What I Learned at MD Anderson

Last weekend I went to Houston to attend MD Anderson’s Oncology Training Conference for Yoga and Mind-Body Teachers. The conference was co-hosted by the Texas Yoga Association. It was fantastic and I learned A LOT. I’d like to share the highlights with you here.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is one of the premier cancer care centers in the world. They focus not only on patient care, but also on cancer research. And as far as I can tell, everyone who works there is very smart, very compassionate, and eager to share everything they know to help improve care and resources for cancer patients and people who are touched by cancer.

MD Anderson 2015 cropThe training was hosted by the Integrative Medicine Program, which is the department within MD Anderson that offers complementary modalities, such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, music therapy, massage, acupuncture, and more, as part of the care plan for cancer patients.

This group not only offers these complementary healing modalities for patients and anyone touched by cancer, but they also perform on-going research to understand exactly how the complementary therapies can help.

Medical and Neuroscience Experts

One of our first speakers was the Medical Director of the Integrative Medicine Program, Gabriel Lopez, MD. He taught us Cancer 101. I learned about the characteristics of different types of cancer, how some cancers grow quickly and some grow slowly, and which of these is more difficult to treat. I learned about cancer staging and how cancer can metastasize in different parts of the body and whether and how those mets can be treated. I learned about the different cancer treatments, how they can be administered before or after surgery, and their common side effects.

Another of the speakers, Sarah Prinsloo, PhD, a neuroscientist at MD Anderson, taught about the brain, brainwaves, and the findings of many yoga and meditation studies. Most interesting to me were her studies where she used neuroimaging to study how guided imagery and meditation help cancer patients and survivors manage the symptoms of their treatments and reduce their healing time.

The engineer/science part of my brain really enjoyed these two presentations.

Mind-Body Experts

Another excellent aspect of the conference was that the Mind-Body teachers from MD Anderson, Alejandro Chaoul, PhD, Smitha Mallaiah, and Rosalinda Engle, taught us how specifically to teach yoga for people who are in cancer treatment or in recovery. They offered practices and held a panel discussion (two yoga and meditation teachers, two doctors, and an occupational therapist) about Precautions and Contraindications in the yoga practice.

A lot of what they taught is what we at The Yoga Room already do in our Gentle classes: modify the practice. Depending on what a person has going on in their body, we adjust the practice to suit the practitioner. Even still, I learned many new ideas to refine what we already know. And I was very grateful for the opportunity to ask some questions of the panel and hear their recommendations for how we as yoga teachers can create strong relationships with oncologists and other doctors in our area.

In a Nutshell

I think this training was spectacular. Outstanding. Every speaker was top-notch, and every message was on point. If I have to put the overall message in a nutshell, this is it:

Stress (whether due to work, family, disease, medical treatment, or anything else) contributes to disease and can prevent or slow healing.

Mind-Body practices such as yoga and meditation promote health by creating more alpha brain waves and training the brain to continue creating more alpha brain waves.

Increasing the alpha waves reduces stress and increases and ease and relaxation.

The reduction of stress and subsequent increase in ease and relaxation promotes health in the body, which for healthy people means lowering their risk of disease, and for people who are sick means that they create an environment within their bodies that more is conducive to healing.

With regular Mind-Body practices, such as yoga and meditation, cancer patients experience less pain, faster recovery, lower instances of their cancer spreading to a different part of the body, decrease in anxiety and negative emotions, better sleep, and improved memory and cognitive functions (chemo brain).

This is so powerful.

My Conclusion

My personal conclusion from the training is that as yoga teachers and yoga practitioners, we intuitively understand the benefits of yoga. We experience relaxation, mental clarity, improved mood, improved sleep, and more. But the good people at MD Anderson are proving, quantitatively, with their numerous scientific studies that are published in medical journals, the benefits of yoga for cancer patients.

This is so powerful.

Not just for cancer patients, but for everyone. Healthy or sick, we can all benefit from yoga. Yoga for EveryBody.

I love this.

Zelinda Pro 2013 Red Top smallXO, Zelinda






P.S. Please let me know if you'd like any additional information about Yoga for Cancer or anything I learned at MD Anderson. I'd love to hear from you!

How Yoga Can Calm Your Mind

In last week's newsletter I wrote Why Do You Practice Yoga?, and I talked about how the main why reason I practice is because yoga helps me calm my mind. This week I'm sharing thoughts about how to plan and optimize your yoga practice to calm your mind. The first thing to know is that you need to find the right class. If you feel that you have a very active mind, with your thoughts jumping around from thought to thought and distraction to distraction, you need to find a class that provides plenty of movement. If you were to attend a Gentle or Relax & Restore class, the pace would be too slow for you and you'd likely feel agitated and frustrated.

We yoga teachers often say that the beauty of yoga is that it meets you where you're at. That means that there's a type of yoga practice for every need and for every goal.

In the case of a person with an active mind, we meet the student at their present state with an active practice. For beginners, I recommend a Hatha I class. For more experienced yogis or athletic people, I recommend a Heated Hatha or Hatha Flow class.

The student will feel most comfortable in the active class because their mind naturally functions at a more active level. As they become consistent in their practice and are able to improve their focus on breathing and body awareness, they will begin to see that their mind pace will begin to slow. They will begin to feel more calm and peaceful.

If this slower mind pace is the desired goal, they can continue in these active classes. But if they desire even more calmness of mind, I recommend transitioning to a slower-paced practice. From Hatha Flow, transition down to Hatha I, from Hatha I down to Gentle.

Regardless of the class type, if your goal is calming your mind, it's important to train your mind as well as your body during the practice. Throughout class, focus on breathing peacefully. Focus on slow deep inhales and long exhales. Shift your awareness from your thoughts into your body. Deeply observe the sensations your body feels in each pose. What is stretching? What is strengthening? What is lengthening, tilting, twisting? What feels good? What feels bad? Explore your body.

The purpose of all this focusing is that it encourages your brain to think on one topic. It helps your brain slow down. When you practice a challenging balancing pose, you're so focused on not falling down that you don't have space in your brain to think about your work stress or what you're cooking for dinner. You're just "in" your body and your brain is calm.

After consistent, regular yoga practice, if you desire to calm your mind even further, the next step is meditation. I'll talk more about that in the next couple of weeks. Or, consider joining us next month at the Finding Your Superpowers Yoga Retreat :)

Until then, I'd love to hear from you! Please click over to the blog and tell me about your experience with yoga practice and its effect on calming your mind. Also feel welcome ask any questions on this topic.