The multitudes of practitioners who know what a powerful healing tool yoga can be have been working for decades to include it in health and healing modalities both mentally and physically. Now, fashion mogul Donna Karen is forging a path for yoga within traditional medical settings. Through an $850,000 grant to Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, the Urban Zen Initiative will incorporate yoga therapy into the healing regimens of cancer patients.
Known as the Urban Zen Initiative the year long grant will provide funding for integrative yoga therapists to assist cancer patients with gentle asana, breathing techniques and meditation. In addition, the grant will sponsor research which hopes to show decreased length of hospital stays and a lesser need for anti-anxiety medication. “If this is something we’re going to go out and convince hospitals around the country to replicate, we have to be able to show it saves money in the long run or at least is cost-neutral and you end up with happier patients,” says Benjamin Kligler, director of the research.
Donna Karan has been practicing yoga since she was 18. In 2006, Karan and Sonja Nuttall founded the Urban Zen Foundation in response to the imbalance she experienced between Western medicine and Eastern healing modalities during her husbands struggle with cancer. The vision of the Urban Zen Foundation is to advance well being, preserve cultures, and empower children. The Well-Being Initiative of the Urban Zen Foundation is committed to changing the current healthcare paradigm to include integrative therapies and promote patient advocacy. In addition, the foundation sponsors a 200 hour Teacher training and 500 hour Integrative Yoga Therapy Teacher training at their NY location.
Karan has personally experienced the benefit of yoga in conjunction with traditional cancer treatments. Her husband, who died of lung cancer at 62, was able to utilize yoga and breathing techniques to increase his quality of life during the end of his illness, and her long-time friend and former model Lynn Kohlman received a devastating breast cancer diagnosis and was given only months to live, but at the encouragement of Karan practiced yoga for 5 ½ years before she passed.
There are skeptics, though. In order for many “scientific medicine” practitioners to utilize alternative therapies, there will have to be proof. The body of evidence is growing. In addition to Karan’s initiative, researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center have found that patients have found yoga useful in combating the side-effects from breast cancer treatments in a study that was funded by a $2.4 million grant from the National Cancer Institute in 2006. And dozens of other studies are being conducted all over the world to prove the effects of yoga as a supplemental treatment in devastating illnesses.
If the Urban Zen Initiative research proves positive, this experiment could add to the potential of wide-spread change in traditional health care. Instead of viewing patients as a list of symptoms and specialties, there is hope that traditional Western medical practitioners will pay attention to the positive outcomes of treating the whole person. The inclusion of modalities like yoga therapy could be extremely important in defining and addressing these patients as people who deal with much more than physical illness. Yoga therapists may not provide medications to heal sickness or scientifically based treatments, but they can be a salve to the spirit in the midst of frightening and debilitating illness and become an essential component of treatment and maintaining quality of life.