Monday, September 9, 2019

Interview with Molly Lannon Kenny: Yoga for End of Life

Molly Lannon Kenny responded to Accessible Yoga blog's call for interviewees and what follows our discussion about the important work that Molly does with end-of-life students.

Priya​: Tell us a bit about yourself and your yoga training.

Molly​: I was born and raised in New Jersey to a quintessential Irish Catholic family that deeply valued service, collective care, civic duty, and solidarity with the marginalized. I took my first yoga class in 1987, but when I look back at my journal notes from that time, the class had no asana at all, it was only an exploration of the "divine spark" and our interconnectedness through God’s presence. It was only in 1995 or thereabouts that I took my first hatha yoga class, an ashtanga class offered at a gym. I was instantly hooked. During that same time, I was playing in rock bands and getting my Master's in Speech Pathology. I was an independent studier and never took a formal yoga training. As the years passed, I had the opportunities to study with Richard Miller, Rod Stryker, Joseph LePage, but also Ram Dass, and most recently completed a two-year program in Christian mysticism with Richard Rohr.

Priya​: ​You've been working with diverse populations and I'm particularly interested in your experience teaching end of life care. How did you get started with that?

Molly​: Around 2002 or 2003, I started offering a class called "Life after Loss" at The Samarya Center, ​the non-profit yoga center I started in Seattle, Washington. That class was designed as an opportunity for students to explore yoga as a pathway to healing from bereavement back into an experience of wholeness. After some time teaching that class, which was always packed, my teaching partner at the time said, “If we are going to work with grief, we should work directly with the people they are losing,” and just like that, we started a new program. We approached the Bailey Boushay House, which is a residential care facility in Seattle for people with serious illness and at the end of life, and talked about what we wanted to offer.

The volunteer coordinator told us that he had been approached before by folks who wanted to offer yoga, but he was rightly concerned about things like medical fragility, confidentiality, and scope of practice. Because we were clinicians first, myself as a speech pathologist and my teaching partner as a clinical social worker and both having worked extensively in conventional medical settings, he agreed to let us develop our program. It is actually still running in Seattle. During that time, I also began to work with friends and neighbors who had loved ones who were dying and continued to gain experience and insight. It was last October taking care of my sister as she died that really gave me the greatest perspective and ability to truly understand the depth of what people were going through. I really thought I knew, ​I really thought I had been present and compassionate with people in bereavement or at end of life, but it wasn’t until I was in it myself that I realized how many little details there are, how many unknown and unexpected needs there are, certain words and phrases that are so specific and so helpful, even the profundity of the grief experience itself. I still believe I was present, and I still believe I was compassionate, but my understanding and capacity has evolved immeasurably having walked through this experience myself with someone who was so precious to me.

This has now become one of my primary areas of focus. Back in the early 2000’s, people weren’t talking about end of life care in this way, we didn’t have the term “Death Doula” or at least I wasn’t aware of it and I was deep in that work. Now everywhere I go, I hear people talking about wanting to be present to this phase of life. I am so honored and feel both passionate and confident in my ability to share practical information, skills, and techniques as well as to express the need for profound and committed self-study. I have come to truly understand that, regardless of what “skills” you have, without doing the work to know who YOU are, what your faith is, what your beliefs are, what agenda you might bring, even unconsciously, you won’t be the true wisdom presence that is really needed in this sacred time.

Priya:​ Can you share with us some of the techniques that you use for end of life students, and please explain why they are appropriate for this practice?

Molly​: Sure. I think of them being in three distinct categories: 1) self-study, 2) movement and breath, and 3) contemplative tradition. I will start with movement and breath since that is what most people think of when they think of Bedside Yoga. We can definitely offer gentle stretching and movement depending on where the person is physically––how they are feeling, what their nausea levels are, etc. But we also do a lot of passive stretching, or basic Thai Yoga. I have been told over and over that gentle, rhythmic compressions to the body are the number one most useful hands-on technique for moving energy and decreasing pain and neuropathy.

We might also explore breath in different ways, usually something very simple like just paying attention to the breath or extending the inhales and exhales. We also talk about breath as spirit––as it is referenced in the Bhagavad Gita, in the Sutras, and in the Bible. The thing to remember here, in my opinion, is to not just give “pranayamas” and suggest that they will be helpful, but rather to explore, in partnership, the person’s relationship to breath.

Techniques from various contemplative traditions might include: from yoga, an understanding of the koshas and how a person can relate to each one in the exact place where they are now; from the Christian mystic tradition practices like Lectio Divina; and from earth-based or indigenous traditions, we might include altar-making and creating specific rituals to connect to the natural world.

And then, above all, is the self-study of the Bedside Yoga practitioner. This includes a courageous inventory of our own fears, our own views on death and dying, our own experience with grieving and end of life, and our own ability to truly act as a wisdom presence.

Priya: Before we end the interview, is there anything else about working with end-of-life students that you'd like to share with us?

Molly​: Oh so much! But I guess the two last things I would offer are that: 1. End of life looks very different for different people. Some people are up and relatively active until their last day, others have been in bed for weeks, some people are at peace, others are afraid and looking for you to reassure them. We can’t have any agenda about what we want to do or what we think people “should” be doing. This is a deeply sacred time in which we are being honored by having our presence be invited. Use this honor well and don’t squander it by trying to “do” or “accomplish” anything with the person. Release your ego from any involvement with your efforts.

2. If we think of yoga as being a practice of connection, to ask ourselves in every session, or even every moment, what can I do now that will encourage this sense of connection? Sometimes that means tidying a person’s room, sometimes it means changing their nail polish, sometimes it means cleaning out the fridge and labeling everything in there. In other words, allow yourself to flow with what is happening and what the needs are. There is your connection. There is your yoga.

Molly Lannon Kenny has been teaching radically inclusive yoga for over twenty years. She has started countless outreach programs in a variety of settings including end of life care, trauma recovery, homeless and transitional shelters and intensive care hospital units. She has served on the boards of IAYT and YSC and has been published multiple times in various yoga oriented journals and popular press. Her current areas of interest are teaching Bedside Yoga retreats, as well as comparative spirituality and religion. She is a graduate of the Living School with Richard Rohr. Molly lives full time at her home in the jungles of Mexico. Bedside Yoga––Yoga and End of Life Training Retreat

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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