In Whitney Chapman’s yoga classes for people living with cancer or Parkinson’s disease, smiling to feel good is part of the routine. Exercise isn’t always about pushing the body to extremes.
“The process of teaching has really taught me to meet people where they are,” said Chapman, who leads classes at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. “Not where I expect them to be, or where I’d like them to be, but where are they when they walk in the room? How are they feeling?”
Wellness at the JCC is designed to be accessible to all. In Chapman’s experience, gearing yoga toward those with cancer or Parkinson’s means incorporating medical knowledge with an understanding of students’ abilities to encourage a range of accommodating movements — all while simultaneously fostering a space for social connection and community. A holistic approach to health is similarly evident in the JCC’s broader range of offerings, according to Senior Director of the JCC’s Center for Health and Wellness Caroline Kohles.
“We look at providing people with the best, most comprehensive supportive care approach that we can possibly give to them,” Kohles said, specifically referencing programming for those with cancer.
The JCC offers courses and hosts events for community members of all ages, though certain classes, like “Pilates for Buff Bones,” are designed specifically for seniors. Many fitness and wellness classes — even some open to the general public — are free for people previously diagnosed, in remission or living with breast or ovarian cancer. Options range from an event on July 12 titled “Broadway’s Best for Breast Cancer,” which showcased performances from Broadway stars paired with medical discussions among experts in the field, to nutrition sessions and cardio classes.
Chapman, who first trained to become a yoga instructor two decades ago, leads students in courses that highlight a variety of styles and techniques, from vinyasa yoga to yin yoga and meditation. In her classes at the JCC for people with cancer or Parkinson’s, exercises are devised with an attention to medical science.
“If someone has had chemotherapy or radiation,” Chapman said of her students living with cancer, most of whom have breast or ovarian cancer, “if they’ve had mastectomies or implants, there are physical changes that happen to the body.”
Overexerting oneself in an exercise class, Chapman posed as an example, could “trigger” a negative response like lymphedema, a form of swelling linked to lymphatic system changes induced by cancer treatment.
Rather than urging students to test their limits, Chapman encourages a focus on healing and embraces the principle of “ahimsa” — or “doing no harm.” Students in Chapman’s classes can adjust movements to match their needs; poses can be completed while standing, in a seated position or on the floor. Some students even participate from their beds during remote classes, which Chapman has led over Zoom during the pandemic.
“She had one very strong requirement,” explained Upper West Sider Glenn Ellen Downie, reflecting on her experience first joining Chapman’s classes years ago, when she was recovering from breast cancer. “And that was to come to class. Period. And she said, ‘After you get to class, if you want to lie on your back on the floor in savasana the entire time, go for it. But you will get something out of it.’”
For those with Parkinson’s, Chapman believes that yoga helps to “open up” the body, counter stiffness and even combat tremors.
Physical exercise is only one component of a person’s overall well-being, however, according to both Chapman and Kohles. Kohles believes that true health involves four key “pillars”: one ought to “move” (through exercise), “restore” (through rest and reflection), “nourish” (through food) and “connect” (through social interaction).
“Cancer doesn’t have to define who we are,” Kohles wrote in a statement, referencing the kind of outlook that falls under the “restore” pillar. “Our programs support people in acknowledging their diagnosis while simultaneously enjoying the positive aspects of their life.”
Chapman’s approach to wellness in her classes is accordingly multifaceted.
“The physical exercises are only maybe a third of what you do,” said one of her longtime students, Tom Divine, during a Zoom event showcasing the usual flow of Chapman’s classes for those with Parkinson’s. “The rest of it is interacting with Whitney, because the relationship that the students forge with her is amazing and she cares ... and the third leg of the stool is the other students. We’ve come to be a little clan in that group at the JCC. We look out for each other’s backs, we get information from each other, we get referrals, we talk about treatment modalities.”
Even as classes shifted online during the pandemic, Chapman emphasized the importance of interpersonal connection by allotting time for students to chat with one another before and after practicing yoga.
No matter one’s age, health or experience level, Chapman believes that everyone approaches yoga with room to grow. “Even if you’ve been practicing for five years, ten years, your whole life,” she said, “you come to the mat with a beginner’s mind.”
Rather than urging students to test their limits, Chapman encourages a focus on healing and embraces the principle of “ahimsa” — or “doing no harm.”