Tibetan Yoga Improves Sleep
East meets West in one corner of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where researchers are using the techniques of Western medicine to examine the efficacy of Eastern practices.
Along with his colleagues, Dr. Lorenzo Cohen of M.D. Anderson recently published a report in the journal Cancer that found cancer patients who participated in a Tibetan yoga course noticed improvements in their sleep patterns.
"It was quite remarkable to us that we were actually able to have an impact on patients' sleep," said Cohen, the director of the integrative medicine center at M.D. Anderson and an associate professor in the behavioral science department.
"Cancer patients' sleep can be so disruptive, so to have designed a program that significantly improved their sleep seems quite beneficial."
The yoga that patients practiced was not the Hatha yoga that is familiar to many people, but is based on forms called Tsa lung and Trul khor, described in 11th century Tibetan texts.
Alejandro Chaoul-Reich, a doctoral candidate in the religion department at Rice University, is writing his dissertation on these texts and a 19th century commentary on them. The documents, he said, impart techniques of breathing, focusing the mind and movement.
"The main thing is that (practitioners) can find a way to tame what we call the `monkey mind' that goes from here to there, emotion to emotion," he said. "Especially when (patients are) undergoing treatment, there are so many other things going on in their lives."
The study, conducted at M.D. Anderson's Place of Wellness, looked at a group of 38 patients who were undergoing cancer treatment or had recently completed treatment.
(The Place of Wellness provides services such as acupuncture, tai chi and workshops to cancer patients, their families and supporters who are interested in using other therapies.)
Half of the patients were randomly assigned to a group that attended Tibetan yoga classes once a week for seven weeks; the others were put on a waiting list for the program. All patients answered questions about their sleep patterns and state of mind before the program started and after the classes were completed.
The researchers found that while yoga did not make a significant difference in the patients' level of anxiety or depression, it did improve their sleep patterns. Also, the yoga practitioners reported that they found the course to be beneficial.
In fact, three years after the study was performed, Georgia Williams of Houston still takes 45 minutes or an hour out of her day to do the movements and breathing exercises she learned from Chaoul.
"Sometimes I would think, `Oh, I can't do this today,' but after I have done the exercises, there's a sense of well-being," said Williams. "You're more alert; it's invigorating."
This study is part of the research component in the integrative medicine program. Integrative medicine combines traditional Western medicine with other treatments such as acupuncture or herbal supplements, which may or may not have been proven to be effective.
Cohen and his colleagues are also interested in subjecting traditional Chinese treatments to the experimental protocols that American and European researchers use to test potential cancer drugs. M.D. Anderson and the Cancer Hospital, Medical Center of Fudan University in Shanghai, China, recently received a grant for such a study.
"We'll conduct rigorous research on the types of treatments they are currently using to treat cancer in China and see if some of these natural products should be brought to the U.S.," Cohen said.
The integrative medicine program also emphasizes education about the use of non-Western treatments and cementing communication between patients and their health care providers, Cohen said.
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