Yoga as Therapy for Cancer Survivors: A Conversation with Nydia Tijerina Darby

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Editor’s note: Nydia Tijerina Darby is a physical therapist and yoga instructor who owns Nydia’s Yoga Therapy in San Antonio. She has long had an interest in using her training in physical therapy and yoga to ease suffering and improve physical function for those experiencing acute or chronic pain.

Through her focus and expertise on yoga as therapeutic treatment, Darby was invited to join a research team at the University of Texas Health Science Center to study the potential benefits of yoga for cancer patients during treatment and recovery. We wanted to learn more about Darby’s participation with the research study and her development of a therapeutic yoga program for breast cancer survivors.

How did you meld your physical therapy practice with your passion for yoga?

Nydia Darby: For me it was a natural fit to combine my work in orthopedic, spine and women’s health physical therapy with my experience with fitness and yoga. Through the regular practice of Hatha yoga, I was able to meld traditional Western physical therapy with traditional eastern Hatha yoga lifestyle practices. This produced Nydia’s Yoga Therapy, which focuses on listening to and acknowledging the whole person, on reducing the suffering of those experiencing acute or chronic pain and improving physical function. My goal is to teach individuals about their physical bodies, to reduce the fear of the unknown and to empower them to make informed choices about their “whole health.”

How did you become involved with the UT Health Science Center research study that looked at the potential benefits of yoga for cancer patients?

Darby: In 2009, Dr. Amelie Ramirez invited me to join her research team at the UT Health Science Center to begin work on a breast cancer and yoga research program. The goal was to look at yoga and traditional exercise programs to determine which best improved a breast cancer survivor’s potential for 1) continuing an exercise program, 2) reporting changes in fitness levels, and 3) lowered levels of stress, inflammation and/or obesity. For the study, I created and supervised the implementation of the yoga protocol, and I trained the yoga teachers who taught the classes to survivors. The study lasted a full year, and during this time the survivors participated in a onehour yoga practice three days a week for six months, all for free at my studio.

What were the results of the study?

Darby: We gathered a tremendous amount of data and spent a great deal of time organizing and understanding what the data revealed. Some of that understanding is still happening. I can say that the results of our research determined that breath-centered, gentle and modified yoga movement practices have a positive impact on breast cancer survivors. Overall, the survivors who participated in this gentle, modified yoga practice reduced their body fat, reduced salivary cortisol (measure or stress), reduced C-reactive protein (measure of inflammation), improved physical functioning and improved their quality of life.

What are your plans to share the results of the study?

Darby: I want to share this therapeutic practice with as many individuals as possible. I am also excited to share the study results with the medical community, with doctors and medical professionals. This fall an article that I co-authored entitled, “Effect of a Six- Month Yoga Exercise Intervention on Fitness Outcomes for Breast Cancer Survivors,” will be coming out in the Journal of Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. And this month (July), I will be sharing my new therapeutic program, “Therapeutic Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors,” at the Omega Institute in New York (www.eomega.org). It will be a five-day restorative and educational retreat that will introduce participants to the breath-centered, modified yoga practice that I designed to increase mobility, strength and endurance, improve function and quality of life, reduce stress and enhance focus and concentration. This is the first time the Omega Institute has offered a program that provides support and education specifically for survivors of breast cancer. It is a significant first step and demonstrates that our continued efforts to support cancer survivorship are paying off.

NydiaNydia Tijerina Darby holds a doctorate in physical therapy and is an adjunct professor in the Exercise and Sports Science Department at St. Mary’s University, where she has developed curriculum entitled “Yoga for Healthcare and Fitness Professionals” for the department’s degree program. She also owns Nydia’s Yoga Therapy, located at 4680 Lockhill Selma Rd. in San Antonio. For more information, visit www.nydiasyogatherapy.com.

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