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A Quiet Calm

by Mary Ellen Stumpfl

Cancer survivor Vivian Richman knows the “panic, anxiety and pain” that a cancer diagnosis can cause. “The first thing I needed to do after learning that I had cancer was get to a yoga class,” says Richman, who teaches Yoga for Cancer Survivors at USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Yoga helped keep me calm through my treatment.”

One translation defines yoga as a cessation of the turning of the thoughts. Yoga uses breathing, stretching, balancing and strengthening exercises to quiet the mind and encourage self-awareness. Students learn to notice when they get tense or anxious and use lessons they have learned through yoga to approach challenges.

The six-week class is for cancer survivors at all fitness levels. The class focuses on simple poses and controlled breathing techniques accessible to everyone. Along with the positive psychological effects of yoga, it also decreases the pulse rate, lowers blood pressure, increases blood circulation and reduces stress.

Richman starts each class with everyone sitting in a chair. “That’s the position you’re in when you’re waiting in a doctor’s office, waiting for results, making decisions about your care,” she says. “I want my students to be able to translate the sense of calm they experience in yoga to their daily lives.”

She adds: “If you can bring yourself in to a calm place, you can hear more clearly, remember what’s being said and make better decisions.” Richman has also used yoga for pain management.

Carol Marcusen, L.C.S.W., director of social services and patient education, says offering this adjunct therapy is part of an effort to provide a more holistic approach to fighting cancer. “Cancer centers across the country are starting to embrace the idea of caring for the whole person, not just the physical part,” says Marcusen. “We’re getting a great response from patients.”

Currently a pilot program, the Lorraine Pepper Memorial Fund and USC/Norris Social Services fund the Yoga for Cancer Survivors class.

Richman says, “At the end of class, I see a room full of people who feel good. Their bodies have let them down, but for an hour they’ve been doing something positive with their bodies and the benefits last far beyond that hour.”