by Cathy Murillo
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
After a recent yoga workshop, Bob Gonzalez sat on the bamboo-decked patio of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center. His face was glowing, a smile rippled across his lips. A hefty, middle-aged man with a bad back and arthritis in his shoulder, Gonzalez was marveling at his yoga experience. He had been able to sit on the floor, relax into various positions, and stretch in ways that unknotted muscles and released tension.
He felt better than he had in years. Most important, he was looking forward to playing with his 15-month-old granddaughter, who spends much of her day crawling on the carpeted floor. She was the reason he sought out yoga teacher Cheri Clampett’s Therapeutic Yoga class. “Now I know I can do it,” said Gonzalez, breathing deeply. “This was incredible.”
Instructor Cheri Clampett offers “healing” yoga classes that focus on meditation and stretching positions rather than athletic moves.
Gonzales is just the kind of person Clampett would like to reach with her style of “healing” yoga. Many people incorrectly believe that yoga is an activity for the young and limber. Therapeutic yoga is not athletic. Rather, practitioners are helped into resting and stretching positions, propped up by pillows and blankets. Soft music is playing and the instructor gives suggestions about “sinking deeper” and “letting go.” Postures are held for several minutes to allow joints and muscles to move gently or relax. And teachers will do pleasing hands-on adjustments; for instance, pressing on a shoulder to help “open” it up.
Students are instructed to meditate on parts of the body that need help and healing. It’s a time to connect with the body and be focused in the moment. Students are urged to keep their minds from wandering, from worrying about things outside the elegant walls of the yoga studio.
Clampett’s classes are a respite from life’s challenges, and they offer a path to wellness for everyone. Some who attend are generally healthy, but they work on a computer for several hours a day and need a physical counterbalance. Some, like Gonzalez, are hoping for relief from the ravages of age or injury. Others come to fight cancer or other life-threatening disease.
There are a few ways to plug into Clampett’s healing movement. Through the Santa Barbara Yoga Center, she teaches a twice-weekly class and conducts a special two-and-a-half hour workshop monthly. And she’s just published a book, The Therapeutic Yoga Kit, with yin yoga specialist Biff Mithoefer. The kit includes an audio CD and flash cards demonstrating therapeutic asanas, or positions. She also leads classes at the Santa Barbara Cancer Center.
The workshop is an event. Everything is set up for the student in the beautiful large studio at the yoga center. Neat rows of mats, blankets, and props are ready on the clean hardwood floor. A light breeze comes through the stained-glass windows, and a Buddha sculpture presides serenely over the scene.
Adding a special touch is live music by Jack Lee. His keyboard, strings, and chimes support and complement Clampett’s soothing voice. Clampett has an assistant teacher who helps her make sure that neck supports are just right, that arms are extended just so, and that props are being used correctly. Throughout the session, each student receives one-on-one adjustment and guidance.
The first pose is a simple reclining posture with the student lying on her back with a pillow or bolster under her knees. The upper back and neck are supported in a way specific to each individual’s needs. That’s the first 10-15 minutes of class, and it’s exactly what a tired body craves.
Other postures are just as accessible, but they may include some stretching or gentle twisting. For people who’ve never done relaxation exercises, the effects of one workshop can feel like a good night’s sleep or the all-over release of body tension. Certainly, the experience awakens students to the fact that they don’t practice what Clampett calls “the sacred act of rest.”
“I’m teaching people to listen and connect with their bodies,” said Clampett, who is known nationally and internationally for her work. “We live in a crazy, busy time. People don’t stop in the middle of the day to ask, ‘How do I feel?’ Maybe you need to lie down. The body is a fine instrument. If you aren’t listening to it, you won’t know if the strings are too tight.”
A mind-body connection is what started Clampett on her path. She was in a yoga class when she became aware that something was seriously wrong in her body. The sharp pain she had been attributing to indigestion was revealed as something needing medical attention. A prompt visit to the doctor resulted in a diagnosis of cancer.
Clampett underwent surgery and treatment, but found herself intuitively seeking additional healing. She became a yoga teacher, then specialized in restorative yoga. Finally, all the tenets of therapeutic yoga came together for her: curative techniques combined with gentle yoga, all supported by breath work, guided meditation, and hands-on healing.
Ten years ago, Clampett helped develop a yoga program for patients at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara. Participants are introduced to yoga principles sl owly as many are in pain, have mobility issues, and are usually fearful of yoga itself. But once they embrace yoga, patients experience positive results.
“I can tell you empirically it’s been a huge gift to our patients,” said Fred Kass, director of research and wellness at the Cancer Center. A wide variety of studies have demonstrated stress reduction and exercise as a way to facilitate healing, but Kass is careful not to “trivialize” yoga as simple exercise. “It is not only movement, but movement carefully worked out by practitioners over generations. These particular movements have great value.”
The huge emphasis on breathing helps cancer patients, as does improving the ability to focus, Kass believes. Holding a yoga pose requires a special kind of concentration and consciousness. And creating a personal yoga practice also gives people the confidence to break through fears. Patients learn they can meet challenges. “That’s indescribably important,” he said.
Together with yoga therapist Arturo Peal, Clampett teaches healthcare professionals how to use yoga for healing. They’ve trained staff at the Cancer Center, but also Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care, among other programs. Indeed, yoga is being accepted as a valuable tool in the world of medicine. Last year, the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing published an article training nurses on integrating yoga into cancer care. It read, in part: “Yoga practice may assist cancer survivors in managing symptoms such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, pain, and fatigue.”
Do It Yourself
The Therapeutic Yoga Kit, co-created with Biff Mithoefer, includes an easy-to-read book with photographs showing the healing postures. For readers who want medical or physiological information, there are sections describing body organs and function, energy meridians, and physical ailments relieved by yoga. Others will appreciate discussions about concepts such as acceptance, anger release, fear of aging, and self-care. And there’s a chapter for pregnant women.
“The kit is for everyone,” Clampett said. “It’s something that an elderly person could pick up and start practicing.”
An audio CD titled Pure Rejuvenation offers transformational music and the voices of both Clampett and Mithoefer give instruction on various poses, as well as bits of enlightening philosophy. The audio session closes with a 16-minute guided meditation, “Your Body as a Healing Garden.”
Practicing the postures using the CD is especially sweet, as it seems Clampett’s instructions are delivered only to the listener. As for the meditations, Mithoefer offers these words: “We are the mirror as well as the face in it. We are tasting the taste this minute of eternity. We are pain and what cures pain. We are the sweet cold water and the jug that holds it.”