Gentle yoga helps women find tranquility amid breast cancer

Mar. 05, 2013 @ 05:05 PM

Women diagnosed with and being treated for breast cancer face physical and emotional upheaval.

For more than five years, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has offered its breast cancer patients an escape from that upheaval, thanks to research studies that led to free weekly classes at its Comprehensive Cancer Center.

 “When you’re first diagnosed, it really knocks you for a loop,” said Carol Amweg, 60, a survivor of three separate breast cancer surgeries who has taken part in the yoga classes since April 2009. “This is really good. It relaxes you. It gives you a point of reference with other survivors.”

A program of research involving yoga for women with cancer was initiated at Wake Forest Baptist in 2004 by Suzanne Danhauer, Ph.D., associate professor of social sciences and health policy.

Danhauer said that during her fellowship at the Stanford University School of Medicine she saw yoga being used in a supportive care program and was impressed. When she followed up to see what research had been done into yoga’s potential benefits, she found almost nothing in medical literature. That led her to obtain funding for a series of trial studies shortly after she joined the faculty at Wake Forest Baptist.

Through the years, these studies have largely demonstrated that women who take the yoga classes feel more relaxed amid the stress of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, and that some sleep better the night after taking a yoga class.

Though the benefits of yoga would appear to be obvious as a relaxing agent, Danhauer said that in the medical community, especially nine years ago, it wasn’t that easy of a “sell.” Physicians and health care providers wanted to know that their patients would be safe as they participated in the yoga intervention. They also wanted to see support for yoga as an evidence-based practice, as with other therapies.

“I think as we’ve done this over time, physicians and other health care providers see that what we’re offering is gentle,” she said. “They see their patients coming back and telling them that there are benefits to it.”

One reason for the success of “gentle’’ yoga is having an instructor who can relate to the patients.

The Tuesday classes at Wake Forest Baptist are led by Lynn Felder, a longtime yoga practitioner who operates a studio, the Yoga Gallery, in downtown Winston-Salem. She is also a survivor of ovarian cancer.

 Danhauer said she took some classes at Felder’s studio not long after arriving in Winston-Salem and thought that Felder would be a perfect fit for teaching the classes she envisioned at Wake Forest Baptist – even before knowing about Felder’s own fight with cancer. From an initial conversation their partnership took hold, and Felder has taught the yoga classes from their inception.

Felder said that in working with patients in recovery, she has taken the yoga that she normally teaches down a notch.

“It’s still real yoga, which is defined by its intent—to unite body, mind and spirit within the person and to unite the person with his or her … inner healing ability,” she said.

In her own cancer battle, yoga “helped me to ‘re-friend’ my body,” Felder said. “Cancer patients often feel betrayed by their bodies.”

“The cancer gave me a level of understanding about limited mobility and weakness that I would never have understood otherwise, and I feel that it gives me a big advantage when I’m teaching cancer patients,’’ Felder said. “I totally get what they’re going through and what yoga can do for them while they are dealing with it.’’

Indeed, one of Felder’s key rules, which the patients know well, is not to do any movement if it hurts.

Participants such as Marg Tuomi, 65, of Winston-Salem, appreciate Felder’s willingness to bend rules when it comes to yoga, a field in which instructors can be quite demanding. Gentle yoga, however, is far more forgiving, while still giving the women physical activity and a mental and emotional boost.

“I was prepared to walk away if they were all young women in tights,” Tuomi said about her thoughts after agreeing to try a class in 2010. “But I walked in and the women were my age, very welcoming. Very non-threatening.”

Having overcome a lumpectomy in 2009, Tuomi said she was upset when she began her yoga classes, at a time when she was struggling to work through problems with her elderly parents in Minnesota. From the very first class, she said, she took to yoga despite having a body that she said is not flexible.

“It was an oasis in the week,’’ she said of the classes. “It just sort of calmed the mental madness in my mind.’’

Although Tuomi’s current schedule doesn’t allow her to take the classes, she said she uses the techniques she learned from Felder while doing morning exercises at home – breathing and stretching to calm down.

While Danhauer’s research findings have appeared in several publications, she said more fully powered studies will be needed before gentle yoga can be fully supported as an evidence-based practice.

Danhauer’s next yoga trial will involve a six-week session for women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer, in which they will take the classes over their televisions via a broadband Internet connection. Everyone in class will be able to interact with the teacher and each other, but from the comfort of their own homes.

“I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of just saying, ‘Well, here’s a DVD,’ because I think there’s a safety issue, especially for patients unfamiliar with yoga. There’s also that whole group element,’’ Danhauer said. “So I’m really curious to try this and see how much women interact when they’re doing classes this way.”