Yoga helps cancer survivors breathe easier

Mon Sep 21, 2009 6:01am EDT

People participate in a YogaWorks class in Santa Monica, California in this handout picture taken early 2009. REUTERS/Handout

People participate in a YogaWorks class in Santa Monica, California in this handout picture taken early 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

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NEW YORK, Sept 21 (Reuter Life!) - Gale McCombie was sitting in a hospital waiting room when she spotted a brochure offering free yoga classes for cancer patients.

But zapped of strength and confidence after undergoing grueling treatments for breast cancer, McCombie found the thought of entering any exercise class intimidating.

"Chemo left me in a pretty bad state as far as my physical ability. But everybody talked about the importance of physical activity, and yoga seemed to be a good start," the 50-year-old Canadian said in an interview

"I took my mom with me for comfort. I didn't know what to expect. But the others had cancer, too. And the facilitator made sure everyone was comfortable with props, modifications, whatever it took. After the first class I was fine."

McCombie joined Yoga Thrive, a community-based program created specifically for cancer survivors that is spreading throughout Canada and parts of the United States.

The brainchild of Dr. Nicole Culos-Reed, a cancer and exercise researcher at the University of Calgary, and Susi Hately, a yoga instructor, Yoga Thrive provides gentle, therapeutic yoga to people at all stages of cancer treatment.

"Our instructors know both cancer and yoga," Culos-Reed explained. "They not only learn the seven- week yoga program, they also learn about cancer treatments and side-effects."

Culos-Reed, herself a yogi for seven years, believes the 5,000-year-old practice, which strives to align breath with movement, is particularly suited to cancer patients.

"They learn to reconnect with their breath and their body again," she said. "There's that unique body-mind connection. When someone's going through cancer, everything seems out of control."

That includes one's finances. Cancer can cost a patient upwards of $100,000, so Yoga Thrive classes are offered free or for a nominal fee, and there is a DVD that sells at cost.

Culos-Reed says studies indicate that exercise improves the strength, flexibility and general quality of life of cancer survivors.

"There is research that colorectal cancer patients who exercise regularly have a greater survival rate," she said. "We don't know the mechanism, but there's a definite link."

That connection inspired entrepreneur Halle Tecco to create Yoga Bear, a San Francisco-based non-profit that offers cancer survivors free yoga classes by partnering with yoga studios and hospitals.

Tecco founded Yoga Bear in 2006, after reading a paper on yoga and cancer. Today more than 180 yoga studios across the United States have donated passes to her organization.

"We also send trained instructors to hospitals to teach classes to those undergoing treatment," she said in an interview.

Because 70 percent of participants are new to yoga, Yoga Bear provides a handbook with detailed tips on what to wear, bring, and expect.

"We recognize that they may experience nervousness prior to their first class," Tecco said.

McCombie is now back at her job as an executive assistant for an oil company.

"When I started yoga I couldn't even get off the floor by myself. I needed help," she said, referring to her lack of strength . "Now I can do (climb) stairs."

And just as important, she says, yoga helped her to relax.

"When you're going through cancer, you've got all these treatments and doctors' appointments. You've got to calm yourself. I try constantly to bring myself back to the moment."

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