Bending - not breaking - from cancer
About a dozen women in soft, comfy clothes spread out their mats and gather to chat and laugh until yoga teacher Patti Stone puts on some soothing music and starts talking the women down to their beginning position.
But this is no ordinary yoga class. All of these women have or had cancer, and the class in on the campus of Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center.
The practice is gentle and therapeutic and done in supine or seated positions — nobody is straining in downward dog or crow poses.
"It is a lifeline for me," says 74-year-old Gresham resident Donna Harrison, of the weekly Tuesday morning sessions. The retired special education assistant is undergoing chemotherapy for metastatic cancer. "I need more energy. I need more strength. Those women have the same problem I do. It is wonderful to be in that community."
Instructor Patti Stone has taught the class since it started at Legacy Mount Hood 16 months ago. She specializes in therapeutic yoga and teaches at nonprofit organizations including the Wallace Medical Concern and Human Solutions and at Gresham yoga studio Epidavros Center for Wellbeing and other spots. She also teaches the classes at Portland's Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center, which pioneered the cancer-support yoga 25 years ago.
"Let's have a little bit of affection for ourselves this morning, a little tenderness," she says, leading the class into its poses. She urged the women to feel "the wave of connection that flows between all of us."
Stone, who lives near Sandy, is fairly new to yoga herself. She started just seven years ago when her endurance horseback riding began giving her lower back pain. She says she started taking yoga at Sandy's Mt. Hood Athletic Club "and before I knew it, I was taking four days per week."
She began substituting for teachers there, closed her Portland design business and studied yoga around the world. The certified yoga therapist uses a model called Kosha, which integrates a body-mind-heart approach to the practice.
"This is my passion, and I don't know why," Stone says. "It feeds me."
Studies back practice
Studies show yoga is beneficial for those experiencing cancer and other health issues. It improves muscular strength and body flexibility and enhances cardiovascular and respiratory function. Regular yoga practice also reduces stress, anxiety, depression and chronic pain while improving sleep. Studies show it boosts overall well-being and quality of life.
Gresham resident Olive Austin, 77, said "it takes a lot of the stress out of illness and life."
Austin was diagnosed with uterine cancer at the tender age of 27. "I'd just had my fourth baby. I had a hysterectomy. There was nothing about chemo or radiation back then."
Although she has been cancer free for decades, other health problems led her Legacy health care providers to suggest the yoga class to her. "I thought yoga was expensive," says the former car hop and office worker at Portland's Waddle's restaurant. "So I went and I got addicted."
Stone's classes use breath work, meditation, gentle poses and stretches to help those with cancer positively affect five "energy bodies" — for stress management, relaxation, deep healing, social connection while promoting mental and emotional resiliency and well-being.
Legacy Cancer Institute offers Yoga for Individuals with Cancer as part of a range of integrative medicine services to help people during cancer treatment and recovery, noted Julie Reed, Legacy's community and public relations officer.
A welcoming practice
During the class, Stone is mindful of the limitations of some students and tenderly shows some of them ways to adapt the moves if they have less mobility. She encourages people with concerns about mobility to take the class in a chair.
The class is designed to be physically healing, but also provides a supportive community for those living with cancer in a way traditional support groups are not. The participants don't just sit and discuss their disease, but are engaging in a healing activity. Yet they know everyone in the room has had similar life-changing experiences.
"It is not promoted as a support group, but that's what it becomes," Stone says. "These people have the support of people in community that understand what they have gone through. That has so much value."
Of course, the class is open to men, and some have taken part. It also is open to caregivers of those attending the class.
The Mount Hood Medical Center Foundation provides funds so participants can attend without worrying about cost. "The class would not be happening without this support," Stone says.
Harrison, Austin and the other students count on the class as part of their treatment and well-being.
"It lets you forget about everything for that hour-and-a-half," Austin says. "It is a happy place to go."
Are you interested?