Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Interview with Nanci Winterhalter on Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors

Nanci Winterhalter responded to our call for interviewees and what follows is our discussion about the important yoga for breast cancer survivors classes that she teaches.

Priya: Tell us a bit about your yoga training and experience teaching yoga.

Nanci: My yoga training was at Maha Yoga in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, with a wonderful teacher, Diane Lagadec, from 2015-2017. I am now studying to be a yoga therapist at the Himalayan Institute.

In 1987, I graduated from Columbia University as a physical therapist and have been practicing PT for over 30 years. My PT training, yoga training has guided my transition into teaching yoga to people who may not feel they could fit into a “regular” yoga class. For example, I teach Yoga for people with Parkinson’s, Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors, Senior Yoga, Chair Yoga, Yoga for Baby Boomers (and their friends), Yoga for adults who attend an urban medical day care program, and a series called Happy Posture/Healthy Bones for people with low bone density issues.

Most of my classes are offered at my local Council on Aging's Multi Purpose Center so they are very low cost or sometimes free (grant funded). I also teach on a rotating basis at a community program offered free by the New Bedford Wellness Initiative at The New Bedford Boys and Girls Club. That’s a lot of yoga! I consider myself privileged to share this ancient practice to anyone who is interested!

Priya: You've been working with diverse populations and I'm particularly interested in your experience teaching breast cancer survivors. How did you get started with that?

Nanci: Like so many people, my family’s life has been personally touched by cancer. Also, as a physical therapist working for a home health agency, I had the opportunity to work with many people living with cancer over the years. Dealing with the conditions and the treatments is so challenging and I could see how simple movements, breathing exercises, and relaxation from yoga could be so powerful. I started to bring the wonderful practices of yoga into our sessions and the clients embraced it.

In 2018, I decided to study with Tari Prinster to become certified as a Y4C (Yoga for Cancer) teacher. When I came home, I was discussing the training with the owner of a lovely studio nearby and she had recently lost her best friend to breast cancer. She offered me the use of the studio for a weekly class and it has been going ever since. It’s been a great experience and one of the best things about it is the community it provides---where people can feel comfortable and share their journey with others who understand.

Priya: Can you share with us some of the specific poses, language, or techniques that you use in classes for breast cancer survivors, and please explain why they are appropriate for this practice?

Nanci: Tari’s Yoga for Cancer is a specialized yoga methodology that is tailored to address the specific physical and emotional needs left by cancer and its treatments. Tari’s philosophy is that “true compassion comes through knowledge and understanding.” To help survivors heal as a “whole person,” this methodology seeks to strengthen all systems of the body through the use of gravity, movement, compression, and restriction, resistance, and relaxation. Carefully selected and utilized practices of yoga can do just that. For example, the use of mindful breathing and restorative poses, such as restorative Cobbler, can be used to reduce the anxiety, fear, and stress that come with a cancer diagnosis and its treatments.

Students may benefit from carefully selected supported inversions which use the effect of gravity to assist the flow of lymph from the legs. The use of a person’s body weight as resistance in carefully selected asanas, such as Chair pose with hands on hips or Warrior 2, can safely build muscle and bone strength over time without harmful pressure on weakened areas of the body.

Yoga can make movement easier in a slow and gentle fashion as students learn about their own bodies and the healing process, as well as enhance immunity and promote general wellness. Through the practice within the group of people with similar concerns, students find community. Tari’s program utilizes a vinyasa style of yoga, linking movement with breath and using props to make poses and transitions safe and accessible. Though the class I currently teach is for survivors of breast cancer, the Y4C methodology could be utilized for a person with any type of cancer.

Priya: Before we end the interview, is there anything else you'd like to share with us about working with students who have survived cancer?

Nanci: Working with students who have survived cancer is very challenging and gratifying. The whole person must be considered during different phases of each student's personal journey. As a teacher, you have to stay on your toes…carefully attending to your students as their condition and spirit changes. From a knowledge perspective, you have to remain a student yourself and stay up to date on the various treatments while offering mindful modifications to the practice.

These changes include fluctuations in strength and energy, edema issues, soft tissue restrictions related to treatments, bone density and balance changes, pain issues as well as the significant psycho-emotional-spiritual challenges that a cancer diagnosis, its treatments, and its uncertainties can pose.

The community that forms within the class can be very powerful as well as the one-to-one support fellow students provide for each other. I feel privileged to combine the ancient practice of yoga supported by the knowledge of working with people with a cancer diagnosis in this unique yoga for cancer class.

Nanci Winterhalter has an MS in Physical Therapy from Columbia University, New York and practiced as a PT in acute care hospital, rehabilitation hospital, and then home-care until 2017. Her yoga training includes a 200-hour yoga teacher training at Maha Yoga Center and a yoga for cancer certification with Tari Prinster. In 2019, she began a 800-hour yoga therapy certification program (IAYT) at the Himalayan Institute. She has been teaching since 2017, including: Yoga for Baby Boomers and Friends, Strong and Steady (a class for people with balance issues), Chair Yoga for Seniors, Yoga for People with Parkinson’s, yoga for people with various chronic conditions, Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors, and Happy Posture/Healthy Bones (for people with low bone density).

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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