By Emily J. Weitz
Every two weeks in Sag Harbor, people fighting the battle of their lives join together to practice yoga. Teacher Eric Pettigrew does not believe that cancer should be treated like a death sentence, and his goal is to empower students and survivors to be their most vibrant, even in the face of illness.
Pettigrew, a homeopathic doctor and yoga teacher, trained as a teacher for cancer survivors through Om Yoga Center in New York a few years ago.
“As a homeopathic doctor, I have patients who come to me with cancer because they feel they have nothing else,” he says. “They have no hope and they’re ready to try anything. I am here to listen, and to make people feel more at ease with the condition. It’s not good news, but there are options in terms of how you live your life.”
There is a host of reasons that yoga is beneficial for people dealing with cancer, whether they are the patients themselves or the caregivers.
“Yoga and breath awareness are not just exercises,” says Pettigrew. “I present them as tools in your healing journey.”
Two of the most profound benefits of yoga for those dealing with cancer are the increased lymphatic flow and the strengthening of bone density.
“Any movement increases lymphatic flow,” says Pettigrew. “This is crucial in cancer healing. The lymphatic system is very compromised, especially with the removal of lymph tissue. We’ll do lots of movements up and down, pumping the legs and arms to stimulate the movement of lymph.”
Chemotherapy has been proven to decrease bone density, and it can bring on early osteoporosis, Pettigrew explains.
“By doing yoga and weight bearing,” he says, “you are stimulating the bone cells to regenerate.” He’ll bring students to a wall or chair for support if necessary, and then will instruct them to hold balancing poses like Tree Pose for many breaths.
These physical poses represent the asana aspect of the yoga practice. Pettigrew believes that movements like these are essential because it’s empowering for patients to feel like they have some control in this illness, which takes so much out of their hands.
But even more transformational, Pettigrew has found, is the breath work.
“Breath awareness is at the top of the list for dealing with the anxiety that comes with this diagnosis,” he says. “We get so caught up and we forget to slow down and observe the movement of the belly, the weight of the head on the floor. It helps them from getting too overwhelmed with what’s happening around.”
Cancer patients are not the only ones who suffer from the treatment process. Caregivers, whether they’re spouses, children, doctors, or nurses, usually need a strong reminder to care for themselves too.
“Often the caregiver in the story is forgotten,” says Pettigrew. “They are stressed, they don’t know how to breathe, they’re running like crazy. It’s very tense. And we need to soften.”
In addition to the mental and physical benefits of practicing yoga, this class gives students a sense of community and a well of emotional support from which to draw.
“When I have new students,” Pettigrew says, “I try to make them feel comfortable right away by talking about the ‘C Word.’ We say cancer. We are not afraid of it.”
Because there’s a common struggle, participants feel they’re in a place where they can feel accepted.
“It makes them more friendly with themselves,” says Pettigrew, “and that’s the first step. Down the road, it creates this beautiful dynamic of the group. They realize they’re not alone.”
Pettigrew attributes much of the success of this program to Fighting Chance, which facilitates the yoga class as well as support groups. Social networking, and meetings.
“To come into a room and sit in a chair in a circle and close your eyes and feel your body and your breath in a place where you’re allowed to do that, it’s powerful,” he said.
Yoga for Healing and Wellness is offered every other Thursday from 2:30 to 3:30. It is free and open to anyone dealing with cancer. Registration is requested: 725-4646.