"Close your eyes and allow your awareness to rest on your breath — taking in and letting go of everything but this moment... staying with your breath all the way in, staying with your breath all the way out..."
Thursday afternoon yoga at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance begins much like yoga classes everywhere — but with a difference. There are no distractions — from trendy tights, body envy or props. Nothing cracks the comfortably challenging cocoon woven by teacher Laura Yon-Brook's words and the moment, uniquely experienced in the bodies of the seven students present this day — each on the road back from cancer.
"Notice — what today does your body need?"
Donna Dunning came to the therapeutic yoga class nearly three years ago battling two potentially fatal illnesses — cancer and a lung infection. "Nothing was working right," she said. "I was coughing, I couldn't talk, I couldn't walk, I couldn't drive, but I could come in here. I couldn't do a lot of things then, but I can now." Today, feeling confined by peripheral neuropathy, Dunning requests poses to improve circulation in her hands and feet.
"Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat. Exhale as you use your hands to draw your right knee into your chest. Inhale, straightening your leg and extending through your foot toward the ceiling."
Yon-Brooks gently guides her students from spine-lengthening, limb-flexing extensions on the floor to more strenuous poses on their feet.
The weekly outpatient class at the Alliance is part of Living Well With Cancer, a series of healing programs created by the University of Washington Medical Center Service League. Yon-Brooks also teaches gentle therapeutic yoga on an individual basis to oncology inpatients at the Alliance and the university medical center. The sessions illustrate the growing understanding nationwide of the importance of yoga as a complement to medical care. Program coordinator Janet Parker hopes funds from the Service League's gift shop, espresso bars and tearoom will help extend yoga's reach to more classes and private lessons for both inpatient and outpatients. And, she said, Yon-Brooks — an oncologist's daughter and a former dancer with a master's degree in sports medicine — is just the right person for the job.
"We are thrilled to have Laura on staff," Parker said. "I get feedback from people who tell me what Laura's class does for them and how it helps them through this most difficult journey."
Hatha yoga — the union of body, mind and breath through the practice of physical exercises — is known for its ability to reduce stress, help control back and neck pain, and increase flexibility, balance and strength. Viniyoga, the flowing type of hatha Yon-Brooks teaches, is especially therapeutic.
"All Viniyoga focuses on the breath, and 'vini' just means to adapt. In Viniyoga, we're adapting the yoga to the person, not the person to the yoga," Yon-Brooks said. So students in her class can reap the same healing benefits of a pose whether standing or lying down.
A network of support
For Dunning, the class is also a place to form friendships with others who understand the devastation of life interrupted by cancer. Janet Pliske started attending the class in 1999 at the UW, while receiving treatment for lymphoma and coping with a neurological movement disorder. When the class moved to the Alliance, Pliske, still undergoing treatments, moved too.
"Laura has supported me all the way. There was one time period where my movements and speech were so uncontrollable that I couldn't come to class. And Laura gave me exercises I could do at home. She's just like that; she takes a personal interest in everyone," Pliske said. "I've never come to any two classes that were the same. Whatever we ask, Laura delivers."
Yon-Brooks tailors each class according to individual needs and reserves homework for those who ask so as not to create the stress of an additional "should" in her students' lives.
"With protocols, treatment and this and that, there is so much going on in your head," Yon-Brooks said. "I try to provide space to just let all that go, and teach them that no matter what they are going through — even if they are getting chemotherapy — they can always find that place inside where it is quiet, where they can find peace.
"Yoga is a way to help people find what is already there. And if we can help their bodies stay moving as well, this will help the mind," she said.
For Pliske, the focus on breath frees her mind and body to relax. "The combination of movement and bringing gentle awareness to breath in different parts of my body has really helped me the most."
Dunning agrees. "Yoga has given me peace and kind of an acceptance of where I am and the peaceful feeling of being able to say, 'well maybe I can't do this, but what I'm doing is good.'"