THE BLOG
08/27/2013 08:34 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

Yoga: How We Serve Cancer Patients and Survivors

This is an interview with Susan Reeves, who co-founded with Pamela Ryan Yoga Bridge, a non-profit in North Dallas, Texas, that offers free yoga to cancer patients and survivors. Susan teaches Prana Flow Vinyasa, Restorative Yoga, and meditation. In 2012, she completed Oncology Training for Yoga Teachers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

My friend, Gayla. We taught Spanish together for many years and were even pregnant at the same time. When she received her cancer diagnosis, I had the urge to "fix" everything for her. It seemed so unfair that a mother of three should have to go through all of those surgeries and treatments. She was my first yoga-for-cancer student. I noticed that practicing helped her enter a peaceful place -- away from the hospital rooms, the infusions, all of the uncertainty. It seemed to give her a sense of control during a time of confusion.

Coming from a family of M.D.s, I acknowledge and am thankful for all of the work and research being done in the medical community. I am also grateful that there are alternative methods, like yoga, that can bring much-needed compassion to a difficult diagnosis. This is what motivates me now. I know that I am not "fixing" anything, but I can give what I have, and I've seen from experience the peace it can bring.

How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

When Yoga Bridge started a year and a half ago, we had no idea what to expect. We just knew we wanted to help people, and we hoped they would show up. Little did I know that the students who came to our first official class would have such a healing impact on me. Cancer patients and survivors are different. They are changed people. They've had their world turned upside down in a way that awakens their understanding of what is truly important in life. In this class there is no competition, no judgment, only humility and openness. I learn from them ways to value my own life, and continue to be motivated by them every week.

Is there a standout moment from your work with Yoga Bridge, or with cancer patients?

There is one that stands out. Oddly enough, it keeps repeating itself. Students who first come to our class usually don't know why they are there; they are just told that yoga will be good for them. Many times after just one class, a student will return and tell us a story of how yoga immediately came to her rescue. Terrified of an upcoming doctor appointment/first MRI/medical procedure, the student remembers the breathing practice that we did in class the week before, and puts it to use. To her surprise, it actually calms her nerves and gives her the inner strength to endure a difficult moment. Yoga works in simple, yet profound, ways.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

I was fortunate to have two of the most giving women and friends as my first students. I felt free to ask them anything, and I learned from what they told me. One assumption I had was that cancer patients need to be treated with caution because they are sick. I have learned that, while there are adjustments that might need to be made with some of the poses, cancer patients and survivors are some of the strongest people I have ever met.

I also expected the atmosphere in the room to have a heaviness, a sadness to it -- also not true. Each time I teach a yoga-for-cancer class, I feel more uplifted than ever by the overwhelmingly positive energy that exists in that room. Our group can't explain it, but we all agree that it's there.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

One is class size: I taught in studios for many years and I enjoyed it. However, the size of the classes at studios can be quite large. There were times when I was desperate to give a particular student some one-on-one attention, but I couldn't because I had to teach to the group, not the individual. I have great respect for the teachings of T.K.V. Desikachar and Gary Krafstow, leaders in the forefront of yoga as therapy. They teach that yoga should be tailored to meet the individual, and we strive to do the same. While we do teach group classes, our model at Yoga Bridge is to always have two teachers in the same class. One of us leads the instruction, the other one scans the room to offer individual instruction if needed.

The other is integration of massage and yoga: My colleague Pamela is a licensed massage therapist. She and I believe that there exists a level of compassion in human touch that the medical community is not able to offer. It can make a difference in a person's response to cancer diagnosis. That is why we implement some aspect of massage into every single class, with doctor approval. We allow for students to opt out of the massage, but no one ever has!

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

A great challenge has been introducing yoga into the medical community that is so accustomed to scientific means and results. Some still do not realize that yoga can be a powerful tool in addressing the whole body during and after cancer treatment. The clinical research of Dr. Lorenzo Cohen and Dr. Alejandro Chaoul at MD Anderson has helped to bridge the gap between the medical and yoga communities. Their studies (and others being conducted at major research hospitals) give evidence-based results on the benefits of yoga for those with cancer. Here is a link to one of their published studies: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15139072

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in hospitals, and with cancer patients?

Get to know people -- the nurses, technicians, doctors, oncology staff, patients, and survivors. These are your teachers. You are entering a realm that functions differently than a typical yoga studio or gym. You have to enter on their turf. They may not understand or be receptive to some of the yoga practices that are natural to you -- meditation, chanting, the chakra system, yogic philosophy. Tread lightly with these until you know your students better. In the medical system, we have to respect that people may not know very much about yoga at all. What they do know, and respond well to, is proof that yoga can be effective in helping people during diagnosis and afterwards through survivorship. With the advent of recent clinical trials, this proof is a reality.

Get proper training. Yoga teachers have so much to offer, but there are several specifics at play here, so teachers need to be aware. They need to have knowledge of cancer treatments, possible side effects, emotional impact of a diagnosis and how to offer variations to a standard yoga practice to accommodate various needs.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

Yoga is service, and the beautiful thing about it is its universality. Yoga can serve all people of all needs. A large percentage of the population in the U.S. is entering their senior years. With that come physical challenges, illnesses, and an increased risk of developing cancer. There is a need for yoga within this community in particular. At present, it is barely being met. I believe this is changing, thanks to grants from foundations, growing support from the medical community, and donations from individuals who have seen what yoga can do. I hope that yoga will become a standard part of treatment and survivorship, and that the services we provide can extend to caregivers as well.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

I used to view service as a means to help people. Now I see it as a means to empower them. Yoga gives people tools that they can use right away to calm the mind, to build resilience in the face of challenges, and to maintain a sense of equanimity with whatever may come their way.

Yoga has the power to give to us exactly what we need at the right time. In the beginning, yoga was the friend that calmed my anxieties of being a new mom. Then yoga was the work-out buddy that inspired me to show up on the mat. Now, my friendship with yoga goes much deeper. It has become an ally in my life that allows me to be of service to others. I watch yoga as it empowers my students and realize that it empowers me as well.

What other organizations do you admire?

Foundation 56. Bradie James' foundation helps to support what we do at Yoga Bridge, and we cannot thank him enough. Bradie is an NFL player whose life was affected at an early age by the death of his mother, Etta, to breast cancer. He formed Foundation 56 to provide access to services for breast cancer patients and survivors.

I have to give credit to the individuals who give of themselves -- the nurses, the oncology staff, our own students. These people are in the trenches, and we consistently see them dig into their own pockets and give more to the cause. They know what it's like to live with a cancer diagnosis and they want to help others by paying it forward.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Stay connected with Give Back Yoga Foundation as we share the gift of yoga, one person at a time. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved populations? Email Executive Director Rob Schware if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. And thanks for all that you do in the name of service!