By Emily J. Weitz
Urban Zen is a foundation begun by Donna Karan whose mission is to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of well-being, preserving cultures and empowering children. One of the ongoing efforts of the Urban Zen Foundation is their committed work in Haiti. Next month, another group of local Urban Zen Integrative Therapists will travel to Haiti to bring their healing efforts there.
The Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program, created by Sag Harbor residents Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman, is a specific healing methodology that includes Restorative Yoga, Reiki, Aromatherapy, Nutrition, and Contemplative Care — learning to be a companion or a witness. These techniques are designed to help with the most common problems associated with trauma: pain, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, constipation (PANIC).
“Doing these things together is exponential in its effect,” says Yee.
“They dovetail amazingly well together,” adds Saidman. “You do the bodywork to get rid of agitation, then get the patient into a restorative pose, then do reiki and essential oils. We didn’t know how well they worked layered on top of each other… When we did it in the training and all the modalities came together at the same time, Rodney and I looked at each other and we knew it was something pretty magical.”
The idea behind each of these healing techniques is to rebalance the system. If the body is in balance, it will heal itself more efficiently.
“It’s a holistic system,” says Janera Soerel, an Urban Zen Integrative Therapist who has spent time in Haiti. “It’s very restorative. We usually start with yoga, to stimulate circulation. After a little movement, we place the person in a restorative pose to relax or energize [depending on their needs].”
Soerel says forward bends, like child’s pose, with the forehead on the floor, are calming, while backbends, like supported bridge, are energizing. Once the patient is in a comfortable restorative pose, the practitioner will integrate essential oils.
“If we have someone who is depressed, we use an oil like peppermint for energizing,” Soerel explains. “If we have someone who needs to be calmed down, we use a soothing oil like lavender.”
Once the oils have been applied, the therapists will do Reiki healing techniques, which is a laying on of hands.
“By placing the hands on specific points on the body, we can help balance the system,” she says.
Contemplative care is a specific modality in which therapists learn how to be with patients as they go through the reality of their illnesses and treatments.
“It’s just about being with them in the situation that they are in,” says Soerel. “We are trained by different teachers, like monks, about holding the space to allow the patient to experience whatever they are going through. It’s in the line of the Buddhist tradition of being mindful and present in the moment, allowing the reality to be as it is.”
The nutrition aspect of the UZIT training is very much about self-care. As they are not nutritionists, Soerel says they do not coach their patients on what to eat. Rather, they use their understanding of food as medicine to take care of themselves.
Eric Pettigrew, a local yoga teacher, homeopathist, and Urban Zen Integrative Therapist, traveled to Haiti with the Urban Zen program a few months back.
“We were so well taken care of,” he says. “We shared a clean tent, where they changed the sheets every two days. The food was awesome. We were very well received.”
The days began early in the morning with an hour-long class that incorporated the five modalities. Most of the students were doctors and nurses.
“The most profound work we do there is helping the core: the nurses and doctors who are exhausted,” says Pettigrew. “They work 12-hour shifts and maybe one day off in the week. They are performing surgery after surgery… They were so happy to take the time off to come and work with us for an hour.”
After the morning class, though, Pettigrew’s group headed to St. Damien Hospital, where they worked directly with patients.
“When the people at the hospital saw the maturity of our group (we were all in our 40s), they invited us to work in the emergency room. We did one-on-one movements, bedside, with patients, helping people who had just arrived at the emergency room.”
Pettigrew was in Haiti for about a week, and his daily life consisted not only of working with people but living with them.
“The tent was close to the maternity wards,” he recalls. “So you could hear babies crying nearly 24 hours a day… And there was a chapel right next to our tent. Every morning there was a mass at 7 a.m. And every morning there were corpses wrapped in plastic or cloth. Not too many people were there. With the priest we might have been five or six people in the church. Sometimes there were family members of the corpse, but rarely. Starting the day like this, coffee and then mass, kneeling around the corpses piled up in the middle of the floor. On a daily basis it was a reminder for me of the circle of life and death.”
This juxtaposition of life and death is something Pettigrew got used to as the days wore on.
“At first it was shocking,” he says. “But by the end of the week it’s just, there’s the corpse and there’s the baby crying. It’s a reminder of dying and living and birthing. That was quite transformative.”
The upcoming trip to Haiti is part of the UZIT training – students need to finish their clinical hours, and they can either work in Haiti, at Southampton Hospital, or at Beth Israel in the city. To learn more about the UZIT program or other work that Urban Zen does around the world, check out www.urbanzen.org.
There are a number of ways to get involved with the efforts of Urban Zen. At the Sag Harbor shop, all proceeds go to the foundation. Every Sunday at Yoga Shanti, there is an Urban Zen class that’s open to the public. To learn about the training itself, go to the Urban Zen web site at www.urbanzen.org and click on Well-Being.