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Jennifer Fremion: Healing the Body, Mind, and Spirit

Jennifer Fremion OriginaljpgThis is an interview with Jennifer Fremion, who works as a chemotherapy infusion nurse as well as a certified yoga teacher in yoga for cancer, Hatha, Vinyasa, Kundalini, and Yoga Psychology. She and Fort Wayne Medical Oncology and Hematology have developed the first medically supported yoga for cancer program in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, area that offers free classes to all cancer patients and survivors.

Says Jennifer so powerfully: “Cancer doesn’t only take over the body. Trauma resides in the body and mind of a person with cancer. Therefore, yoga is an integral component of the treatment of cancer because it addresses not just the physical body, but also the emotional and mental bodies, as well as the spiritual health of the individual.”

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

Our patients are what motivate me. As a chemotherapy nurse I get to know them throughout the course of their treatment. They are the strongest people I know. I see their fear and sadness, and I also see their hope and joy for life. It helps to keep me present within the moments of my own life. Throughout my work as a nurse, I’ve seen how the practice of yoga fits so beautifully as a complementary part of medical treatment. Where medicine falls short, yoga offers support. It’s not a cure-all by any means, but it seems to be the missing piece of the big picture of cancer treatment.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

I’m most rewarded by being told by those who attend yoga for cancer classes how much they love the classes, and that they feel so good afterward. I recently had a student stay after class. She was new to the class and newly diagnosed with breast cancer. She began to cry as she introduced herself to the class and shared her fears of her diagnosis. The entire group supported her in sharing their own stories and extending an offering of hope. After class this student thanked me and said, “I’ve suffered from anxiety my entire life, but now that I’ve got cancer it’s become even worse. This class helped me with that and immediately gave me relief.”

We share our stories, we laugh and we cry in these classes. They go far beyond physical exercise; yoga taps into something so much deeper than that. These teachings work to the deepest level of our human capacity, beyond the traditional treatment regimen and protocol. This is where deep healing occurs.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

They teach me by just being and showing up. These students represent the epitome of strength and courage. They show up in their own lives fully every day. Whether they are nauseated, fatigued, depressed or scared, they show up. They give insight into what it is to live with cancer and to go through treatment. Quite a few of the students in the yoga for cancer classes have stage 4 cancers, and know that there isn’t a “cure” for their disease. And yet they live each moment of their lives to the fullest, because their diagnosis gives them the understanding that there is an end to life. I learn that we don’t know how long we have in this life, and so to make the most of each moment.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people recovering from cancer?

Yoga is an inclusive practice. Our yoga for cancer classes are free and open to all students who are going through cancer treatment or are beyond treatment. Societal factors such as economic status, religion, ethnicity, physical status and education don’t prevent students from experiencing the benefits of practicing yoga. We live, breathe and practice as a collective. We celebrate each other and our unique life’s journey and it is each student’s cancer journey that has brought us all together in the first place. Yoga addresses societal factors by bridging diversity and extending acceptance. Creating union, which is the definition of yoga; union within our own body and mind and in community with each other.

In working with cancer patients, what changes have you noticed in yourself, your thinking or feeling about cancer?

Cancer has become a part of all of our lives. It is something that will touch us all whether it is a friend, family member, or our own personal cancer journey. Working with people going through cancer treatment and cancer recovery, I’ve learned the importance of pausing in life to breathe, even if it is just for a short moment. This offers a sense of peace no matter what it is we are facing. Yoga gives us this very tool, one that teaches us that we can truly be well even in the midst of disease or chaos. My teacher Tari Prinster says it best, “Cancer steals your breath. Yoga gives it back.”

I am so grateful to be working alongside oncologists who understand the immense healing capacity of yoga and cancer. Through our program we are not just focusing on the illness itself. We are able to move beyond that and focus on the overall wellness of each patient and survivor. We can create the space and understanding that we can be well no matter what stage or progression of the disease we face. The practice of yoga teaches us this.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

My hope for the future of yoga for cancer is that the yoga and medical fields can increasingly work together to offer tools to our patients to live life better both during and beyond traditional treatment. I hope yoga will be used more and more as a therapeutically-oriented practice to offer great relief beyond the physical realm. Yoga can fully support our patients’ needs, body, mind, and spirit.

Cited Resources

(1) Yoga For Cancer: A Gude to Managing Side Effects, Boosting Immunity, and Improving Recovery for Cancer Survivors, Healing Arts Press, 2014, p. 278.

(2) Yoga For Cancer, Tari Prinster p. 277.

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Kyla Pearce: Traumatic Brain Injury Healing Through Yoga

kyla-pearce-b-1-featuredThis is an interview with Kyla Pearce, who has been teaching yoga for people with traumatic brain injury (TBI) since May 2014 as part of the LoveYourBrain Foundation’s Yoga Program.

“This program grew out of the need my now husband, Adam Pearce, saw for supporting his brother, Kevin Pearce, and others affected by TBI in their healing process. I vividly remember being at the end of my 200-hour teacher training in Dharamsala, India, and receiving an excited call from Adam—he described how Kevin was increasingly drawn to yoga and meditation, and that he was finding a sense of peace, accomplishment, and vitality that were unavailable elsewhere. He said, “Let’s bring this feeling to everyone with a TBI! Can we? Should we?” Ever since that phone call, we have been working to do just that.”

Some of the common consequences of TBI (e.g., poor balance, memory, concentration, and information processing) are being addressed by a TBI-focused gentle yoga and meditation curriculum based on the key factors that promote resilience. LoveYourBrain programs are now in Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Colorado in an effort to take them nationwide.

Rob: What are the scope and costs of TBI that you are trying to address through your yoga program?

Each year in the US, over 2.5 million people experience a TBI. TBI accounts for 30% of all injury-related deaths, and leads to $76.5 billion in medical costs (CDC, 2016). Tragically, the incidence is growing—the World Health Organization predicts TBI will become the third leading cause of death and disability in the world by 2020 (Popescu, 2015). TBI can lead to a cascade of physical, cognitive, and psychosocial challenges, including impaired coordination, attention, and memory, and heightened anxiety and depression. These challenges predispose people to unemployment, relationship strain, and social isolation that undermine quality of life (CDC, 2015). Despite the variety of poor outcomes, best practices for rehabilitation that effectively support people to meaningfully participate in their community are limited (CDC, 2015).

What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

Initially, my motivation stemmed from the transformation I saw in Kevin from his own practice. After a yoga class, Kev would share that, for the first time in a while, his mind felt calm and he was able to take a break from the race of trying to keep up. I also noticed that he thrived from the agency he felt from engaging with what he deemed was a fitting challenge (be it focusing the mind in meditation or holding a strength-building asana), instead of measuring his progress based on some external benchmark. When he practiced yoga, he no longer felt defined by his injury.

My motivation is reignited each time I witness similar transformations among students in my classes: such as feeling sensations in areas once numb, being able to sleep through the night, connecting with other TBI survivors for the first time since their injury. I am also continuously moved by the energy and enthusiasm of the yoga teachers who participate in our workshops to be able to bring our program to their own communities.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

To counteract the disempowering and isolating nature of TBI, we include three components in our curriculum: asana, meditation, and group discussion. I love the story-sharing and cross-learning in the group discussion, which is where I see relationships being built that will last far longer than our time together on the mat. It is a privilege to be a part of the creation of community. Ultimately, for me, holding space in a way that enables people to find agency, feel accepted and understood, and experience the possibility—instead of the limitations—of their body and mind, is meaningful.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

I’ve developed a deeper understanding of the human potential for resilience. TBI often leads to a lifelong process of adjustments, unlike when you break a bone where you can expect function to eventually return to its original level. TBI requires immense resilience, which my students reflect in myriad ways both in and out of the studio—from showing up to class with a positive attitude despite weakness or light sensitivity that makes movement challenging, to being willing to trust a new teacher when everything else in life feels uncertain, to letting go of resentment about their relationship failing because their partner didn’t understand why they act differently, to finding acceptance for what is, when faced with tumultuous change. I have learned that struggle is our greatest teacher and that strength comes not from how little we feel, but instead from how much we feel.

As a yoga teacher, my students have taught me the true spirit of namaste—that our true selves are all the same, they transcend any injury or trauma, and deserve to be appreciated and acknowledged with compassion. I have learned that all of us, in one way or another, want to feel safe, satisfied, and connected (as coined by Rick Hanson), which is what we are trying to foster in our program.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury?

One of the major issues for the TBI community is the gap in ongoing care following inpatient and rehabilitation services. Great care exists upfront, and then people fall through the cracks when they return home. Because TBI is often an invisible injury, many people are also unaware that someone has TBI, and thus are not as accommodating as they might be. Yoga teachers can therefore offer important community-based rehabilitation, in particular because they support holistic—physical, emotional, social, and spiritual—healing. At its core, yoga is a practice of deep listening to—and honoring of—our inner experience without resisting or grasping. I believe this leads to authentic and compassionate self-expression and to regaining a sense of purpose, which are critical to any healing process.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

In my view, social change originates from a personal experience that reveals something unjust that you can’t sit with. For me, this experience was Kevin’s TBI and, since then, the thousands of stories of others affected by TBI who struggle to regain a sense of wellbeing and wholeness. Mindfulness enables us to become attuned to the reality of our own and others’ challenges, and to act from a place of love and openness. Without mindfulness, it is easier to ignore the facts and maintain the status quo.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

My hope is that yoga service organizations will pursue more rigorous research to evaluate the impact of their programs. If the yoga community can develop evidence-based practices, the medical establishment will be able to acknowledge yoga as a viable healing modality, and increasingly integrate it into the healthcare system. This way, people affected by TBI will experience a more seamless continuum of care, in which they can access ongoing support and actively participate in their community. In the meantime, I hope more yoga studios take on leadership roles in community service, and commit to partnering with LoveYourBrain and other yoga service organizations to make yoga more broadly accessible.

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Yoga and Trauma

By Rob Schware, Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation

Originally published on Gaia.com

Yoga and Trauma

The benefits of a yoga practice include building flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and concentration. However, a regular yoga practice can help anyone dealing with the stress of facing military deployment, being homeless, being in prison or recovering from alcohol and substance abuse.

It is tempting for me to write a book about each of these worthy people. Instead, over the past four years, I’ve interviewed many of them for a Huffington Post blog series called Yoga: How We Serve.

In their interviews, these women and men shared the unique needs of survivors of trauma, lessons learned in doing this work and how existing resources and treatments generally do not adequately address the needs of these populations. Here is just one of many extraordinary comments from a Vietnam War veteran in a program called Mindful Yoga Therapy:

 

“As I started to practice daily, I noticed several things happening. First, I began to sleep better. Next, I was getting to know myself, for the first time ever. Slowly I came off all of my psych meds. That was big! For the first time in over 40 years, I was medication free. Over the years, I’ve been on over 23 different kinds of medications, from Ativan to Xanax! Yoga is now my therapy.”

Vietnam War Veteran

This veteran went on to say he hopes that Yoga will someday be offered to all veterans, and offered to our troops during basic training.

I very much share this hope, because the costs of treating trauma — whether it occurred 40 years ago, or in the past decade –have become a major concern in our society. According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, the economic burden of trauma is more than $585 billion annually in the U.S., including both health care costs and lost productivity.

The CDC also measures “Life Years Lost,” used to account for the age at which deaths occur, which gives greater weight to deaths occurring at younger ages and lower weights to deaths that occur at older ages. It turns out that the impact on life-years lost from trauma is equal to the life-years lost from cancer, heart disease, and HIV combined.

Statistics can’t say much about the personal burdens of individuals and families, of how individual sufferers are impacted, but it’s still instructive to mention one or two more here. For instance, there is an average of 293,066 Victims Of Sexual Assault Or Rape each year in the US, with someone in the United States being sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. And roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day from the effects of PTS symptoms, one every 65 minutes.

WHAT IS TRAUMA?

The word “trauma” comes from the Greek, and means “a wound” resulting from an emotional or psychological injury or experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems, usually for a long time. According to Bessel Van Der Kolk:

“Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds…The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives.”

YOGA FOR RECOVERY

The lives of many trauma survivors revolve around coping with the constant sense of danger they feel in their bodies. It is typically difficult for them to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. As Yoga Of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR) founder Nikki Myers puts it, “Sustainable addiction recovery is about more than the mind…the issues live in our tissues.”

Y12SR is a rich framework for integrating the wisdom of yoga and the practical tools of 12-step programs, with Y12SR meetings available nationwide, and the curriculum quickly becoming a feature of addiction recovery treatment centers across the United States.

SEXUAL ASSAULT

Yoga helps one reconnect with the body, giving the opportunity to discharge accumulated stress and anxiety, and restoring the human organism to safety. Sabrina Seronello’s story paints this picture: she was on active duty in the Air Force from March 2000-March 2006, working as a medic in the emergency department of a Level 1 trauma center at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB. Sabrina deployed to Iraq in January 2005 to the Air Force Theater Hospital, a Level III (injured patients and emergency operations) trauma center. Given what she saw and experienced taking care of the wounded in Iraq, and being a victim of sexual assault while in active duty, she had been suffering anxiety and panic attacks. Upon returning from Iraq she was introduced to yoga and saw how it helped her deal with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. In 2013 she started teaching a regular weekly yoga class to incarcerated veterans at San Quentin State Prison in CA under the Prison Yoga Project.

Trauma-sensitive yoga programs are becoming more available at domestic violence shelters, and universities are offering them for survivors of sexual assault. Caitlin Lanier was sexually assaulted during her freshman year of college. This assault led to issues with anorexia, cutting and otherwise trying to numb her uncomfortable feelings. According to Caitlin:

“Those were just outward manifestations. Inside, I felt broken, ugly, lost, like I couldn’t trust anyone, and so sad.”

Caitlin has recently pioneered several trauma-sensitive yoga programs in the Boise, Idaho, area, including at a domestic violence shelter, and at Boise State and the College of Idaho. She also trains local yoga teachers on the neuroscience of trauma and how to integrate trauma-sensitive practices into their teaching. She has woven breathing techniques and mindfulness into a weekly support group for survivors of domestic violence that she co-leads with a licensed clinical social worker.

COMBAT-RELATED PTS

People with post-traumatic stress (PTS) who practice yoga report better sleep, improved focus and concentration, less anger and irritability, and exhibit an overall greater ability to enjoy life in the present moment. The Mindful Yoga Therapy program has been found to be especially helpful for veterans who are also participating in evidence-based psychotherapy for PTS.

“Yoga is like a gyro that brings me back into equilibrium when dealing with the effects of my disorder,” says Paul, a Vietnam War veteran.

YOGA FOR PRISONERS

Breath work, three extended exhales, is part and parcel of the Prison Yoga Project protocol for addressing symptoms of un-discharged traumatic stress, according to James Fox, Founder and Director. “The extended exhale serves as the body’s built-in release valve to discharge stress and anxiety,” he says. This is confirmed from current and former prisoners at San Quentin State Prison who have been part of the yoga program.

“It was mainly because of the inner peace and trust that I have developed and nurtured through my yoga practice that I was able to respond to a confrontational situation with calm.”—B.B.

“I’m able to stay grounded by getting into my breathing which takes my focus off stressful, traumatic events such as flashbacks. It keeps me mindful mentally and physically and enhances my self control.” –D.B.

YOGA & EATING DISORDERS

Finally, yoga can become a game-changer in combatting eating disorders. An estimated 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating). Chelsea Roff took her first yoga class at the suggestion of a therapist just a few months after getting out of the hospital for eating disorder treatment.

“The short story is that yoga brought me to a place in my recovery that no form of talk therapy or medical treatment ever had before. Downward dog certainly didn’t cure my eating disorder, but the practice did teach me how to relate to my body in a more compassionate way. And more importantly, perhaps, going to yoga introduced me to community–to the people I soon came to consider family – and I suppose that’s exactly what I needed to fully step into recovery,” she says.

HEALTH CARE COSTS

What if the over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys who use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives, were offered regular yoga classes? Regular trauma-sensitive yoga classes for victims of trauma can help reduce our nation’s health care costs on a larger scale, as they address cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated with trauma. But a cultural change is required to make this happen. The current system is broken, because it overly relies on medical therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are very costly without commensurate relief from symptoms.

According to Kantar Media, the heath care industry spent $14 billion on advertising alone in 2014, enough to fund over 215,000 trauma sensitive yoga classes. Especially for PTS, mainstream therapies have resulted in patients remaining significantly symptomatic after treatment, with additional problems including addiction, difficulties maintaining work, and homelessness.

The results are adding up to a national calamity that leaves human lives in ruins, particularly for men and women who have risked their lives to serve our country and need our help. According the Congressional Budget Office’s report on PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury among recent combat veterans, the average cost of treatment in the first year is $8,300 per patient and $4,100 in the following years. The average cost of treating an eating disorder is $1,250 per day, and only 1 in 10 sufferers ever receive treatment. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Such treatment is expensive not only for patients, but for insurance companies, and society at large.

 


FURTHER READING

The evidence base for the effectiveness of yoga in addressing trauma is extensive. Here are some resources for further reading:

The Body Keeps The Score: Memory and Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress – the textbook on trauma and body-mind practices by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

 Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper

The Trauma Toolkit: Healing PTSD From The Inside Out by Susan Pease Banitt

Intelligence In The Flesh by Guy Claxton