UConn pilot study determines yoga can increase the quality of life for pediatric cancer patients

University of Connecticut professor of psychology and longtime yogi (practitioner of yoga), Dr. Crystal Park received funding through the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) on campus to conduct a pilot study to determine if it is feasible for pediatric cancer patients to use yoga as a way to increase their quality of life. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

University of Connecticut professor of psychology and longtime yogi (practitioner of yoga), Dr. Crystal Park, recently conducted a pilot study to determine if it is feasible for pediatric cancer patients to use yoga as a way to increase their quality of life.

“It’s a pretty exciting time to be a yoga research,” Park said.

Park received funding through the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) on campus for her study. The next step is to apply for a grant to conduct a much larger study, Park said.

 "There's a lot to be done [and] a lot to be learned," Park said. "We're very interested not just in whether it helps but you know really how it helps, what goes on and what the mechanisms are for yoga."

 In her recent study, published in "Rehabilitation Oncology" in Jan. 2017, Park worked with Dr. Andrea D. Orsey, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, to develop a study working with 10 patients and their families using yoga interventions.

 A yoga intervention is when several individuals are under the instruction of a single yoga teacher in a class. In this sense, the classes are measured for their effectiveness rather than the individuals themselves, allowing for comparisons across classes and groups, Park said.

 "It's not a personal level measure; it's an intervention level measure," Park said. "So, [the measure] applies to the intervention whether it's a Bikram (hot yoga) class or a pranayama (breathing) class or a vinyasa (flow of poses) class — it's really designed to say what happens in that class."

 This method of measurement is another research endeavor Park started six years ago. In a UConn Today story from 2011, Park talked of developing a standardized assessment tool to ease the burden of comparing the different aspects of yoga. This assessment tool, or in other words the yoga interventions, has succeeded in easing that burden, but the next step is to understand what is happening during a yoga intervention that results in a better quality of life.  

 A lot happens during a yoga intervention, including posture, breath work, meditation and the spiritual component, so it is difficult to pinpoint whether only one of those is helping or if it's a combination of them, Park said.

 While her recent study did not include any control groups, Park said her larger trial will.

 "Maybe [the patients] would have also benefitted from, you know, from a video game or, you know, playing on the playground," Park said. "We need to have a control and see that yoga works better than some other active condition. And that's why we need the bigger trial."

Park said she will apply for a grant early this year in hopes of working with a group of 120 participants at another hospital nearby.

 Sabrina Strom, an eighth-semester biology major and president of UConn's Yoga Club, was not surprised by the results of Park's pilot study and could personally relate to the healing affects of yoga.

 "In my personal experience, yoga has improved my mood and ability to think clearly and breathe deeply," Strom said. "It has reduced my stress level, increased my energy and helped to alleviate back pain and headaches."

Melissa Pieciak, a yoga instructor at Samadhi Yoga Studio in Manchester, CT, said she too witnessed how yoga can heal chronic conditions in her own practice and in those of her students.

“On a daily basis I hear students say after yoga class that they are less stressed, more calm and are better able to handle the challenges in life,” Pieciak said. “When a student comes up to me after class and tells me that they were able to get off their high blood pressure medication, sleeping pills or anxiety medication I am absolutely thrilled to see the healing power of yoga in my [students’ lives] each and everyday.”

Pieciak said while she did not start practicing yoga with the intention of healing, that is exactly what has happened as a result.

“When the chaos of the mind is quieted in the practice of yoga, your mind and body’s natural healing abilities are free to flow,” Pieciak said.


Emma Casagrande is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.casagrande@uconn.edu.