A Needed Dose of Normalcy: Yoga North’s ‘cancer class’ keeps patients connected to everyday routine

By: Sarah Petz , Winnipeg Free Press
Posted: 12/31/2014 12:49 PM

When longtime yoga teacher Valerie Paape was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, she used her practice to heal.
Soon after, Paape decided to create a class where other cancer patients could use yoga to help recover.
The cancer class at Yoga North was created by Paape shortly after her diagnosis. In 2001, CancerCare Manitoba decided to sponsor the program, and has funded the classes through donations to its foundation ever since.
The classes are structured similarly to the studio’s restorative classes, which cater to students with physical limitations or injuries. Each class focuses on working on improving students’ symptoms such as pain, fatigue, as well as depression and anxiety.


The classes are small, with a limit of 17 people per session in order to insure each student gets the individual attention they need. In addition to the instructor, the class also has two assistants.
Over a number of years, the class has been narrowed down to focus on certain common physical issues and symptoms. Students often come into the class with back, neck and shoulder pain, for example, so poses have been incorporated to deal with those areas of the body, Paape explains after a Friday afternoon class at the Yoga North studio in Wolseley. 
Fatigue is another common symptom, so the class always has a few restorative poses where students are completely supported and can go into a sort-of meditation.
"And we work on posture ... because posture is so important in a person’s sense of themselves and overall mind-body well-being and so on."
Joining Paape to discuss the classes with The Metro is Dawn Masters, 66, a petite woman who took the cancer class this fall. Diagnosed with cancer in 2013, Masters wanted to retain a sense of normalcy in her life. She had taught herself to do yoga before, and thought it would help with her recovery.

It took Masters a year to make it to Yoga North’s studios for the cancer class after experiencing a severe reaction to the lengthy radiation treatment she went through.

On top of helping her work through the physical limitations brought on by her treatment, Masters says the classes helped her gain the sense of balance she was looking for.

"It certainly was helpful outside of the class in the hallways to hear people talking about their treatments and about their doctor appointments and what they were feeling about this, and yesterday was not a good day and today was a really good day, those kinds of things. Because just hearing it as a matter of course, makes you feel like this is life. Life happens," she said. 

Paape said having her yoga practice allowed to retain a similar sense of balance in her life after her cancer came back in 2013.

"You get caught up in this thing, where your whole life schedule revolves around doctors’ appointments and tests and treatments and a lot of people talk about, at the end of it, ‘What do I do now? I don’t have an appointment,’" she said.

"All of a sudden your structure, your scheduling structure falls apart. So it’s really good to have something like this practice that keeps you connected into ordinary life and kind of helps with the perspective that disease is a part of ordinary life," Paape said.

"We’re not out of the ordinary here, other people have other things, and everybody gets sick, old and dies eventually. Nobody gets out alive."

The classes were the first of their kind to be an official program of a cancer agency.

"That’s what makes it kind of different, but now there are programs all over the place," said Jill Taylor-Brown, director of patient and family support services  at CancerCare Manitoba.

In 2008, a study published by Current Oncology, titled Impact and outcomes of an Iyengar yoga program in a cancer centre, found that participants in Yoga North’s classes "reported an improvement in overall well-being," and that significant improvements were reported in their most bothersome symptom. The study was facilitated through CancerCare Manitoba.

"For a long time I had wanted to do more rigorous evaluation of the program. So it was kind of an opportunistic thing where a master’s student was interested in the subject," Taylor-Brown, one of the authors of the study, explained.

Despite the supportive nature of the program, Paape pulls no punches with her students, pushing them to work within their limitations to improve their physical and mental health.

"One of the things that I feel is quite important in a group of people that have cancer, in a situation like this, is that there is an atmosphere of normalcy in some way. I don’t baby them," Paape says.

"And it’s right on," Masters adds.

"When we’re doing shoulder poses or something, I’ve been known to yell at them," Paape chuckles.

With students coming into the class at all different stages of treatment, watching them improve from week to week can be truly incredible, said Regan Tataryn, an instructor at Yoga North.

"What’s really amazing is (how their) quality of life improves, management of symptoms improve. It’s really powerful from class to class what happens for people. It’s only once a week, but it’s so powerful," she said.  

Participants in the cancer classes are registered through CancerCare Manitoba. Those interested in taking part can call 204-787-2109.

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