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YogaCHA event seeks to integrate yoga into health care

Posted by Laura Gomez  April 3, 2013 10:27 AM

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Rolf Gates yoga program for

The graduating class of Rolf Gates Advanced Yoga Teacher Training program.

For Christine Biggins, the April 6 “YogaCHA” event is more than a fundraiser; it’s a way to support a cause that helped to change her life.

“Giving the skills of yoga to a hospital setting, there’s a lot of meaning in it for me,” said Biggins, a five-year yoga student and teacher and two-time cancer survivor who also was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004. “I really feel like (yoga) has helped me to survive and thrive.”

YogaCHA, which will be open to the public and held at Boston University’s Case Center, is an all-day yoga event to raise money for a unique cause: Bringing the practices of yoga and meditation to the patients and staff of the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA), a health care system that serves diverse and underserved populations in Cambridge, Somerville and Boston’s metro-north communities. The goal of organizers is to raise enough money to provide weekly yoga classes at CHA hospitals in Cambridge, Somerville and Everett.

The event was the brainchild of students in the 500-hour Rolf Gates Advanced Yoga Teacher Training program, who trained together for more than a year.

“As part of our group graduation present, we wanted to do something for the community where we trained,” said Karen Cutone, a student in the group.

For the graduation present, each student offered an idea for a possible community fundraiser. Dr. Mercedes von Deck, an orthopedic surgeon at CHA, suggested establishing a yoga program where she works.

“I get to know a lot of my patients well, and it seemed like yoga would make their lives better,” von Deck said. “My patients, all of them, would benefit. There’s just an awareness that comes with yoga.”

The group of 19 students agreed that establishing a yoga program at CHA would be a way to make an impact.

“[The patients] really need it -- it’s an excellent therapeutic tool,” Cutone said. “You’re distracting them from their problems and bringing them back to center. It’s kind of like you’re giving them the tools to fix themselves.”

The idea of yoga as a supplemental health tool resonates with Biggins, who credits her practice with helping her to brave her second round of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

“For me, it took my class out into life, and cancer became my pose,” Biggins said. “It’s not about the pose you’re in -- it’s about how you are being in that pose.”

When Biggins was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, she had not yet started practicing yoga. She finished her chemotherapy treatment in September 2007 and began practicing in January, when she dropped into a power yoga class, still feeling wiped-out from her treatments.

“I went home and was able to put the dishes in the dishwasher,” she recalled. “Very slowly, I felt my energy coming back after chemotherapy.”

Five years later, when her doctor told Biggins that there was a recurrence of her cancer, her yoga training served to mediate the anxiety.

“I spent a lot of time by myself in healing, and that became a meditation process,” said Biggins, who is a member of the 500-hour training class. “We can retrain the mind and move from old ways of being into new ways of being.”

YogaCHA organizers said they hope to establish a yoga program that can serve both patients and staff, with a variety of class offerings. The doctors, nurses and other staff at CHA facilities are “completely overworked,” Cutone said. “They basically serve the underserved and uninsured.”

She said CHA hopes to use the programs to enable patients to continue yoga practice after discharge, since many of them end up returning to CHA after inpatient stays, sometimes because they aren’t able to continue therapy.

“They want to offer gentle yoga classes that would be a transition from one-on-one therapy . . . to a group class,” Cutone said. “That will lessen the burden on the system and let [patients] live healthier lives.”

The students hope to raise enough money to make the program sustainable over time, rather than temporary.

Research suggests that a carefully adapted set of yoga poses may reduce low-back pain and improve physical function, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Studies also indicate that practicing yoga can reduce stress; lower heart rate and blood pressure; help relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia; and improve overall physical fitness, strength and flexibility.

Von Deck described the effects of yoga as improving “that spiritual aspect, that energetic aspect that you can’t really put into words.”

“It’s hard to know why it has such a profound effect,” she said.

For Biggins, yoga was a way to reframe her illness by changing her mindset.

“You spend so much time worrying about things, but if you just take some time and live in the moment, everything is going to be okay,” Biggins said. “You can take that (feeling) to any hospital or diagnosis.”

The fundraiser will feature workshops by the students and presentations by master yoga teacher Rolf Gates and renowned kirtan artist Girish. Classes are available for all levels and ages, including children 4 to 13.

Doors will open for registration at 8 a.m. More information on attending or making a donation is available at

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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