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Published on Thursday, June 28, 2007

Healing yoga leads cancer patients to place of quiet awareness

"At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is ..."

-- T.S. Eliot



Lights are dimmed, pillows and mats form a row on the carpet and the sounds of synchronized tuning forks float from the CD player.

SARA GETTYS/Yakima Herald-Republic

From left, Debbie Brown, Kym Boob and Kym's mother-in-law and supporter, Alice Boob, meditate during a yoga class designed to help those fighting cancer at the North Star Lodge.
A gentle-looking man with a ponytail speaks softly and instructs the women lying on their backs to simply listen. Listen to the sounds around them, to any bodily sensations and to their thoughts.

"Identify them, give them a name and return to listening. In this listening, there's no anticipation," says Michael Moritz.

And in perhaps the toughest task of all in this yoga class, Moritz asks the women to focus on their pain.

"Breathe into that area. This is tricky because this is not treatment in that we expect the pain to disappear."

Moritz is asking a lot because this is a yoga class for cancer patients and they are very sick. Tired from radiation or battling nausea from chemical treatments, they are "doing well just to get here," notes Kitty Inaba, program coordinator at North Star Lodge.

Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital's North Star Lodge started Healing Yoga classes about two years ago. That was around the time research published in the journal Cancer showed that Tibetan yoga led to significant improvements in the sleep of patients with lymphoma.

Applying the principles of meditational yoga to cancer might sound to the uninitiated like a throwback to quackery, but in fact it's not.

SARA GETTYS/Yakima Herald-Republic

Instructor Michael Moritz talks class participants through a meditation geared toward quieting their minds and increasing their emotional health.
This month, the famed MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas announced expanded research into the benefits of Tibetan yoga in relieving the side effects of cancer treatments. Patients suffer physical effects like fatigue, and there is the obvious mental stress, such as having disturbing thoughts about cancer. MD Anderson received a $2.4 million grant for the study from the National Cancer Institute.

For Kym Boob, 39, of Yakima, the benefits of yoga became clear pretty quickly. She was diagnosed with gynecological cancer in April and started the weekly class about six weeks ago.

"At my second class, I decided I needed to be here every week because it calms me and centers me," she says.

Boob uses yoga breathing during her chemo treatments when drugs are injected into a vein through a "port" in her chest. The port is a drum-shaped device placed surgically under the skin.

She practices what Mo-ritz calls setting aside the "judgmental" mind, when our brain comments, criticizes, carps and otherwise makes us crazy.

"It's about not letting that voice become who we are," she says. "People in here are trying to reach that place."

A place of quiet awareness.

Dr. Maria Jorgensen, an oncologist with Memorial, said healing yoga is not about performing a variety of physical poses.

"It works at more profound levels than the body," she said. "It helps the patients learn techniques to put their minds at rest and not be caught in the emotion of the moment. We have a power of mind over our bodies that we tend to ignore."

Moritz, who teaches yoga at Stillpoint Studios in Yakima, helps the patients tap into that power with guided meditation. They learn to focus on their breath and let go of the chatter that can clog the mind.

After the session, class members feel free to talk about how easy it is to let the mind steal their quietness and balance.

They talk about getting stuck in their roles as mother, caregiver, employee, spouse. And then Debbie Brown of Selah acknowledges a painful reality.

"What if you can't do those roles anymore? I can't be who I used to be."

Gently, Moritz says: "You are not those roles. Your identity is the breath."


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 At the North Star Lodge, yoga offers a healing respite for those fighting cancer.



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