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Cheri McGowan, Kendall Soucie, Josée JarryUWindsor professors Cheri McGowan, Kendall Soucie and Josée Jarry are teaming up to study whether Ashtanga yoga benefits breast cancer survivors.

Researchers testing therapeutic value of Ashtanga yoga for survivors of breast cancer

Will breast cancer survivors benefit from the regular practice of yoga? A two-year study by researchers at the University of Windsor aims to find out.

Psychology professors Josée Jarry and Kendall Soucie teamed with kinesiology professor Cheri McGowan to test how survivors of breast cancer will respond — physically and psychologically — to Ashtanga yoga, a rigorous, aerobic discipline that aims to induce a meditative state through the coordination of breath, movement, and specific visual focus for each pose.

The cross-disciplinary study received a $70,000 Seeds4Hope grant from the Windsor Cancer Centre Foundation.

The psychological aspect of the study will gauge mental health benefits by surveying participants on increased self-esteem, decreased anxiety and depression, and improved interpersonal relationships. Dr. McGowan will monitor the function of the heart and nervous system.

Dr. Jarry is a certified yoga instructor. Collaboratively, with the women enrolled in the study, she will develop a specialized yoga routine tailored to survivors of breast cancer. 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 practice Ashtanga yoga, there is a significant improvement in self-esteem, body image and interpersonal functioning, as well as a reduction in depression and anxiety,” says Jarry.

Dr. Soucie will film and analyse the yoga sessions and lead the participants in focus groups. 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 amongst survivors.

“This group of women will be contributing to the process together, and their voices and their perspectives, are important,” she says. “These are human beings who matter, who have struggled with breast cancer and by using the tools Josée has developed in previous studies, we can really help this community thrive.”

McGowan says some data suggests that chemotherapy may alter the function of the heart and nervous system, leading to potential complications later in life. She is interested in the physiological benefits of Ashtanga yoga, as early work shows that aerobic exercise may mitigate some of these toxic effects.

“When we look at disease development and progression, I’ve always said that chronic disease is not just psychological or physiological but it is a true merging of the two, so we have the power to help people in a meaningful way,” she says.

McGowan says before she met Jarry, she had never heard of Ashtanga yoga, but practicing it has had a profound effect on her own life.

Jarry is also responding to her own experience. She says Ashtanga yoga gave her a deep feeling of serenity.

“I was stunned by it, because I tend to be a fairly anxious and high-strung person,” says Jarry. “I became truly passionate about the practice and knew I wanted to research the psychological aspects and with this new study I can do the research I love and contribute to a community that could deeply benefit from this kind of intervention.”

Survivors of breast cancer who are finished with chemotherapy and radiation treatments and are cleared for light exercise by their doctors may be eligible to participate in this study. The research team is looking for individuals who are at least three months post-surgery, with no surgery plans within the next 24 months. The team will create a website to start recruiting participants in January 2017.