According to Yoga Journal, an estimated 16 million people in the United States practice some form of yoga, a set of physical and mental practices that originated in India more than 3,000 years ago.
A third of Americans also seek alternative treatments such as yoga for their ailments. Like the Eastern medicinal practices acupuncture and massage, yoga is often used to heal the mind and body. At one New York Hospital, yoga is being used to help cancer patients deal with the symptoms of the disease and treatment.
Many people picture yoga as vigorous stretching, contorted body positions, sweat and spandex.
But the yoga students at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York are not ordinary practitioners.
Brad Rothschild, a 39-year-old father of three, was diagnosed last year with cancer. Yoga teacher Shana Kuhn-Siegel leads Rothschild in a pilot program aimed at alleviating the suffering of cancer patients.
It is not a cure, but Shana says she hopes she can reduce pain and promote relaxation. "I had a woman this morning who was in the most excruciating abdominal pain - I mean, in tears - and it was just a matter of turning her to her side, putting pillows between her knees, putting pillows between her feet, making sure that her arms were elevated, making sure that her head had enough support," she explains.
Hospital administrators started the "The Karan-Beth Israel Project" with an $850,000 donation from U.S. fashion designer and yoga devotee Donna Karan.
"Cost saving is what I'm really excited about, because that's going to be a real change agent, and particularly in this time of global recession when nobody has money to spend on anything," Dr. Woodson Merrell said. Merrell is Chairman of the department of integrative medicine at Beth Israel. "And if you show them by hiring a holistic nurse and bringing in yoga therapy," he continues, "they can actually improve outcomes and save money, it's a no-brainer."
The pilot project is providing 86 patients with yoga therapy for six hours a day. In addition, the oncology ward will get a massive renovation, transforming it into a more nurturing and healing environment. If the project proves successful, Merrell says there are plans to spread yoga's therapeutic power into other hospitals across America.