Restorative yoga enters into cancer treatment plans

UCHealth Cancer Center - Harmony Campus now provides patients and their family members free yoga classes to help address stress and inflammation.
May 24th, 2018

Twice a week, Noriko Garofalo arrives at the UCHealth Cancer Center – Harmony Campus. She is there for treatment, but not in the traditional sense. She completed her chemotherapy and radiation in January to fend off Stage II breast cancer. The current visits are different and leave her more alert, relaxed and calm. These visits are for yoga.

“I always look forward to coming here,” Garofalo said after a Friday afternoon class. “Not only is there that friendship and community, but yoga helps me physically, mentally and spiritually.”

Restorative yoga

UCHealth Cancer Center has been providing free, weekly restorative yoga classes for patients for about a year, said Kathleen Michie, UCHealth cancer care program manager for northern Colorado.

“It follows evidence-based practices and was developed based on the needs of our patients,” Michie said.

Yoga classes for cancer

The classes are held Monday mornings and evenings, and Friday afternoons, and are open to UCHealth Cancer Center patients as well as their family members, as space allows.

Studies show that yoga helps with chronic inflammation, a culprit that plagues many cancer patients, said Dr. Gary Goodman, integrative medicine physician with the Cancer Center.

“Part of inflammation in America is related to something you’d probably guess: stress,” he said. “My goal when working with cancer patients is to determine what in their lifestyle might we potentially change so that we lower their inflammation.”

Stress reduction is one of four main topics that Goodman discusses with his patients again and again. The other three are nutrition, exercise and toxin reduction. The Wellness Place at the cancer center does a good job of addressing these four areas, he said. A nutritionist on staff provides wellness and cooking classes. Patients see a physical therapist and are encouraged to participate in other exercise programs. There is also counseling and an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction class — and now, restorative yoga classes.

two women talk, while yoga mats lay on the floor
Kathleen Michie, UCHealth cancer care program manager for northern Colorado, talks with yoga instructor Kathy Rhodes before the start of a Friday afternoon class at the UCHealth Cancer Center in Fort Collins.

Burden-free stress release

Yoga, Michie said, is a great option for those who can’t commit to the eight-week mindfulness program. Restorative yoga is known to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, Goodman explained.

The parasympathetic nervous system is often called the rest and digest system. It’s part of the autonomic nervous system, the area of the vertebrate nervous system that controls actions such as breathing and heart rate. The parasympathetic system conserves energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.

Activating the parasympathetic system is important, Goodman said, because people in Western cultures tend to dwell  in the sympathetic nervous system too often — the flight or fight state of the autonomic nervous system. This results in chronic stress. And that stress causes over-activity of the whole autonomic nervous system and leads to inflammation.

“My recommendation is relaxation 20 minutes a day,” he said. “There are different ways to do that, and restorative yoga is a very effective one.”

Restorative yoga is a relaxing style of yoga intended to heal and nurture the body. Poses, which are often supported by props, allow the body to relax and rest. They are commonly held for up to five minutes and include light twists, seated folds and gentle bends.

“It’s more meditative,” Garofalo explained. “It helps me calm myself and breathe. Without meditation, you forget about breathing, and breathing is good for circulation.”

Foundation support

Through the generosity of its donors, the PVH and MCR Foundation was able to fund the purchase of mats, bolsters and yoga blankets, and also pays for the ongoing instructor fees.

Having the gifts from the foundations allows UCHealth to offer the yoga classes for free.

“We didn’t want to add that extra burden, even if it was just a few dollars,” Michie said.

For Garofalo, who also plays tennis, meditates at home and hits the machines at the gym several times a week, the yoga class is the piece that completes her puzzle. It’s a place, she said, where she feels safe — a protected space to find her peace and calm in a busy and stressful world.