Bringing Yoga to Kids with Cancer

The Hematology/Oncology Department at San Diego's Rady Children's Hospital is a place where magic happens, though it is not for the faint of heart. This is a top facility where kids of all ages who have been diagnosed with any form of cancer come for treatment. Some stay for a few days at a time and return periodically for more short stays, as they undergo their treatments. Others end up staying here for months, if their cases require more continual care. The kids, especially the younger ones, are usually not at the hospital alone; their mom, dad, or grandparent is staying with them in the room, and other family and friends come to visit.

In the fall of 2011, I started working with San Diego’s Sean O'Shea Foundation to bring a program to Rady Children’s offering yoga to these children and their families. While we had initially conceived of the program as a group class, we soon found that most children and families did not want to leave their rooms most of the time, so we adapted. Now, we visit individual patients and families in their rooms, in shifts that can last over two hours. For over seven years now, we have been visiting the department up to three times a week, largely on a volunteer basis. The Sean O’Shea Foundation calls us the Dream Team.

During a typical shift, I and the other volunteers go door-to-door toting a cart of yoga mats and blocks, offering gentle yoga sessions lasting 15-30 minutes to the children as well as their families. We have worked with everyone from moms of infants, to whole groups that include the child, their siblings, parents and grandparents, to eighteen-year-olds that are too cool for school but still can appreciate a stretch and a deep breath. Sometimes the kids are full of energy and want to do their yoga poses on a yoga mat, so that we roll out several in a room and chuckle as we try not to hit each other in warrior pose, while other times they are tired and nauseous and mainly want a guided deep-breathing and relaxation session. Many of the yoga sessions end with the child asleep, and quite often with their parents dosing on a chair as well.

When people hear that I do this work, they often say that it must be extremely difficult. I say in response that in an unexpected way, this work is uplifting. I have been stunned to see how resilient, brave, mature, and strong these children are, and I have learned incredible lessons and perspective from them. I will never forget the 7-year-old boy who was clearly an old soul; I worked with him right after he got to the hospital for the first time, shortly after the diagnosis, and he amazed me with how positive and accepting he was of the situation, in spite of the treatments that lay ahead. A couple of the girls I've worked with had strong ideas about what yoga poses they wanted to do, so they ended up "teaching" the session, from which came some truly entertaining poses. In one case these lessons evolved into a dance and storytelling session. On occasion, a mom just wants to talk, to release her stress and anxiety, and we end up in a long conversation while her baby sleeps. One mom said to me after our session, "Wow, I never knew how to breathe!"  A young teen I worked with started a business while in the hospital, and was getting very successful with it through social media. Another boy started learning a musical instrument at the hospital. Yes, on occasion I would get to guide a breathing practice session for a child who was at the end of life; this is difficult, but also feels like an honor. Fortunately, many, many kids that come to Rady's get to go home healthy.

There is no question that these kids go through something that we would hope no child would ever have to face, and the stress, worry, anxiety that their parents experience are unimaginable. It is also very clear to those of us in the room with them how huge a difference these yoga sessions make. We may be a ways off from being able to measure these benefits scientifically, due to the difficulty of getting together treatment and control groups, and other challenges of proper scientific design. But in our work at the hospital day in and day out, we see that sore muscles are stretched, stress and stiffness are released, deep breathing and guided relaxation visibly relax and cheer both the children and their families, or allow a child in pain to fall asleep when it might have been hard otherwise. Parents tell us they are tense all over, but after the yoga they feel so much better. There is often laughter during or after the session, where there was crying to start.

Just as with all the work here at Yoga Beyond Cancer, these practices are helping the kids and their parents get into a more relaxed, less anxious, state of mind, so that their minds can move into a more healing state, helping their healing process rather than hindering it with anxiety.  We are honored to be able to bring a measure of relief, and to be a part of their journey.

This article was first published on the Sean O’Shea Foundation’s blog. You can learn more about the Foundation, or make a donation, right here.