Yoga for cancer specialist Jnani Chapman's journey of healing began many years ago after losing both of her parents during her freshman year of college. It was a long struggle before she found her own way out of that pain.
These days, the certified massage therapist, nurse, and yoga teacher has become the go-to person for those suffering from cancer. Yoga Therapyin Cancer and Chronic Illness (YCat) , a San Francisco-based program she founded, trains yoga teachers and health professionals to adapt yoga for people with cancer and other chronic illnesses.
YogaCity NYC’s Kathleen Kraft spoke to Chapman to learn more about how yoga can play an important role in living with cancer and other chronic illnesses.
Kathleen Kraft: Was your road to this work challenging?
Jnani Chapman: When I was in 8th grade, my mother was hospitalized with a kidney disorder. I started working as a candy striper and I made it my surrogate parent; I had a role there, a purpose and function, and I loved their pathology lab. It was a place where I could shine. My mother died when I was in college and, three months prior, my father died of a heart attack. I stayed in college for six years, changing my major and working the system because I did not want to come out into the world.
I finally graduated and started a health food store, but I was totally attached and crazy. Someone said to me, “You can’t live like this—you need to get away.” I went on a 10-day retreat—where I met Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga, and where I discovered how yoga could help me heal. It was time to process and deal with the grief of the loss of my parents. I knew that yoga was something I needed for the rest of my life to keep me grounded and healing.
KK: What can a yoga practice give a person who has cancer?
JC: First off, a yoga class for people with cancer is a community; a support group is vital for someone with cancer or chronic illness. It’s often difficult for the people in the survivor’s life to understand and accept what is going on, that the person with cancer just does not have the energy sometimes to go for a walk or even get out of bed, that fatigue can be extreme. In a support group, you’re surrounded by people who can hear you and empathize with you.
The practice itself is beneficial in a number of ways—studies have shown that yoga reduces pain, anxiety, and depression, and improves sleep in cancer patients. In essence, it improves the day-to-day life and outlook of the person.
KK: What is a yoga for cancer and/or chronic illness class or private session comprised of?
JC: The counselor must do a thorough intake of the client to understand the history of their illness. Once an understanding is gained, a class can then be developed to suit the varied needs of the students. Often we begin with the breath. We want to stop the “stress-response” because it compromises healing. When the muscles are tight, the body cannot relax; it can’t send the oxygen to the organs and systems that need it to regenerate and restore. We want the chemotherapy to go to fighting the cancer cells, without taking the person as a casualty. So we’ll start with a simple breathing practice and guided imagery, with the suggestion to relax. Then we might move onto gentle movement, if that’s what needed.
KK: You added "chronic illness" to the YCat program curriculum. Why?
JC: Heart disease and cancer are the big killers, but what we discovered was that many people with chronic illnesses were looking for yoga therapy—Parkinson’s, Lupus, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and many other diseases. Once a yoga teacher has a grasp on cancer, he or she can work with people with other illnesses. Cancer is systemic; it effects the whole body, so knowledge of it can be parlayed to other diseases. At St. Mary’s Hospital where I work in San Francisco, there is now a yoga class for people with Crone’s disease.
KK: What kind of cancer therapy work are you currently doing, besides training teachers?
JC: I’m the Integrative Medicine Specialist at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco. I bring yoga therapy to patients in oncology—radiation oncology and infusion. The first thing I teach them is the breathing practice. Once they experience relaxation, they recognize that, merely two minutes ago, they were really stressed out, and now they are in a peaceful place. They feel how useful it is, and they want it.
KK: What kind of yoga for cancer research is currently underway?
JC: With UCSF's principle investigator, Anand Druva, MD, I created the protocols and co-designed a yoga breathing study that looked at symptoms associated with receiving two consecutive rounds of chemotherapy. The RTC (N-16) study found that, "Any increase in pranayama dose, with dose measured in the number of hours practiced in class or at home, resulted in improved symptom and quality-of-life scores." Significant benefit was seen with sleep disturbance, anxiety, and mental quality of life.
I really look forward to the results of a study that is coming out of Vanderbilt University where a team is currently working with yoga for people with head and neck cancers who are in post-treatment. I'm also aware of, and waiting for word of, studies that offer yoga therapy in a few infusion centers and bone marrow/stem cell transplant units. NYU paid for a yoga teacher to attend one of our ten-day trainings because their cancer center will begin a yoga and sleep study for any patients receiving chemotherapy.
KK: What would you say to someone who told you they were just diagnosed with cancer?
JC: Don’t be a talker, become a listener. Too often well-meaning people inundate the newly diagnosed: you should read this, you should do this, you should see this practitioner—it can be overwhelming. Maybe I would say something like, "I'm all ears and I have plenty of time. How can I be of service?"