Helping Hands

By Sarah Halweil, November, 2013

Have you ever practiced yoga in a hospital bed?

Yoga teachers in our community—those trained as Urban Zen Integrative Therapists (UZITs), that is—have been helping patients do just this at Southampton Hospital for the last few years. Urban Zen Integrative Therapy is Donna Karan’s brainchild. She was inspired to develop this program after caring for her late husband and many of her friends while they were sick or dying. At that time, she depended on doctors and nurses to help her loved ones, but she also depended on complementary therapies. In fact, it became her passion to make this kind of care available to more people. After Donna’s husband passed away, she, Colleen, and Rodney (who were, and are, Donna’s yoga teachers) organized a program that would train people to go into hospitals and various care centers and help ease the symptoms of illness. They brought together experts in the fields of yoga, Reiki, end of life and contemplative care, essential oil therapy, medicine, and more.

At Southampton Hospital, under the guidance of doctors and nurses, we visit patients in their rooms. Our goal is to relieve symptoms related to being sick, and being in a hospital: pain, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, constipation, and exhaustion. So we lead patients through movements based on yoga, breath awareness, and body-focused meditation. We help them into restorative positions and perform Reiki. Maybe most importantly, we teach patients some of these techniques—a breathing routine to help them sleep, a movement to relieve back pain—so that they can practice on their own. We aim to increase patients’ feelings of wellbeing and contentment.

Consider these two experiences I myself had:

Once I worked with a woman who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). She came in with bad back pain, coughing, and labored breathing. I led her through several in-bed yoga movements, positioned her in a gentle forward bend for a few minutes, and then supported her back so her chest was wider and not so concave. I talked her through a body scan and breath-awareness exercise, while giving her a Reiki session. Throughout our entire time together, she had unlabored breathing, no coughing, and was clearly more comfortable. She said she felt more relaxed than ever.

A man with Lou Gehrig’s disease and his wife came to Southampton Hospital as a safety measure, in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy. The man, who couldn’t move his arms or legs, was agitated and clearly unhappy. I used Reiki, breath awareness, and meditation with both him and his wife. During and after our session, he was remarkably less agitated, and even smiled. His eyes had a gentle look. His wife started to cry: she was so thankful for the attention she received during and after our session.

Urban Zen has been in partnership with Southampton Hospital for three years. The plan is to continue to deepen, evolve, and expand our work there—to offer this service to more local patients and their families. We’re asking for your help to continue our work at the hospital. We are supported in part by the hospital, and in part by private donations. As we actively look for ways to make the program financially sustainable, we are asking the Yoga Shanti community to donate whatever they can.

Perhaps you have had a loved one at Southampton Hospital who has experienced our work, or maybe you’ve taken an Urban Zen restorative class at Shanti, designed for all students—not just those who are ill. Or you may one day be at the hospital and have a visit from one of us. Whatever your interest, we appreciate your generosity. The money that you give will go directly and completely to hours that the UZITs are in the hospital.

We see the smiles on the patients’ relaxed faces, the shoulders resting. We hear less labored breathing and words of gratitude. What we’re doing is cutting edge, and I’m proud to be part of it. Please consider lending a hand.

FUNDRAISING APPEAL: Help us raise money to maintain and support the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy unit at Southampton Hospital. Follow this link to make an online donation. Donations are tax deductable. Please be sure to select ‘Urban Zen at the Wellness Institute’ from the fund designation dropdown after you select your donation amount. Every donation is immensely appreciated!

Click here to make a donation

Sarah Halweil

Sarah Halweil is a graduate of the 2004 Yoga Shanti Teacher Training Program. She graduated from the University of Colorado in Latin American Studies and Environmental Science, and Georgetown University in Nursing. She is also a graduate of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT) Program, and is the clinical coordinator for the Urban Zen program at Southampton hospital.

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