis of its malfunctions, yoga science sees humans as much more than the body; it sees us as beings existing simultaneously on multiple levels, of which the physical body is only one.

Yoga therapy looks at the levels and quality of our energy, lifestyle, core beliefs and ethics, emotional intelligence, and finally at our ability to manage our minds and thought processes. Yoga postulates that disease in the body is an outcome of imbalance among these levels of existence. While medical doctors focus on treating disease symptoms, yoga therapy focuses on the whole human being and restoring balance. Yoga therapy facilitates transformation, which leads to improved long-term health, well-being, and quality of life.

Medical doctors take responsibility for providing a diagnosis and then attempt a cure through prescriptions or surgery when needed. Yoga therapists take responsibility for empowering clients with yogic tools; when practiced over a longer period, these tools can restore balance and enhance self-healing. Yoga therapists know and understand yogic sciences, which offer a variety of therapeutic techniques such as pranayama (breathwork), meditation, yoga nidra, asanas (physical postures), mudras (gestures), mantras, and chanting. Skillfully applied to an individual case, these tools effectively assist with health predicaments.

To be clear, I do not postulate that yoga can replace medical care. Both approaches can be applied simultaneously to patients’ benefit. Moreover, yoga can complement and fill gaps left when conventional care has done its job.

Take, for instance, the conclusion of conventional cancer treatment, which usually means accumulated toxins—from chemotherapy and/or radiation—in the body. The treatments are long and the side-effects creep up slowly, so patients may initially have little awareness of their poor state. Research shows that more than 70% of patients suffer from mental and physical fatigue, cognitive dysfunction (brain fog), depression, mental confusion and loss of short-term memory, and pent-up anger after ending their treatments. They may have felt terrible for a long time and don’t know when—or if—they will feel any better.

Such was my case. At the end of my treatment in 2008, my oncologist said to me, “This is the end of the treatment—we did everything we could for you. Now it is time for you to live your life again!” I looked at him and wondered, “WHAT LIFE?”

Exactly at that moment, yoga therapy has an important role to play. We see this in our intensive yogic retreats (Beyond Cancer—Healing the Whole Being), which patients from all over the world attend after their cancer treatments. Over the years, we’ve seen significant improvements in depression, tension, vitality, and anger in only 3 weeks, without a single prescription drug.  

One patient with stage 4 colon cancer had this to say: “I was trying to survive long enough to come to this retreat. Now. . .I am going back to a new life!” Yoga therapy is not in the business of curing cancer, but this is indeed miraculous healing.

Lee Majewski, C-IAYT, is recognized internationally as a yoga therapist specializing in cancer care and psychosomatic chronic diseases. She is a founding director and president of Yoga for Health Institute, a not-for-profit organization in Toronto, and the visiting senior yoga therapist at Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute in India.  

Lee’s next blog post will consider some specifics of yoga therapy after cancer treatment.