Michelle Stortz on the link between Yoga & Cancer

Meeting Michelle inspired me with her passion and commitment to help people touched by cancer lead healthier lives with yoga. A performance dancer/choreography “by trade,” she studied yoga as part of her dance training in San Francisco, then taught at Ohio State University, and has been practicing yoga since the 1990s. She told me that yoga helped her “find her legs,” making them stronger. Then, in 2006 she became certified as a yoga teacher, taking her training here in Philadelphia at Studio B Yoga, although she has lived in San Francisco, Singapore, Texas, and other cities along the way.

When I asked Michelle why she decided to teach yoga to people with cancer, her answer took me by surprise. She told me that her husband, Jonathan, a software developer, contracted cancer in 2006 and died last year from a bacterial infection following surgery for his cancer. That answered my question about why she is teaching this form of yoga, developed by a nurse by the name of Jnani  (‘wisdom’ in Sanskrit) Chapman, RN. This technique requires special training for certification. Jnani has been teaching this technique for 10 years, but practicing for 20 years. There are three levels: level one is the intensive training; level two is mentorship, and level three is hosting retreats.

What I found most interesting is that 80% of class time for yoga with people with cancer is conducted in a chair, because fatigue, the #1 side effect of cancer treatment, is a given. Additionally, the classes are not only about the physical part of yoga (poses or asanas, as they are called), but also philosophical and psychological stress reduction aspects of this ancient practice. These include: body scanning, breathing, meditation, guided imagery and visualization. The classes also have a component in which the hard science, that is, the physiological benefits behind yoga practices, is discussed.

Michelle emphasized that her classes are geared to promote stress reduction, so she tells the participants that they need to stop when they have reached their limit. Yoga is not about what you can do better than someone else, but rather, what you can do to feel better about your overall health, given limitations. The idea of yoga is also that it joins the body and mind in a holistic connection. (The word yoga means to yoke or unite.)

Currently, she is teaching this form of yoga at The Wellness Community in Philadelphia, where I do natural food workshops for people dealing with cancer. If you have a Wellness Community in your area, you can check with them for classes. Some Wellness Communities have changed their names because they have joined Gilda’s Club, named in honor of Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Gilda dreamed that all people affected by cancer, as well as their families and friends, would have access to the same kind of emotional and social support that she received during her illness. (Taken from the website www.gildasclub.org.)

Michelle’s class at The Wellness Community is on an eight-week cycle that is, as one series ends, the class decides to continue (or not) for another eight weeks.  Michelle is also starting a new class at The Yoga Garden, where I take yoga and where I saw the announcement for Michelle’s class, which started this week. In talking with Michelle, I could feel how passionate and committed she is to help others with cancer.  Her husband’s early death was the springboard for her loving motivation to add this to her dance career. Since I had no idea for the reason behind this special certification to teach yoga for people with cancer, I was very moved by our conversation.

If you know anyone with cancer who would be interested in learning more, Michelle can be reached at: 215-242-1366 or by email at: michelle@ironjon.com.

Just took some pictures  of  “flaming foliage” and thought I would end this posting with one of my favorites!

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