“You have nothing to do,” instructor Susan Young reminded her yoga students last week as they lay on their backs in savasana. And at that moment, she was right — no one in the room was responsible for doing anything other than enjoying the peaceful sensation of being in a yoga position known as relaxation pose.
Most of the time, it’s a vastly different situation for Young’s students at Hope Connections for Cancer Support. Since 2007, the Bethesda center has offered free programs to help participants cope with the daily demands of life with cancer. But the center’s support groups, lectures and mind-body offerings are not just for cancer patients. The programs are also open to their loved ones, who, as caregivers, run themselves ragged organizing the household, managing medications, serving as chauffeur and riding a roller coaster of emotions.
“Instead of being pulled by disease and appointments, yoga is very calming,” says 61-year-old Deborah Marino of Gaithersburg, whose husband got a diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus and liver in June. Tuesday is his day to get chemo. Wednesday is now her day to go to Hope Connections. “I see it in my future for some time to come,” she says.
Stretching, strengthening and, above all, centering are components of many area cancer programs, including Life With Cancer in Fairfax, Wellness House of Annapolis and the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, which just expanded its facility on U Street in the District. All of these programs open their classes to caregivers as well, not only so they can provide support, but also in recognition of the burdens they’re often shouldering.
“Sometimes it’s harder on the caregivers because they feel helpless. They would do anything to take on that pain,” says Smith Center Executive Director Shanti Norris. “They feel guilty. And they don’t feel like they should be resting.”
But, in reality, they need to be resting. Caregiver health is a topic of growing concern in the medical community because studies have shown that caregivers exhibit higher rates of depression, heart disease and diabetes, along with an array of other ailments.
“It’s not infrequent for caregivers to die before the person they’re caring for,” says Helen Lavretsky, a geriatric psychiatrist at UCLA, who recently released the results of a pilot study on the effect of yoga on caregivers. The 39 participants were caring for family members with dementia — not cancer — but the stats are still stunning. Just 20 minutes of a home yoga practice every day for eight weeks significantly reduced their stress levels and improved their quality of life and cognitive abilities.
Would she have gotten the same results with a more traditional kind of exercise? Lavretsky doesn’t think so. Although all movement is beneficial and has been shown to boost physical and mental health, she describes what her subjects experienced as more than that. “It made them think about what they needed to do for themselves,” she says. “Meditation and breath work teach people how to be more productive and not react to minor stuff.”
The therapeutic value of yoga and similar practices is an idea that will be explored during Mind-Body Week D.C., a series of talks, master classes and workshops that starts today. Friday’s keynote speaker Roger Jahnke, founder of the California-based Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi, plans to emphasize how getting in touch with your posture, breath and consciousness can carry on long after you’ve left class. “In your car, you can align your posture, deepen your breath and clear your mind,” says Jahnke, adding that caregivers can turn on those lessons “at the bedside of your loved one, at the doctor’s office and at the lawyer’s office.”
For an introduction to these techniques, take your mat to Freedom Plaza on Sunday, for D.C.’s inaugural Yoga on the Steps. It’s a fundraiser for Living Beyond Breast Cancer, which has held a similar event in Philadelphia for the past decade. The idea is to bring together cancer patients, survivors, caregivers and supporters to celebrate the healing powers of yoga for an hour and 15 minutes.
Instructor Jennifer Schelter says Yoga on the Steps allows participants to experience something different from charity walks and runs. “This is going inside,” she says. “It champions being at peace with yourself rather than a finish line.”
That’s an important place to be whether you’re a patient or a caregiver — or both. Two of the regulars at Hope Connection’s yoga classes are 69-year-old Linda DeCamp of Rockville and her husband, Russ. He was there for her when she received two breast cancer diagnoses. They started attending classes three years ago when he was in treatment for colon cancer, and their earlier roles got reversed. “Now we just have to get through checkups,” she says.
One way they’re making sure they do that is by setting aside some time to balance, stretch and twist. And, of course, do a little bit of nothing, too.