When Michelle Stortz’s husband died less than two years ago due to complications from cancer treatment, the loss motivated her to investigate teaching yoga to cancer patients, a specific approach with which she was already somewhat familiar.
She also decided she would host a home concert series like she and her husband talked about doing, and as she had done earlier in her life. Daryl Shawn, a New York-based guitarist whose style incorporates flamenco, African and jazz, will perform at her home on Lincoln Drive in Mt. Airy Saturday, Feb. 12, 7 p.m.
“I had known about the program during his sickness,” said Stortz about her yoga class during a telephone interview in late January. “But I just back-burnered it. I said ‘I’ll put it on hold,’ and focused on my dance career.”
Stortz, now in her 40s, was raised in Texas, where she studied dance at the University of Texas in Austin. After graduation, she traveled to Europe and then moved to San Francisco, where she began to establish a career as a dancer and choreographer.
In San Francisco in the 1990s, Stortz came to study yoga. Her practice of yogic discipline improved her dancing. It helped her “find her legs” and strengthened her alignment.
Stortz left San Francisco in 2001 to work in Singapore, a country in Southeast Asia at the southern tip of Malaysia. Afterwards, she attended graduate school at Ohio State University (OSU). When she graduated in 2005, she moved with her not-yet husband, John, to Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, Stortz continued to build the career as a dancer she had started in San Francisco and furthered as a grad student at OSU. She became a certified yoga therapist. In 2007, she founded the Ring Dance Theater, a dance troupe she directed that has performed in the Philly Fringe Festival and numerous studios across Philadelphia.
But when her husband died at just 37, she decided to look more into the program that until then she had placed on the back-burner. The program she became certified in was developed by Jnani Chapman, R.N.
Chapman, a former executive director of The International Association of Yoga Therapists, developed the routine to help cancer patients based on 20 years of experience as a nurse and yoga practitioner. She went on to work with New York Tomes bestselling author Dr. Dean Ornish, known for his work that, according to the website for the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, for the first time demonstrated that comprehensive lifestyle changes (like yoga) may begin to reverse even severe coronary heart disease, without drugs or surgery.
The eight-week program she teaches once a week early on Monday afternoons at the Wellness Community of Philadelphia in West Fairmount Park is designed for patients specifically undergoing cancer treatment. Stortz just began a class at the end of January and is accepting participants through the first week in February.
“The biggest factor is fatigue,” said Stortz, who teaches dance at Bryn Mawr College and also works for the local organization Dance/USA. “Most of the class is done in chairs. It emphasizes stress reduction through slow gentle moving … Cancer patients are dealing with a lot of stress. It loops through their minds in these fear cycles.”
But for cancer patients, whose weakened immune system is working overtime to fight cancer cells, the body reacts to the fear of not knowing what is going to happen by producing high levels of the stress hormones adrenalin or cortisone, also known as nature’s fight-or-flight instinct, according to Stortz. This increased stress further weakens the immune system.
“The number one issue is trying to calm the body down,” said Stortz. “Your body is working so hard to compensate [due to chemotherapy and the cancer that attacks fast growing cells]. That’s why there is fatigue. That’s why we emphasize slow, easy movements.” Her approach “doesn’t really change anything about the treatment, but it helps manage the side effects [like] insomnia, pain and anxiety.”
Stortz contends that by practicing breathing, deep-relaxation and mediation techniques, cancer patients can experience physiological benefits that will improve their overall state of being.
On a scientific level, according to Stortz, deep-breathing alters the pH level of the blood. The introduction of more oxygen into the bloodstream causes the blood at a certain point to reach an alkalized state. When the blood is an acidic state, it is more susceptible to bacteria, virus and cancer cells.
Stortz teaches her patients to use deep-relaxation techniques in order to bring their bodies into a hypometabolic state where the body’s muscles use less blood. In this relaxed state, your body can devote its energy to healing instead of fighting fear and assuaging anxiety.
And, when her students’ minds meander among anxieties, Stortz uses mediation techniques to emphasize the attempt to be more aware of the present moment. “You can’t judge your mind for doing its job,” she said. “We all have these things we chew on, whatever we’re thinking about. But understanding the nature of the mind is important. You might be worried about the cancer or the future, but right now is what’s important. In a calm state, the oxygen your blood needs is more available.”
She encourages her students during their 90-minute sessions to notice what they notice, but not to judge or analyze what they feel. And in the name of enjoying a relaxed yet joyous state, she hopes people come to her house concert on Feb. 12. (Light snacks will be served, and admission will be by a sliding scale donation of $10-20. In San Francisco, Stortz used to host salon nights at her studio where artists, musicians and dancers would gather.
“John and I bought this house in Mt. Airy, and we’re big on community building. We always talked about having an open house for salons like I did in San Francisco.”
For more information about Stortz’s yoga class or individual sessions, email firstname.lastname@example.org; call the Wellness Community of Philadelphia at 215-399-2251, or visit phillyhealthinfo.org/index.php/general/wellness_community_of_philadelphia/.For details about the house concert, email email@example.com. For more information about Daryl Shawn, visit darylshawn.com.