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Union Square Yoga Class Gives Hope to Breast Cancer Survivors

By DNAinfo Staff on October 18, 2011 11:50am

By Ashley Welch

Special to DNAinfo

UNION SQUARE — About a dozen women stretch out on their yoga mats at a studio near Union Square, waiting for class to begin. Some lie back and breathe deeply in a meditative state, while others chat quietly, catching up with friends.

Though these women smile and laugh often, the topics of some of their conversations are anything but light.

“When I got mine done, they took out the fat from my stomach and made me a new breast with it,” one woman said of her experience after a mastectomy.

“I read an article in a magazine about how to tell your partner you had one done,” another woman said. “Doctors just don’t prepare you for how uncomfortable living with it can be.”

This is no ordinary yoga class. These women share a common experience that bonds them together – most suffer from or are recovering from breast cancer. Others are fighting another form of the disease.

The class, designed for women cancer survivors, meets twice a week at the OM Yoga Center on Broadway and 12th Street. For the students, the class takes on additional meaning in October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The instructor, Tari Prinster, developed the class in 2002 after her own fight against breast cancer. She’s currently featured in “Yogawoman,” a documentary that chronicles the worldwide revolution of yoga from its male-dominated origins in India to the generation of Western women utilizing it for physical and emotional health.

Prinster and her class are featured in the film, which is available on DVD even as it’s being screened at premieres all over the world.

While specialized yoga classes have sprung up in recent years, catering to the sick and elderly, Prinster said many tend to focus primarily on yoga’s mental benefits. Her class, she said, also concentrates on physical well being.

“The class isn’t based on relaxation,” said Prinster, 67. “It’s based on movement. What they need is not to be treated like they’re sick, but to be treated like they’re normal.”

Her students appreciate the approach.

“Tari doesn’t treat us like babies,” said Kelly Considine, 46, a student living with Stage IV breast cancer who is also trained to teach the class. “It’s not, ‘Lie on the floor and feel sorry for yourself.’ You work. So I feel stronger every time I leave.”

However, Prinster encourages her students not to push their bodies past their limits.

Dr. Shayma Kazmi, a medical oncologist at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia, said she recommends yoga to her cancer patients as part of an integrated treatment plan.

“Yoga has been proven to be helpful in very specific cancer-related symptoms, such as decreasing muscle aches and pains, reducing stress, depression and anxiety and reducing cancer-related fatigue,” she said.

Kazmi points to several studies currently being conducted that analyze the effects yoga has on cancer patients. One recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that breast cancer survivors who completed a 12-week yoga course reported significant improvement in levels of fatigue and physical function.

Another study underway at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Tex. aims to examine the effectiveness of incorporating a yoga program alongside radiotherapy for women with breast cancer.

“What the medical field knows is very limited,” Prinster said. “Yoga does much more than just reduce stress. What we work on here is strengthening the immune system and detoxing the body.”

Though Prinster said these physical benefits are an integral part of the class, the ultimate goal reaches even further than that.

“So often as a patient you feel like you’re losing control of your life,” she said.

“The class is meant to give these women a sense of empowerment and also to give them hope that they can do something for themselves. Finally, it gives them a feeling of connectedness to their own body and to each other, to know they’re not alone in this.”

The Women Cancer Survivors Class meets at OM Yoga Center on Tuesdays at 3:45 pm and Saturdays at 2:30 pm.