by Lou Mancinelli and Len Lear
When Mt. Airy resident Michelle Stortz’s husband, Jonathan Mark Lustig, died in 2009 due to complications from cancer treatment, the loss motivated her to investigate teaching yoga to cancer patients, an approach with which she was already familiar. “My husband’s passing was a life-changing event,” she explained last week. “I stopped trying to have a career in dance/choreography and began building my practice in teaching yoga to those with cancer or chronic illness. I’ve been doing that now for four years.”
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 also study yoga because it improved her dancing. It helped her “find her legs” and strengthened her alignment.
Stortz left San Francisco in 2001 to work in Singapore in Southeast Asia 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, where she continued to build the career as a dancer she had started in San Francisco.
She also became a certified yoga therapist, and in 2007 she founded the Ring Dance Theater, a dance troupe she directed that performed in the Philly Fringe Festival and numerous studios in the region. But when her husband died at just 37, she decided to look more into yoga, which until then she had placed on the back burner.
The program she became certified in was developed by Jnani Chapman, R.N., a former executive director of The International Association of Yoga Therapists. It was designed to help cancer patients based on Chapman’s 20 years of experience as a nurse and yoga practitioner.
She went on to work with New York Times 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.
“Research on yoga’s health benefits has been going on for decades,” said Michelle last week. “It seems this research has become a popular topic in the media. Time magazine recently published an article about yoga in the medical setting, outlining its benefits (‘Bend and Be Well,’ Time Magazine Special Edition, Alternative Medicine, 2014).
“In general, the growing body of research suggests yoga may decrease symptoms and side effects of cancer treatment and increase energy levels and general sense of well-being. Studies point to decreased anxiety and depression, decreased insomnia, decreased pain, decreased fatigue, improved coping skills and improvement in social and emotional well-being.”
(The National Institute of Health’s Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine lists numerous studies and articles on the subject, which can be found here: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3527138/)
In addition to her work with cancer patients, Michelle is currently teaching Modern Dance and Improvisation at Bryn Mawr College, but she plans to soon be devoting all of her work hours to yoga for cancer patients. She also teaches an ongoing class at the Wellness Community in West Fairmount Park, which is now called the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia. The program is designed for patients specifically undergoing cancer treatment. She also works at Fox Chase Cancer Center and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Hospital’s Joan Karnell Center sponsors her class at the Old Pine Community Center. And she has private clients.
“The biggest factor is fatigue,” Stortz told us in an earlier interview. “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. This increased stress further weakens the immune system.
“The number one issue is trying to calm the body down,” said Michelle. “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. In this relaxed state, your body can devote its energy to healing instead of fighting fear and assuaging anxiety.
Michelle, who has also studied Buddhism, will be facilitating a half-day retreat on July 26 at Springboard Studio in Mt. Airy along with meditation teacher Brian Arnell to delve deeper into yoga and meditation practices. For more information about Stortz ‘s yoga classes or individual sessions for cancer patients, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.michellestortz.com.