The Healing Yoga Project

CURE invited Libby Lowe, of Yoga Bear, a non-profit organization that provides yoga to cancer patients and survivors, to share information about their program, The Healing Yoga Project. About two and a half years ago, a close friend of mine was caring for her husband as he battled cancer. As much as she could, she still made time for yoga. And on numerous occasions -- during his illness and after he passed away -- she said that yoga saved her life. Yoga is a regular part of my life, too. I've also lost many loved ones to cancer. My own experiences and my friend's statement inspired me to get involved with Yoga Bear, an organization dedicated to bringing yoga to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers. People across the country can visit www.yogabear.org and find classes for cancer patients, gentle classes open to all and free classes at partner studios. The website also has a large database of free videos so people who don't live near a partner studio can experience the benefits of a yoga or meditation practice. Bringing Yoga to PatientsYoga Bear founder Halle Tecco started the organization in 2006, and today it has more than 2,000 members. One of those members is Michelle Robbins. Michelle moved to New York to care for her aunt during the last months of her life. During her battle with cancer, her aunt tried numerous alternative therapies, including yoga. Michelle, who is now finishing her nursing degree, was inspired by her aunt and by Yoga Bear's mission, which ultimately developed into a big idea."I thought, why not go straight to the source and work with hospitals to help them provide free yoga classes to their patients?" She rounded up her contacts and started what she calls a nagging campaign. After a few fits and starts, The Healing Yoga Project was born. Today, Yoga Bear partners with the Maimonides Cancer Center in Brooklyn offering weekly yoga with Elyse Sparkes, who studied with Tari Prinster in OM Yoga's Women Cancer Survivor Teacher Training. "The response has been so great," Michelle says. "The program at Maimonidies has about 20 people a week. I drop in on classes when I can, and what strikes me the most is that people say they are experiencing less anxiety, their moods are improving and they are sleeping better." Setting up a program like this isn't easy, she says. "The hardest part is getting your foot in the door and finding the right person to listen to you--some people in the medical field don't see the value in yoga and you have to go in with knowledge. The idea then has to be pitched to a board that then has to agree to fund the program. Then there's a contract phase and you have to find an instructor and work to get supplies donated. But it's worth all of the effort."Healing Yoga Goes WestIn 2010, the project went bi-coastal thanks to the efforts of Cat Gordon. When Cat's medical school plans were put on hold because of an illness, she started getting yoga therapy. She was hooked. And as a student at Duke University, she had access to one of the top integrative medicine centers in the country and one of the only programs with an established yoga therapy arm. "I was so lucky to be able to train with Jnani Chapman. She is the person in the U.S. for adaptive yoga therapy for cancer," says Cat. Now an instructor and a first-year medical student at UC San Diego, Cat has spent a year and a half getting Healing Yoga established at UCSD's Moore Cancer Center. Like Michelle, she found that having a champion within the hospital was key to getting through the red tape. "The program director at the hospital, Danielle, is an ashtanga yogi and she was really excited about Yoga Bear, but even with her help it took a long time." The program kicked off with a five-week trial this past October. There was a small, dedicated group of women who came to class each week and kept in touch with Cat to make sure the program was to continue, get advice on where else to take classes and tell her how much yoga helped them. The program is now up and running."Michelle was really the thought-leader for The Healing Yoga Project. Her dedication and vision is invaluable to our organization," says Halle. She's thrilled with the success of both of these pilot programs and is excited to expand the project to more hospitals.""Getting the program established is a big personal investment, but if this is your calling, you just have to stick with it," says Cat. It's an honor and a gift to share space with really inspiring people who have overcome a lot and are willing to try something new and embark on a new chapter of healing--this is what Yoga Bear is all about," If you're interested in bringing The Healing Yoga Project to a hospital in your area, Michelle and Cat would be happy to hear from you and to share their advice. You can reach them at michelle.robbins@yogabear.org and catherine@yogabear.org. You can also support the project!Libby Lowe is social media manager for Yoga Bear.