Jill Ciccarello’s sister died of cancer. Lorrie Stonehocker’s husband is still battling cancer that has caused him to lose organs, including part of his stomach, as the chemo is shutting down his kidneys.
Yet these cancer nightmares have inspired both Spokane women to help other cancer patients through yoga – the ancient practice that encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual.
“It’s not the up, down, chaturanga,” Ciccarello said, referencing the plank-like pose similar to a push up that takes lots of core and upper body strength. “This is more specific to the kind of things that can help them in recovery. And it’s mental and spiritual.”
The classes that Ciccarello teaches for Cancer Care Northwest promote a comfortable, honorable and respectful environment – a safe place where patients can come wherever they are in treatment and no matter their strength or appearance. Caregivers are also welcome. She reiterates that yoga is not a religious practice.
The same focus is true for Stonehocker – a well-known instructor to the older adults who partake in the Act 2 classes through the Community Colleges of Spokane. Just this month she started teaching yoga for cancer patients at Harmony Yoga North. In April, she will teach another yoga class for cancer patients through Act 2.
The gentle yoga classes focus on breathing, meditation and stretching, all with specialized knowledge of how to accommodate patients with fatigue, pain, lymphedema and other cancer-related discomfort.
Stonehocker was so drawn to the healing power of yoga and meditation that she took a five-day course in Minnesota this spring while her husband was gravely ill. Although radical, she knows it was the right decision, and her husband was fully supportive.
“It’s so healing and restful,” she said. “I don’t think there is anybody that yoga can’t help.”
One of the first patients to attend her yoga class has brain cancer. She attended earlier this month telling Stonehocker that she just needed to get her “breath under control.”
“She said she felt calm when she left,” Stonehocker said. “She said she felt invigorated but also calm and relaxed at the same time. I just feel so strongly about yoga helping people.”
Ciccarello’s sister, Leslee, died nearly four years ago. The two regularly did yoga together at home even when her sister wasn’t up to much activity. It helped them both.
“When my sister died, I felt like I had to pay it forward, I guess,” Ciccarello said.
So eventually she got her yoga certification and once she taught enough classes, she approached Cancer Care Northwest with her idea to teach yoga to cancer patients. She volunteers her services.
She said the doctors are “100 percent on board with yoga.”
“It wasn’t even a question,” she said. “They said yes the very second I proposed it.”
The classes filled the first week. Now she’s teaching four classes a week in addition to a few other yoga classes at other gyms and her full-time job.
Cancer Care Northwest Clinic Manager Jean Galovin said the doctors embrace and recommend yoga to their patients.
“They know the importance of exercise and not only the body but the emotional and spiritual side of recovery,” Galovin said. “It’s really good for their balance and really good for their self-esteem.”
Ciccarello said cancer patients are always told to eat well and exercise, but those simple-seeming tasks aren’t always so easy.
“When your head is bald and you have a port hanging out of your chest you don’t really want to roll into a gym and get on a treadmill and have everybody staring at you,” she said. “This is a comfortable place.”
On a recent Thursday, a dozen cancer patients spread out in the spacious Training Ground, a converted schoolhouse on the edge of snowy fields at the corner of 37th Avenue and Fancher Road. The winter sun fills the studio with beautiful natural light. Nobody would know that the majority of the students have cancer or are in recovery. The owners donate the space for the Cancer Care Northwest classes.
Ciccarello’s voice is calm and confident as she guides the students through the stretches and breaths.
“Let’s take a deep breath,” she said. “Ribs expanded. Good.”
She moves on to a stretch on the floor resembling a three-legged dog. She gently reminds the class that nobody has to do the stretch that can challenge the core and balance. Some of the students opt to do the restful child’s pose that allows them to rest their forehead on the floor.
Judith VanBockern, a breast cancer survivor, said Ciccarello’s classes have healing benefits “from the inside out.” Besides strengthening her muscles and helping her regain body control, VanBockern said yoga brought a great sense of body awareness that she had never had before.
“It was very, very internally healing in the sense of awareness of what going on in my body and relating to world changes,” she said. “I have such deep gratitude.”
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