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Treating Cancer Patients with Yoga Therapy

Wellness   |   April 2, 2018  |   by Sandra Susheela Gilbert  ~Yogaville

Sandra Susheela Gilbert has certainly found her life’s work. Dedicated to Jnani Chapman and her teachings of Yoga Therapy for Cancer and Chronic Illness (YCat), Susheela began to share the healing practices of Yoga with cancer patients. After Jnani’s recent and unexpected passing, Susheela has continued to carry on the mission of YCat and has taken on the responsibility of leading YCat teacher trainings. In the following interview, Susheela discusses future plans for YCat, shares why YCat is such a unique and meaningful program, and openly speaks about how Jnani’s passing has affected her and the YCat community.

An Interview with Sandra Susheela Gilbert

Yogaville: How did you get involved in YCat? How has Jnani’s passing affected you, the YCat community, and the future of YCat?

Susheela: I took the training for the first time 14 years ago, and that’s when I met Jnani for the first time. I was already an Integral Yoga teacher and trained with Sivakami Sumar and Cheri Clampett.  I took the YCat program with Jnani two years after my mother passed away from cancer. I came for the training and essentially never left.  Personally, I felt an unconditional love that was so healing and it came through Jnani and her teachings and inspired me to go deeper into this field of Yoga studies.  I took the Level 3 training twice and I kept studying with Jnani and then began assisting her in trainings. I then became Administrator and Senior Faculty. In 2016, I led the program myself when Jnani took a sabbatical to write. We had a lot of plans for the future of YCat that we had written up since last year.

Jnani Chapman YCat

Jnani Chapman, founder of YCat.

Jnani’s recent passing was very shocking—for me and the other faculty as well. She died in a car accident in California on December 14. It was sudden, unexpected, and tragic—it is a huge loss for the Yoga and Yoga Therapy community. In fact, she and I were supposed to meet up the weekend after her passing at IYI NYC to offer a one-day Yoga retreat for people with cancer with three new Level 1 teachers, but of course that didn’t happen. Instead we gathered in community to begin the grieving process. Rudra, Chandra, and Kali from IYI NYC held a very important space for me and the teachers from the moment we received the news of the accident.

After Jnani’s passing, I knew that I would want to take her program forward. We had talked about it years ago. Since her passing, I have just tried to get through the shock and at the same time I have taken on responsibility for YCat. It was almost as if I grew up overnight, professionally speaking. I have taught and presented at different places, but this was profoundly different. I would have been happy to have continued sitting by Jnani’s side, listening and continuing to learn from her.  With the encouragement and support of Integral Yoga and Jnani’s family, I began this new phase of my life and a new era of YCat.   There are eight YCat faculty members. We have a lot of work to do and this group of very talented teachers are helping with everything from marketing to editing, from teaching to brain storming, as we go forward.

We have a plan in place to take Jnani’s work forward because her work is truly premiere. Jnani has been a pioneer in teaching Yoga as an integrative modality in cancer care and was the first executive director of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Jnani had been at Commonweal Cancer Help Program for 30 years as a massage therapist, massage supervisor, and a Yoga therapist. When I think of her work there and with her private clients, I think of Jnani not as a Yoga and massage therapist or as the integrative nurse specialist that was often night mother at Commonweal—I think of Jnani as healer. There is a DVD that we show in the YCat training of Commonweal from the Bill Moyer series “Healing and the Mind,” which features Michael Lerner, Rachel Naomi Remen, and Jnani. Watching a young Jnani singing to the participant and massage him, it gives one a true sense of her love, compassion, and healing. It’s quite emotional to watch.

You might be interested to also know that it was Saraswati Neuman of Yogaville who first asked Jnani to teach a program specifically about her work with cancer patients and the chronically ill. And I have a special connection to Saraswati, as well, but that story is for another time!!! We are very grateful to Saraswati.

Yogaville: What do you see as the future of YCat? How do you see it progressing and developing?

Susheela: The roots of YCat Yoga therapy are deeply planted in Integral Yoga. YCat evolved from Jnani’s relationship with Gurudev (Swami Satchidananda) and sangha (Integral Yoga community) in Boston, Connecticut, Yogaville, San Francisco, and New York. We will continue to nourish that relationship. Her work was also informed through her teaching in the Dean Ornish Heart Disease Reversal Program, her work and research at UCSF, her work at Commonweal, and her work with Michael Lerner, Smith Center, Shanti Norris and others, but mostly, it was through her relationship with her clients and patients. We will continue to honor all those experiences.

It is our aim to educate hospitals, health care professionals, and researchers as to the importance of hiring Yoga Therapists with advanced training and to help them create standards of care. In 2007, integrative and CAM therapies were being used by almost 40% of patients with Yoga as one of the top choices for integrative care. That number has surely grown along with the popularity of Yoga. Though there are many physicians that practice Yoga and become teachers, there is still a vast amount of education that can take place in the medical community. I have a personal lifetime goal to see hospitals employ Yoga therapists for their inpatient programs as a standard of patient-centered care. Training Yoga teachers to move to that level of professionalism is part of YCat’s goal. Over the years, I have gotten many phone calls from teachers saying they were asked to volunteer at hospitals or with people with cancer, and they want to know what asanas to teach. Though volunteering is great, safety comes first—physical and emotional safety. Proper training is essential to understanding how to meet people where they are, and sometimes it does not include asana. Often Yoga is thought to be just asana or just meditation. It is up to us to educate that it is so much more.  It is a profound lifestyle change and it is healing. We currently have several interns and graduates who have developed YCat inpatient programs at hospitals in Ohio, Kentucky, New York, and in research in Georgia and North Carolina.  I am in research in Nashville. We want to see those programs and future programs grow and flourish.  Not only is the need great, but the benefits to patients and families are even greater.

The other important goal for YCat’s future is to develop and expand on how we as an organization can support other teachers in the field. We hope to connect with the bigger community of Yoga teachers and therapists working with patients with cancer so that we may all learn from and support each other. There are plans to be more involved with the International Association of Yoga Therapy (IAYT) and of course with Integral Yoga’s Yoga therapy work.

Sandra Susheela Gilbert YCat Jnani Chapman memorial

Sandra Susheela Gilbert with YCat teachers at the Integral Yoga Institute in NY for Jnani’s memorial service.

Another new focus for YCat this year is to discuss grief more thoroughly in our trainings. With Jnani’s recent passing, it is even more relevant to talk about grief. After a cancer diagnosis and treatment, the loss of life as a person once knew it creates a grieving process. As Yoga teachers and therapists, we need to be prepared to hold that space and guide our students through that part of their journey. It is also important to talk about our own grieving as teachers and therapists. Many of us start out working with a client during treatment and then are asked to be there at end of life. That loss impacts us personally, so it is very important to have the support we need as professionals during such a time. YCat has experienced the loss of Jnani in December and then several weeks later Charlotte Egler, a YCat intern who completed YCat Level One at Yogaville in 2016, passed away when her metastatic breast cancer no longer responded to treatment. A long time participant in YCat retreats, Kim McGaughey passed away from her cancer in 2016. The list could go on.

Yogaville: Why is YCat unique as a Yoga therapy program for those with cancer or chronic illness?

Susheela: Here are Jnani’s own words: “I created YCat Yoga therapy programs in 1997 after seeing the many challenges that cancer patients face during treatments, hospitalizations, and recovery at home. By introducing appropriately adapted Yoga therapy like YCat, people can reduce the severity of distressing side effects from cancer and treatment. We consistently hear, “I feel so much better.” — Jnani Chaptman, R.N., E-RYT 500, YCat Founder

YCat is designed to meet the whole person where they are and to teach the student/client how to meet themselves in that space with compassion. It is a program that works on the whole person level—the physical, spiritual, and emotional levels. The YCat program was actually developed and based in nursing practice because Jnani was impacted by all the scientific rationales for Yoga practice while in nursing school. During the training, program participants are learning about the body, organs, systems, cell biology, and pathophysiology. They are learning why movement and asana are important and how Yoga fits into the framework of healing. They discover what the rationales and evidence are for the practices that we teach for people with cancer. At the same time, students are learning about therapeutic relationships, professional relationships, the mind and healing, and healing vs. curing.

This program is unique because it balances the clinical teachings with the ancient teachings of Yoga. Jnani was firm about training teachers to uphold Yoga as a 5,000-year-old tradition while also preparing them to work as professionals in hospital and medical settings. There are 3 parts to the training that take place to prepare you to work with patients. Level 1 is a 10-day training, such as the one being offered at Yogaville, and Level 2 is an internship. During Level 2 of the training, you’re actively working with a mentor to develop programs in your community. Besides actually teaching, interns are required to complete assessments and documentation and interact with medical professionals. There is often marketing and recruiting that YCat teachers are responsible for, and the internship gives our students the training and guidance for that. If you go on to work in research, you’ll have support there, too. There are many guidelines in place for how to go on to teach successfully.

Jnani Chapman Yoga Therapy

Jnani engages a client in Yoga therapy.

You can take Level 1 and choose not to continue with additional training, but we encourage students to take Levels 2 and 3 so that they have more supervised hours of training. This ongoing supervision and support is even available after you graduate, and this is unique to YCat as well. We conduct most supervision through phone or Skype. While you are in the internship, you become eligible for Level 3. Level 3 is also an experiential module that involves facilitating and planning a retreat for people with cancer. All the interns come together with YCat faculty to create and teach the retreat. And of course, the retreat is supervised by YCat faculty. You must complete all three levels of training to graduate as a YCat teacher, which really ensures that graduates leave the program feeling competent, knowledgeable, and skilled to teach patients with cancer.

Additionally, numerous possibilities and connections are created within this training because most program participants already have years of experience as medical professionals and/or Yoga teachers—everyone grows and learns from each other during our time together. There are other perks, too. As a YCat teacher, you have the support of Yogaville and the Integral Yoga sangha for your own daily practice. Graduates are also encouraged to come back to YCat and staff programs, mentor other teachers, and become YCat faculty. More than anything though, what makes this program so special is that the service we are offering as YCat teachers is so needed and appreciated.

Yogaville: Why is it important for you personally to continue teaching Yoga therapy to those with cancer and chronic illness?

Susheela: My experience with YCat began as a very personal journey. Having been the primary care giver for several family members who died after a cancer diagnosis, I witnessed their suffering, healing, vulnerability, and gratitude. I feel deeply blessed to have the opportunity to serve as a YCat teacher, witness and support people during cancer, and make an impact in healthcare.

In continuing to teach YCat, we want to honor Jnani and we want to be the best we can be so that we can continue to uphold her vision and her work. Jnani had planned to write a book and we have plans to see that vision come forth. At the last training in NYC, Jnani said that she wanted to start raising money for a scholarship fund for people with cancer to be able attend our Level 3 retreats at no charge. She also wanted money available for teachers who could not afford to take all three levels of YCat. Jnani would always negotiate and figure out a way for someone who had the desire to teach people with cancer to take her program. Sometimes that meant Jnani did not get paid. I am happy to announce that the Jnani Chapman Scholarship Fund has now been set up through Yogaville to accomplish these goals of hers.

Tax deductible donations can now be sent to:

Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville
Attention: Snehan Desachy—Treasury Office
108 Yogaville Way
Buckingham VA 23921

In the memo, please write: Jnani Chapman Scholarship Fund.

We are so grateful to Charlotte Egler’s wife and son, who are the first to donate to the fund so that a student from this year’s training can be offered a scholarship in Charlotte’s name. We will also celebrate Jnani at this year’s training on Saturday, May 5 at Yogaville. Details will be published on our FB page and website as soon as we have them.

I am so grateful to Jnani’s family, colleagues, and Integral Yoga who all continue to support the future of YCat. I am humbled and honored to become the archivist of YCat and Jnani’s teachings and to direct her program. I had about half of her papers already, so now when I come home at night and see even more piles of papers, I smile, then I groan, and then I smile again! I feel Jnani’s presence and I hear her saying, “God bless God. It is all God and it is all for good.” In challenging times, that can be difficult to believe, but I know Jnani believed it with her entire being. May it be so. And may the light of truth overcome all darkness. Jai Gurudev! Jai Jnani!

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