In a 19th century Hot Springs building, the ancient practice of yoga is offering a deep, fresh breath to people who may have had the wind knocked out of them after receiving a diagnosis of cancer.
Instructor Karen Watson Reeves, who created the class after being contacted by Our Promise Cancer Resources Executive Director Stacey Webb Pierce, said she’s always had a passion for helping people who have cancer.
For the first few sessions, the class took place at Genesis Cancer Center. Soon, the two women decided it would be best to move locations, so participants could be in a calming, non-medical setting with no distractions. Reeves said of yoga therapy, “Part of the whole thing is the relaxation and letting the mind stop the ‘What if? What if?’”
It happened that she was already renting space for other classes in a location perfectly suited for that desired tranquillity — The Yoga Place at Whittington Place, 301 Whittington Ave.
The open, airy room there is filled by glowing sunlight, filtered by resplendent stained glass windows. And a warmth is created with its dark wooden floors.
Reeves said, “It’s an old church building. A lot of spiritual stuff has taken place here. … It’s just a beautiful space and feels right.”
The class is funded by Our Promise, making it free for cancer patients, survivors and their caregivers to attend.
A survivor of breast cancer, participant Ginger Willess and her caregiver husband, Mel, have been coming for about three years. She had just finished six chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments when she learned of the class.
Having never done yoga, she was skeptical, and said, “At first, I thought I would be in and out of here in maybe a month … but it has limbered up joints and muscles in my body so much. It really seemed to help me where I had been so stiff.”
The practice gave Willess the ability to lift her arm fully after undergoing a mastectomy and, over time, has improved her balance and the strength in her legs and upper arms.
In addition to the physical benefits, she said, “I think it helped with my mental outlook,” adding that she likes the quiet atmosphere. “You kind of just get into your own little world, and try not to let whatever’s going on in the world enter your mind. … It helps you sort out what’s going on, because it could get depressing for some people.”
Though she waited until her cancer treatment was over, Willess said she wishes she would have attended during that process, and recommends that anyone undergoing treatment get involved. Recognizing that the idea of yoga might be intimidating, especially for people whose bodies are in a weakened state, Reeves stresses there is no cause for worry. The class meets people wherever they are physically — most work is done while seated in a chair, and even when a movement is done standing or lying on a mat, students are encouraged to stick with whatever their bodies tell them to do, or not do.
For some, the practice of focused breathing is the limit of what their bodies will allow, but Reeves said that act can make a world of difference. She spoke about a physician who was unconvinced about yoga’s therapeutic effects until he got cancer and went to a class, then said that even if he didn’t feel like doing anything but sitting in his chair and breathing, he felt better.
Another way Reeves incorporates focus is through guided imagery, either by painting a mental picture or offering a word for students to deeply consider. In one class, she gave the word “awaken,” suggesting to participants they could be awakening their muscles and lungs with oxygen, along with awakening their minds to positive thoughts.
It’s highly meaningful for Reeves to see the transformation of her students, and to know their quality of life is being positively enhanced through the class. She was visibly moved recounting comments she’s heard, like, “You’ve made a difference in my life.” The humble yogi said it feels amazing to understand that something she offers is significant to others.
The funded class with no charge meets from 10-11 a.m. Mondays, and a second chair yoga session takes place from 10-11 a.m. Wednesdays with a suggested $5 donation.
Attendees should wear nonrestrictive clothing, and water is available in the studio.
There is no need to make a reservation, but those interested are welcome to contact her for more information. Reeves can be reached by calling or texting 501-681-0566, or sending an email to GraceFullYogi@gmail.com.