The Practice That Heals
Instructors and enthusiasts have developed techniques and routines for specific medical conditions
After years of being scoffed at as a silly hobby for mystics and hippies seeking peace, love and harmony, the ancient Indian practice of yoga is being embraced by millions of the same Americans who once dismissed it. Yoga studios now dot the urban landscape — nearly as many studios as cell phone stores — and the growing movement, or industry, shows no signs of slowing.
In 2012, Yoga Journal reported that 20.4 million Americans regularly practice the discipline, a 29 percent increase since 2008. As these various people unfold their bodies and open their minds to yoga, each one discovers physical, mental and spiritual benefits unique to their particular circumstances. Ask those who have been to even a single class and they’ll confirm: It is about so much more than stretching or getting in shape. Yoga’s beauty and benefits come from the mind-body union of the individual, rather than adherence to one specific physical ideal.
Over the past several years, instructors and enthusiasts have developed techniques and routines for specific conditions, and niche classes have cropped up all over the country. Today, there are classes for cancer patients and survivors, multiple sclerosis patients, diabetics, expectant mothers, combat veterans, people with mental health issues, children with developmental disabilities and many, many more. Today’s practitioners are not all the svelte, perpetually dieting women many associate with the practice — though that demographic is certainly well-represented in most studios — grandmothers, soldiers, professional athletes, children and — yes — even men are getting down on the mat and up into Salamba Sarvasgasana, or the shoulder stand.
At In The Pink, a nonprofit boutique and salon for women living with cancer, the usual crowd starts shuffling in at about a quarter till 10 a.m. every Saturday. Some of the women are the picture of health, glowing, radiant; others can only walk with assistance and are obviously sick. But inside the studio, they laugh and joke and share the events from the week as if everything is business as usual. Because for them, it is just another day of their lives after — or, in many cases, living with — cancer.
Like many, Elaine Waples’ diagnosis of peritoneal cancer — an extremely rare form often categorized as ovarian cancer — left her distraught, afraid and confused. Unlike some, Waples had no time to take a step back and think things over.
“Stage 3C means it’s metastatic, advanced, not what we’d think of as curable,” she said. “This is the unthinkable that happens to you.”
Waples’ normal life quickly became a whirlwind of treatments. Six months after the initial round of chemotherapy, a small window opened in the darkness. “When I came out of the fog of chemotherapy, I started to want to do something, and yoga came into my mind,” she said.
She started taking classes at In The Pink in July 2011 and was quickly welcomed into the group, as are all new students. “There’s a closeness we have with each other that I don’t think I’ve had anywhere else,” Waples said. Still undergoing medical procedures, today she credits yoga with helping her like her life and self as it is now — cancer and all.
“There’s something about yoga that gives your mind inner peace,” Waples said.
In The Pink yoga instructor Linda Altman was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2010. Scared of both treatment and her ultimate fate — she lost her mother to the disease — she turned to Amrit Desai, her guru, for counsel.
“I told [him that] I am going to go do this holistically and he said, ‘No, this is 9-1-1.’ He told me to eat organic and healthy, do my yoga as much as I could — the physical asanas — to do yoga nidra [a form of meditation] at least twice a day and to pray to God every single day, and I would combat cancer,” she said.
Coupling her guru’s prescription with sound therapy, Altman survived — some might say thrived — through cancer treatment that included a double mastectomy. For her, it was not the horrific experience that many imagine when thinking of cancer treatment.
Altman considers herself one of the lucky ones. “I really didn’t need a lot of pain medication,” she said. “The doctors were amazed at how quickly I was healing. As soon as they took the tubes out four days later [after surgery], I felt great.”
Along with longtime friend and instructor Christina Phipps, In The Pink owner Jeri Millard, who has survived both cervical and breast cancer, began offering free yoga classes to cancer patients as soon as she opened. At the time, local medical professionals didn’t exactly embrace the idea. “When I opened my doors in 2009, all the hospitals and physicians, many of whom I knew from treatment, were like ‘Really, Jeri, you’re going to offer yoga? Why?’ And I said, ‘It will help them breathe, help them center themselves,’ and they looked at me like, ‘Really?’ ”
Unlike yoga classes that focus primarily on technique, classes at In The Pink are more about feeling good and supporting one another. “It’s not about being able to do that posture perfectly. It’s not about judging yourself and comparing yourself, it’s about accepting yourself as you are right here and now, because you can only live in the present moment,” said Altman, a 500-hour instructor, who, like the other instructors at In The Pink’s classes around the city, has been certified to teach yoga to cancer patients by the Christina Phipps Foundation. The foundation, started by Phipps’ father in his daughter’s honor, offers specialized training in yoga for oncology (and other physically limited) patients for experienced yoga instructors. Millard said that Phipps credited yoga for the five years she was able to live with the disease that eventually claimed her life, teaching classes until a week before her death in 2010.
Altman shared the story of a student who came to her crying after class. “I asked why [she was crying], and she said, ‘I wanted to thank you so much for giving me permission to love myself.’ She had been married for 50 years, and when she went into her bilateral mastectomy, her husband decided he didn’t want to be with a woman who didn’t have boobs, and he divorced her. I said, ‘I didn’t give you permission to love yourself; you gave yourself permission. Love yourself just as you are. The more you can love yourself, the more you can give love to others.’ ”
That love is felt and shared in every class. “We have a couple of them who have had a recurrence, so they have a huge support system when they go to yoga,” Millard said. “They are very comfortable talking about those things with their peers, like you would be with your best friend, but this is a large group of people.”
In recent years, scientists have begun to study the benefits of yoga for cancer patients. Preliminary studies suggest what Altman and others already know: Yoga works. The American Cancer Society website states, “According to a report to the National Institutes of Health, there is some evidence to suggest yoga may be helpful when used with conventional medical treatment to help relieve some of the symptoms linked to cancer, asthma, diabetes, drug addiction, high blood pressure, heart disease and migraine headaches.”
Three years after Phipps taught that first class, local medical professionals have come 180 degrees. Yoga has become an accepted, even celebrated, tool for people with cancer and other diseases to stay healthy and positive during and after treatment. Currently, many local hospitals and oncology clinics offer free yoga classes for cancer patients, including Baptist Medical Center, Mayo Clinic, Memorial Hospital, University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute and Hill Breast Center, to name a few. Like Altman’s guru said, no one suggests yoga as an alternative to treatment, but yoga is one more weapon a patient can put in the arsenal to fight cancer and other diseases.
Most of Padma Senteno’s students aren’t seeking a firmer gluteus maximus — though it is a nice bonus — so much as a cleaner bill of health. Some just want to be healthier, but many suffer from mental or physical ailments, including diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic anxiety, lymphedema, congestive heart failure or obesity; some are recovering from surgery or illness. Owner/instructor of Yoga Zensation, Senteno has 300 hours of yoga therapy training. Her therapeutic yoga classes focus more on wellness than exercise.
“Yoga therapy … is a great way to get in touch with your body and heal,” she said. “It’s about the student finding something that gives you the healing that you need.”
Senteno often works with students one-on-one and develops programs specifically tailored for their circumstances. Not everyone can or should attempt advanced asanas, or postures, like the headstand (which is extremely dangerous for inexperienced practitioners); some are physically incapable of even basic asanas. Physical limitations don’t rule out participating in the practice, though. Yoga isn’t just about the physical body; in fact, only one of the eight “limbs” of the practice consists of the physical asanas.
“Even without postures, there’s still breathing techniques you can do … also meditation,” Senteno said.
Senteno often prescribes yoga nidra — a guided form of deep meditation — for the approximately one-third of her students who suffer from chronic anxiety. In a program called “iRest,” developed by yogic scholar Richard Miller, the Department of Defense & Veterans Affairs is using yoga nidra to treat combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related issues. iRest has been endorsed by the U.S. Army Surgeon General and Defense Centers of Excellence and has been successful in treating symptoms of PTSD, including insomnia, panic, lethargy and the sense of losing control of one’s daily life.
While deployed on the front lines of Iraq where he treated soldiers for the emotional and psychological effects of war, U.S. Army veteran Cheyenne Forsythe twice survived IED attacks. Like many, he returned with wounds that no one could see but everyone, especially Forsythe, could feel. “[I was] experiencing a lot of panic attacks, experiencing a lot of tension within myself and with other people. It was difficult to get along and it was difficult to trust other people,” he said. Fed up with feeling like a stranger in his own life, he decided to get help.
While being treated for PTSD at Broward County VA Outpatient Clinic, Forsythe became interested in yoga. He soon found that yoga gave him a sense of control and peace he’d been lacking since he’d returned from war. “You’re kind of unsure of yourself — you’re a new person — you’re trying to find peace with that new person. That’s what yoga enables you to do. Soldiers need that; they need to become familiar with themselves again,” he said. Forsythe believes that yoga could help any soldier who struggles to readjust to life after war.
“I know I can do something for myself that can bring peace to myself at any point and time during the day,” he said. “[Before], anything would set me off, and I needed to find a quiet place in my mind.”
Another local instructor blazing the trail to provide a type of therapeutic yoga is Mary Lyn Jenkins, owner and instructor at Big Fish Yoga. Last fall, Jenkins’ studio offered its first six-week yoga course for multiple sclerosis (MS) patients. Going into the project, which was funded by the North Florida Chapter of National Multiple Sclerosis Society and her studio, she didn’t really know what to expect. The course was so successful — every class had a wait list — she plans to double the number of students in the next series, beginning this month.
“Yoga can be a huge possibility in the life of these people with MS,” she said. Jenkins describes students being able to feel their bodies for the first time in years, experiencing improvements in coordination and strength that some had thought were permanently out of reach. According to MS ActiveSource (msactivesource.com), strength, balance, coordination, fatigue, mood, range of motion and spasticity can all be improved by the practice.
Jenkins does not shy away from challenging herself to bring yoga to new and perhaps unexpected students. For the past year, she has been volunteering to teach yoga at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville. To date, as many as 75 students have shown up for a single class, including football players, cheerleaders and teachers. The experience has impacted Jenkins as much as the students. “It’s like you’re giving these kids the world,” she said. “It’s changing my life.”
Stacy Santiago is another local teacher bringing yoga to some very enthusiastic and perhaps unexpected students. The special education teacher at North Florida School of Special Education teaches children ages 13 to 15 who have a variety of mild to moderate intellectual disabilities, such as autism and Down syndrome. Santiago, who discovered the practice “73 pounds ago,” also teaches several yoga classes for adults, which in part inspired her to bring yoga into the classroom and afterschool programs she’s involved with at North Florida School. She finds herself continually amazed at how yoga is helping transform her students.
“Besides developing flexibility and strength, stamina, agility, balance, even cardiovascular fitness and coordination, besides that, it’s promoting mental strengths, a positive attitude not just toward exercise but toward their bodies, toward their self-esteem. I know it’s promoting concentration and self-discipline,” she said.
She shares a story of two students on the autism spectrum who have become friends. One is also diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a frequent companion to autism, and the other is particularly self-centered, a common characteristic of autistic individuals. One day, the first student was locked in a ritual, repeating it over and over until he felt satisfied, when his friend turned to him and said, “You don’t have to be perfect. God loves and respects you the way you are.”
“That’s yoga at its best,” Santiago said.
Mike Ryan, head athletic trainer and physical therapist for the Jacksonville Jaguars, has been incorporating yoga into the team’s workout regimen for years — initially camouflaging it as “flexibility classes” so as not to offend the machismo of NFL football players. But in recent years, the practice has become so popular that players — even big, burly offensive linemen — have started asking for it by name.
“A lot of the players have found it’s a great way to accelerate their [injury] recovery and maintain their core strength and flexibility,” he said.
An accomplished endurance athlete himself (he’s participated in six Ironman Triathlons, three Escape From Alcatraz Triathlons and the 2002 World Championship Duathlon), Ryan pointed out that the versatility of yoga sets it apart from most fitness regimens. “From the stiffest athlete to the most limber, they all can fit in,” he said. “It’s hard to get people at many levels to do the same thing in the same room, [but] yoga is very adaptable to people on all levels.”
So if you’re an athlete, an expectant mother, the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, or struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, even cancer, there’s a form of yoga you can try. Even if you never say, “Yoga saved my life,” like Altman, it could change yours. Namasté.