IF YOU GO
What: Pink ribbon restorative yoga classes
When: 6:15 to 7:15 p.m., Monday, Health Club of Naples, 1865 Veterans Park Drive, Naples
When: 10:15 to 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, 21st Century Oncology’s Lutgert building east, 733 4th Ave. North, Naples
When: 9:30 to 10:30 a.m., Friday, Collier County downtown library, 650 Central Ave., Naples
Information: 290-1153, email@example.com
Breast cancer is a constant presence in their lives. But here, for a time, yoga helps its shadow lift.
In the moments before the yoga class begins, women trickle into the dimly lit room at the library downtown. Two female yoga instructors greet them with hugs and pillows.
Pink Ribbon Restorative Yoga, a yoga program for breast cancer survivors, offers free classes in Naples to women who have had breast cancer — whether they had it years ago, are still in treatment or just had surgery.
“Especially with new patients, we’re working on breaking down scar tissue,” says LiRa Bennett, one of the instructors and the program’s founder. “Breathing is very important. ... Breath work helps them to control the nervous system so they let go of the stress, the anxiety, the panic attacks, all the reactions to what they’re facing. We’re teaching them how to do it themselves.”
The women start seated in folding chairs. Chatter quiets, and the only sounds are the music, breathing and the instructors’ voices. Then, at the direction of the instructors, the women move their arms in time to their breath, stretching them above their heads, to the side and around, slowly. As they move, it’s apparent that some don’t have full range of motion with their arms.
Five of the nine women present had surgery in the last two months.
A happy accident
Bennett began teaching yoga to breast cancer survivors almost by accident, when a woman who had had surgery years before came to her regular classes. Bennett started doing research on how to best help that student, and then more and more survivors started coming to her classes.
She met women who were involved in Bosom Buddies, a support group, and saw a need for survivor-specific classes. Bennett traveled to Houston, Texas, to become certified to teach yoga to breast cancer survivors with an organization called Pink Ribbon Recuperative Yoga, and founded her own charity, Pink Ribbon Restorative Yoga.
When new patients start, they must have their doctors’ permission, and Bennett does an assessment, she explains. Then they are tested periodically to see their progress in muscle balance and range of motion.
Some women hear about the program through Bosom Buddies, and others find out about it through Lynn Hurley, a nurse and breast cancer navigator at NCH Healthcare System.
Hurley works with women at the hospital from the time they are diagnosed through their treatment, and when she mentions the yoga classes to patients they are often surprised to hear that yoga could help them, she says. But then many of them love the idea.
“One of the biggest benefits is just that they feel loved,” Hurley says. “Just having the support of each other, the presence of someone who is going through the same thing. There are so many therapeutic things that yoga does too.”
The yoga program received $4,700 from the Pink Heals tour, a non-profit group of firefighters that travel the country in a pink fire truck to raise money, Bennett says. Last fall, the North Naples Fire District hosted the event in Naples.
It’s important that the program is free, Hurley says. For many women, a breast cancer diagnosis means many medical expenses, so paying for yoga can’t always be a priority.
Energy and relaxation
As the class nears its end, most of the women lie on the mats for relaxation, feet pointing toward the center of the circle. Two women still sit in chairs. Bennett and the other teacher move around the room slowly, distributing blankets and little pillows to cover their eyes. They tell the women to focus their minds on healing, visualizing that every person in the room is “well, whole and happy.”
When it’s over, there are smiles and thank yous all around.
“I’m telling you, it’s so good,” says Laurie May, right after the class ends. “I have never felt this relaxed in the last six months.”
May, 49, has stage four metastatic breast cancer, which means that it has moved into her bones. She’s had chemo, and now she’s on medication. Her joints ache sometimes and she’s tired, but it’s hard to know if it’s the medicine or the cancer, she says. One test came back clean, and she’ll have another one soon.
She’s been participating in the yoga classes for about three weeks, two times a week.
“It just makes me feel very energized and relaxed at the same time,” she says.
In the back of the room, Bennett wraps her arms around a woman wearing a pink head scarf. They hug for a minute, talking softly.
The woman is Nichole Wiman, 51, who has been taking the classes for about a month. She has stage three cancer.
“It has helped me a lot with mental health, physical health, range of motion,” Wiman says. “Plus there’s the camaraderie, the sense of meeting other people who are in the same situation — and sometimes worse situations — who are living full lives.”
This morning she almost didn’t come because she had chemo yesterday, Wiman says. Every time she finishes the class she feels better, she adds.
“Chemo is hell,” she says. “... It’s the closest you feel to death. I went from being a very healthy person working 14 hours a day to barely making it of bed, so classes like this are really a catalyst for mental and physical healing.”