Chemotherapy, Sleep Quality, and Tibetan Yoga: What’s the Connection?

By: Amanda Belo

Undergoing chemotherapy can produce or contribute to a host of side effects, including insomnia. Up to one-half of cancer patients experience problems with sleeping due to factors such as physical illness, pain, hospitalization, treatment drugs, and the mental stress of having cancer1. Although there may not be a quick fix for insomnia onset by cancer treatment, a recent randomized study by researchers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center suggests that practicing Tibetan yoga at least twice a week might alleviate sleep disturbances.

The study, published in the scientific journal Cancer, looked at women with breast cancer who are currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Researchers compared the effects of patients who practiced Tibetan yoga program, a Simple-stretching program, or no active exercise program at all.


227 women with early-stage breast cancer undergoing chemotherapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center were assigned to one of three exercise program groups. Participants in the Tibetan yoga program and the Stretching program attended four 75-90 minute classes followed by three booster sessions over the following six months.2,3

  • Tibetan yoga program – Participants attended four 75-90 minute classes during their chemotherapy treatment. They were taught Tibetan yoga one-on-one by a trained instructor, which focused on controlled breathing, visualization, meditation, and yoga postures.2,3
  • Simple-stretching program – Participants attended four 75 to 90-minute classes during their chemotherapy treatment and were taught gentle stretching exercises to practice at home.2,3
  • Waitlist control group receiving usual care – Participants were given resources on how to improve their problems with sleeping.2,3


  • No statistically significant group differences in total sleep disturbances or feelings of fatigue.2,3
  • Women in the Tibetan yoga group reported fewer daily sleep problems one week after the classes ended compared to women in the other two groups.2,3
  • Those who practiced Tibetan yoga at least twice a week reported fewer sleep disturbances three months after chemotherapy treatment, and better sleep quality six months after chemotherapy treatment, compared to women in the same group who practiced less often and those in the usual care control group.2,3

Tibetan yoga, also known as the Tibetan Rites, goes back thousands of years. Created by Tibetan monks, the Rites are a series of five exercise movements done in a continuous sequence said to heal, restore energy in the body and enhance overall health and functionality. The monks claimed that the movements the Rites could reverse the aging process and its negative effects on the body.4 The movements themselves help balance hormones. Hormones control the functioning of your body. An imbalance of hormones, like estrogen, may increase the risk of breast cancer.5

The Rites also are known to help release or open your chakras also help release your chakras. Chakras are wheels of energy in your body, aligning the spine, that when blocked, keep energy from flowing through the body. All seven main chakras contain bundles of nerves and major organs, as well as psychological, emotional, and spiritual states of being.6 Each Tibetan Rite concentrates on a different chakra.


*Sleep disturbances and fatigue were assessed using the self-reported Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and the Brief Fatigue inventory. Participants wore actigraphs at each study time point to measure sleep.




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