Yoga soothes cancer patients

BEDFORD — Smiles. An occasional grimace. A face empty of expression.

“Just take a minute to settle. Settle into your breath. Take notice of how you are feeling in this very moment, without judgment.”

Nine women, eyes closed, listening to yoga teacher Helen Maxwell. Breathing with attention to their breath, to its pace and rhythm; thinking with attention to their thoughts.

Eight class members are cancer patients. The other is a caretaker. All reside in the Bedford region. Their health conditions vary.

Dawn McDaniel’s cancer has metastasized to her bones and lungs. One 59-year-old woman, treated for ovarian cancer, has been cancer-free for decades. Lelia Stevens, 66, remains in treatment for colon cancer.

Maxwell guides the women through yoga poses, including “seated mountain” and “seated pigeon.”

Space heaters warm the small room on the crisp morning of Nov. 7 at Maxwell’s Bedford Yoga Center.

In a soothing, steady voice, Maxwell communicates instructions to the women, mixing details about how to move into physical poses with compassionate invitations to silently explore their thoughts and feelings. (The class is not limited to women and has had male participants.)

She encourages the women to “think about something you can be grateful for in this moment.”

And it’s the moments that matter in oncology yoga and an accumulation of these moments and the companion awareness that blooms that can improve a cancer patient’s quality of life, Maxwell said.

“Yoga is kind of like a stress reliever,” McDaniel said. “It’s very calming.”

The yoga class is one of several nontraditional approaches to wellness for cancer patients in a free program offered by the Bedford Area Family YMCA and the Bedford Community Health Foundation. “A Path to Healing, A Bridge to Wellness” also includes therapeutic massage, Reiki energy work, tai chi, water exercise, a type of acupressure and more.

No one says the program provides a cure. No one recommends the abandonment of mainstream medical treatments.

Instead, the program brochure describes potential benefits, including increased hemoglobin levels, reduced fatigue and increased relaxation.

Maxwell and several women in the yoga class cite another plus: an establishment of community. “We share stories,” Bonnie Kenyon said. “We care about each other.”

Kenyon, who has made her living tending bar, candidly describes her struggles with breast cancer and humorously details reconstructive surgeries gone awry. She says she endured 10 surgeries.

Yoga, she says, is good for body, mind and soul.

“I’m more spiritual. I’m more attuned to my body,” Kenyon said.

The website for the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center notes that yoga has been introduced in many cancer centers nationwide. It reports that cancer patients “now practice yoga for relief of symptoms and preliminary data are encouraging” and “studies in breast cancer survivors indicate that yoga has physical and psychological benefits.”

Kenyon’s voice falters, her mouth trembles and tears fill her eyes when she attempts to describe how the YMCA and health foundation’s program and yoga have enriched her life.

“Good stuff. And you can’t get it in a bottle and a doctor won’t prescribe it.”

Kenyon speaks about gratitude.

“I am grateful for every day I get, for every sunset I see, for the moon and the stars.”

She presses her palms together and bows to Maxwell.

“Namaste,” Kenyon says, a variously translated greeting that can be interpreted as “I honor you.”

“Namaste,” says Maxwell, bowing.

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com

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