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IU Simon Cancer Center patients find strength, solace in yoga

INDIANAPOLIS -- (February 09, 2011) -- Veteran yoga instructor Nancy Schalk is able to transform almost any spot at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center into an impromptu yoga space.

Schalk, director of the Yoga Therapy Program at the cancer center, will help a patient in the chemotherapy-infusion area with breathing exercises. Or work bedside with a patient in his or her room to perform poses to keep muscles as strong as possible during treatments. She'll spread out yoga mats in a break room or in the center's on-site studio to help patients, nurses, or patients' loved ones practice yoga.

Since it began in January 2010, the Yoga Therapy Program has provided the stress-reducing and strength-building benefits of yoga to more than 275 patients, care providers, staff members, and others at the IU Simon Cancer Center for a total of almost 800 yoga sessions. Participants in the free service range in ages from 19 to 82. Most have no previous yoga experience.

"The most delightful thing patients tell me is that learning these simple yoga techniques gives them a way to participate in their own healing," Schalk, a yoga teacher since 1984, said. "It allows them to make some effort and gives them useful tools to reduce some of the hardships of intense cancer treatment."

Schalk said patients many times have feelings that their body is betraying them by being so sick. Yoga, she said, can help give them a feeling of success and empowerment with their bodies.

Janet Schafstall of Franklin, Ind., was in the midst of her cancer diagnosis when she picked up a brochure about the yoga therapy program while at the IU Simon Cancer Center. Soon, Schafstall was meeting Schalk for one-on-one yoga instruction as well as attending group sessions.

"My yoga practice has made a world of difference in my attitude while dealing with my disease," Schafstall said. "There is now something I can do each day to make myself feel more positive. The benefits of a workout are immediate for me, and it is not only physical. It gives me a sense of well-being and control over my situation. I've become stronger, more flexible, and less apprehensive. I wish every cancer patient could experience this wonderful program."

The yoga therapy -- part of the CompleteLife program at the IU Simon Cancer Center -- is one of a small number of therapeutic yoga programs specifically designed for cancer patients. It includes the physical benefits of yoga poses (called asanas) as well as stress-reducing breathing exercises (called pranayamas), and simple self-soothing meditation practices.

"The primary goal of CompleteLife is to encourage people affected by serious illness to connect with their inner resources and to gain confidence that, regardless of the outcome, they will transcend and find peace," Larry Cripe, M.D., a hematologist and oncologist at the IU Simon Cancer Center and founder of CompleteLife, said. "There are many fads in contemporary American life. Nancy brings a deep understanding of the time-honored tradition of yoga and through her compassion she makes yoga accessible and valuable."