University professors study benefits of yoga on breast cancer survivors

Three University of Windsor professors are joining forces to study the potential benefits of an increasingly popular form of yoga on breast cancer survivors.

In January, university psychology professors Josée Jarry and Kendall Soucie will team with kinesiology Prof. Cheri McGowan to study how breast cancer survivors will respond to ashtanga yoga.

Ashtanga is a rigorous, aerobic type of yoga that aims to induce a meditative state through the co-ordination of breath, movement and a specific visual focus for each pose.

The two-year study is funded by a $70,000 Seeds4Hope grant from the Windsor Cancer Centre Foundation.

The study will look at the psychological and physical benefits of ashtanga yoga, Jarry said.

The psychological aspect of the study will focus on participants’ mental health, including depression, anxiety, self-esteem and how they deal with interpersonal relationships.

McGowan will monitor whether participants see physical benefits, such as healthier hearts and other internal organs.

“One of the benefits, we think of this particular type of yoga, is it’s got an aerobic stimulus associated with it,” McGowan said. “We know aerobic training definitely has a positive impact on cardiac and autonomic nervous system, and there is evidence from some of the treatments with cancer that there are some things that can happen later on with dysfunction of the nervous system, so we are hoping to tackle that and see some changes.”

The study will be conducted over eight weeks with participants practising ashtanga yoga two times a week.

Most women who have had breast cancer had surgery and have scar tissue, Jarry said. “Ashtanga involves a lot of upper body strength and flexibility work. So from that perspective, we think it’s going to be really helpful.”

Jarry, a certified yoga teacher, will work with each participant on a specialized yoga routine tailored to their needs and abilities.

The professors will use their findings to compile a manual offering three modifications for each of the ashtanga yoga poses. The effectiveness of the manual will be tested in the second phase of the study.

“We are going to measure cardiac function, autonomic nervous system function and psychological changes,” Jarry said. “We are going to do that with a series of questionnaires.”

The researchers chose ashtanga yoga because it combines physical and mental exercises.

“We know from research that exercise and vigorous exercise, along with meditation, really is beneficial for mental health — in particular depression and anxiety,” Jarry said.

McGowan was introduced to ashtanga yoga by Jarry a few months ago and it has had a “profound” impact on her life.

“I was pretty fit going into it,” she said. “But it was nothing like I had ever experienced. It’s a beautiful merging of the physical and psychological aspects. But it’s really all about what you take off the mat. You start seeing things infiltrate your everyday life, which is pretty powerful.”

McGowan said she is hopeful the participants will gain a sense of control.

“There are so many things we cannot control,” she said. “There is a huge sense of control with this. You are controlling your body constantly — and I think, because of the place these women are coming from, they will like that control.”

Jarry has been practising for three years. She is a certified yoga instructor and has more than 473 hours of ashtanga training. She’s twice been to Mysore, India, to train under ashtanga instructors.

The new project builds on Jarry’s findings from an earlier study, which had participants complete surveys on psychological functioning before, during and after 18 ashtanga yoga sessions.

“The research suggests that when healthy adults practise ashtanga yoga, there is a significant improvement in self-esteem, body image and interpersonal functioning, as well as a reduction in depression and anxiety,” Jarry said.

“For me, the psychological impact was so stunning,” she said. “The peace that I got from it really made me want to do it all the time.”

Ashtanga yoga requires co-ordinating breathing with movement and gazing points. There are no props, no mirrors and no music. It’s a complete focus on the body and it’s an incremental practice with progressive levels of difficulty.

Gina Wasserlein, of Downtown Yoga Studio, will be working on the study with Jarry, McGowan and Soucie.

Many of the breast cancer survivors taking part will be coming out of a “very traumatic state,” McGowan said. “I think that’s one of the unique parts of it. I think from a holistic perspective these women have a lot to gain from this.”

Soucie will film and analyze the yoga sessions and lead the participants in focus groups to compile material for the manual. The feedback will help the researchers determine which poses are comfortable and which need to be modified, but she says the focus groups also foster a sense of community among survivors.

“People practise in the same order and they start to improve,” McGowan said. “They do things they were afraid to do. The progress builds self-esteem and everything you do on the mat you take with you — plus the benefits of the meditative state.”

The research team is looking for 20 breast cancers survivors who have finished their chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The women must be cleared for light exercise by their doctors. It must be at least three months since they had surgery, with no further surgery planned for two years.

The team will create a website to start recruiting participants in January. Those who want to be involved can email Jarry at

Source: The Windsor Star