Earlier this month I had the honor of participating in the Yoga Thrive Teacher Training Program. Yoga Thrive is a research-based, therapeutic yoga program for cancer survivors (on or off treatment) and their support persons; it was developed by Dr. Nicole Culos-Reed, Director of the Health and Wellness Lab University of Calgary, along with several colleagues and students. Dr. Culos-Reed’s lab has undertaken several innovative studies that provide evidence that yoga is associated with improvements in the health and wellbeing of adult cancer patients and survivors.
The teacher-training program was led by Tyla Arnason, Senior Yoga Thrive Teacher and Owner of the Yoga Effect, who has extensive experience teaching adults and children in the cancer community. There were 16 participants, including myself, hailing from Calgary and Saskatchewan all the way to New Brunswick. Over the course of four days, Tyla reviewed yoga considerations for types of cancer treatment as well as treatment related side effects such as joint stiffness, pain, memory loss, fatigue, stress, and depression. Our group discussed in detail what modifications one could make for types of yoga poses (standing, seated, etc.) and the use of props such as chairs and walls (e.g., to support balance). Dr. Culos-Reed reviewed the common types of cancers and treatments as well as scientific evidence on yoga’s benefits for cancer survivors. Amanda Wurz, who just completed her MSc with Dr. Culos-Reed, shared highlights from the lab—including her own inspiring study, which offered yoga to child cancer survivors. The underlying message was that yoga is a profoundly important healing tool for people throughout the cancer journey.
The new crop of Yoga Thrive Teachers
The workshop’s highlight was on the final day when our group co-taught a Yoga Thrive class for cancer survivors. Ten survivors, who were already part of the Yoga Thrive program, graciously volunteered to spend the afternoon with us. Our group of yoga teachers drew upon lessons from the weekend to design and teach a class for them. While every yoga teacher has been through a similar artificial teaching scenario—this one did in fact bring together everything we had learned over the training. We were not just designing a yoga class to account for a group of diagnoses in a case study – we were teaching a group of strong, remarkable people who had far more to offer us than we had to offer them. This class reminded me of the important role we have as yoga teachers in creating a space where participants are truly supported to honor where their body is in each moment.
After class the Yoga Thrive participants stayed for tea and we engaged in an inspiring discussion on what drew them to yoga. Several of them mentioned that Yoga Thrive classes were a place where everyone had a shared experience and thus instant support for one another, yet they didn’t have to engage in discussions or revisit their diagnosis. We asked what aspect of the classes they found most beneficial. Nearly everyone mentioned the focus on breathing because it was a tool they used throughout the day. Others noted working on their balance or attention since both were affected by many cancer treatments. The conversation always came back to the sense of community that they shared, which is testimony to years of work that Dr. Culos-Reed, Tyla, and many others have given to the program.
Yoga Thrive is a true research-to-community model. The yoga classes are grounded in research and have evolved over the course of new studies. The teacher training workshop provides yoga teachers with the foundations of offering these specialized classes to cancer survivors. At the end of the workshop Dr. Culos-Reed and Tyla discussed how we can help build the Thrive community and ensure more classes are offered at convenient times and locations throughout the city so that more cancer survivors have an opportunity to participate. I came to the University of Calgary to study with Dr. Culos-Reed precisely for this reason—she is equally dedicated to undertaking solid research on yoga as well as ensuring results reach communities where it is most needed. After this workshop I am even more excited about research and programs on the horizon.
Interested in participating in Yoga Thrive classes? Check out the Health and Wellness Lab website.
Interested in reading studies undertaken by Dr. Culos-Reed and her students the Health and Wellness Lab?Check out this list of publications on PubMed.
It is a tremendous honor that my article on sharing yoga with Syrians won "Yoga Article of the Year" in Seattle Yoga News. Endless gratitude to everyone who was part of and supported this inspiring project.