Julie Truelove remembers her first session of yoga therapy. The Ottawa woman had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and was terrified.
I sat down and within 10 minutes I was bawling my eyes out. It is a fear and anxiety you cant describe.
This isnt the kind of yoga many people will recognize from studios that have multiplied around Ottawa in recent years. There are no downward dogs here says Anne Pitman an Ottawa instructor who practises yoga therapy at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre and is co-founder of the citys first yoga therapy school set to start classes in the new year.
The practice of yoga therapy involves seemingly subtle exercises such as breathing or very gentle movements that Pitman says can make a huge difference for many people with cancer and other ailments.
It is so gentle said Pitman. For a long time I thought it should be called something else. It is very subtle work and people are surprised that such subtle movement has such a huge effect.
Pitman said yoga therapy can help people deal with the anxiety and fear that comes with cancer which enables them to undergo medical treatments such as chemotherapy and surgery.
Yoga has an incredible effect on depression and anxiety. It is very effective.
Yoga is an ancient practice but modern research is beginning to reveal some of its benefits. A number of studies have linked yoga to lower stress and anxiety levels and a related lowered sensitivity to pain in people who practised yoga for a number of months versus those who did not. A randomized control study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2014 concluded that yoga damped both fatigue and markers of inflammation which is linked to pain and depression among other illnesses. While more research is being done practitioners say their clients feel the difference yoga therapy can make.
Pitman says she worked with one man with late stage prostate cancer who was in almost constant pain and got little relief from drugs. After a session of yoga therapy she said he was sometimes pain-free for a few hours. It also helps patients who have undergone surgery and might have had lymph nodes removed to keep moving which improves overall mobility and helps to reduce swelling after some surgeries.
For others yoga therapy enables them to cope with the stress and fear that often accompanies a diagnosis of cancer.
Pitman says she views her therapy as trauma work because so many cancer patients react physically to the diagnosis and potential treatment as if it is a physical blow. Sometimes people come in and have no idea why they are so anxious their body is still processing the shock. It is like the mind is trying to catch up.
Working with cancer patients is just one aspect of yoga therapy.
Cassi Kit co-director with Pitman of the Ottawa School of Embodied Yoga Therapy works with people who are suffering from chronic pain orthopedic injuries anxiety and mood disorders and traumatic brain injuries. She collaborates on rehabilitation teams with other health care professionals to help clients recovering from motor vehicle accidents. Her clients are often referred to her by lawyers and the work she does is usually covered by their insurance as part of the rehabilitation.
But unlike some other therapies physiotherapy and massage for example yoga therapy and the training for it has only recently been regulated through the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
Pitman who has taught yoga for 30 years and has a master's degree in kinesiology was asked to visit a patient at home who was being treated for cancer and didnt want to risk infection in a big group. That was the beginning of her understanding of how yoga can benefit people undergoing cancer treatment. In addition to one-on-one therapy she conducts weekly group classes at the Ottawa Integrative Yoga Centre.
Many people describe being diagnosed with cancer as a kind of out of body experience said Pitman. The movement and breathing of yoga can help them feel that they are returning to their body.
Movement is medicine. It really is a way that we can help people be strong enough to finish their treatment and feel better while they are in it.
The Ottawa School of Embodied Yoga Therapy which will be the city's first yoga therapy school will consist of a series of courses totalling more than 800 hours of training held at different locations throughout the year in addition to seminars practice and course work. Students are required to have completed yoga teacher training to qualify. More information is available at www.oseyt.com. The school is in the process of becoming accredited with the International Association of Yoga Therapist.
Pitman said she hopes the accreditation system will standardize the practice and result in accredited treatments for yoga therapy being covered by health insurers as physio and massage therapy is.
Julie meanwhile said her yoga therapy sessions helped ease some of the stress that came with a diagnosis of cancer. I think just having a place to come that wasn't the hospital was always really comforting.