There are three major problems with AYUSH Minister Shripad Yasso Naik’s statement that yoga asanas can cure major diseases like cancer and that the government would have scientific evidence in a year. The first is the dated and simplistic view of cancer, instead of recognising that there are many types of cancers caused by a variety of vastly different genetic and environment factors, requiring an arsenal of different medicines and treatments for each.

It’s a mistake that cancer researchers in the US say Vice President Joe Biden has been making in calling for a “moon shot” to cure cancer because tackling a disease is more about taking several small steps that a single giant leap.

The second problem with Naik’s remarks is to imply that in a year cancer patients can look forward to getting rid of their disease. The global cancer research community has hunkered down for a very long haul to finds better treatments, if not solutions, for the disease.

The third, of course, is the minister promoting yoga as a silver bullet solution to the scourge that’s causing suffering to millions. Calling it a “proven fact”, Naik said that the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandha Samasthana (S-VYASA) Institute in Bengaluru had found a technique for the prevention and cure of cancer, adding that people who did yoga regularly would not need chemotherapy.

Yoga's complementary role

Current medical research into the role of yoga in the treatment of cancer tells us that it can be used effectively to improve the quality of life, manage the side effects of treatment and even help reduce pain.

In a letter to the editor of the Indian Journal of Surgical Oncology published in early March, chancellor of S-VYASA University HR Nagendra and his collaborators said that it is time to integrate yoga with cancer care as a norm. The writers said that their studies showed that yoga reduced treatment-related fatigue and sleep disturbances, chemotherapy induced nausea and pain. They also found that yoga helped modulate anti-tumour and anti-inflammatory immune responses after surgery and reduced DNA damage during radiotherapy.

In fact, there is a large body of research that shows that yoga helps as a to alleviate the effects of rather harsh cancer treatments and can be used as a complementary therapy. Most of these studies have been conducted with breast cancer patients and have shown beneficial health results.

One of the largest studies was by cancer researchers at the University of Ohio who examined 200 breast cancer survivors who had never done yoga before the study. Half the subjects continued without yoga, forming the control group. The other half went for 90-minute yoga classes twice a week for 12 weeks. The results of the study published in early 2014 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology showed that the first indication of yoga’s efficacy was that people in the yoga group reported less fatigue. But the more telling results came from the laboratory where the team conducted blood tests to find 10% to 15% fewer markers for inflammation in subjects in the yoga group.

In 2012, German scientists looking at complementary and integrative medicine conducted a review of randomized controlled trials of yoga for breast cancer treatments and found that there were short-term psychological benefits to patients.

A study from the University of Pennsylvania published in November last year in Integrative Cancer Therapies looked specifically at yoga’s role in alleviating side effects of prostrate cancer treatment. The study concluded that prostrate cancer patients would benefit from bi-weekly yoga classes during their radiotherapy regimens.

The renowned Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre acknowledges on its website that among other benefits yoga can help lung cancer patients increase improve their lung capacities and improve sleep quality for lymphoma survivors. It also warns that surgery, chemotherapy and radiation can impose serious restrictions in patients’ ability to perform yoga.

This snapshot of studies shows that yoga is a piece that fits into the large and complicated jigsaw of cancer treatment, far cry from any claim that yoga can cure, heal or be the only remedy for the disease.