The little yogis program uses yoga, storytelling, art and more to empower young cancer patients
Seven-year-old Fre’derick Redd stands 4 feet tall, but on Tuesdays, he stretches his limbs to the sky and feels 50 feet high. He’s pretending to be a giant oak tree swaying in the wind while participating in a yoga class tailor-made for kids with cancer.
Each Tuesday, the Little Yogis Program at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital provides young patients tools to improve their quality of life and cope with the pain, anxiety and fear they may face as they undergo treatment.
“We teach them gentle stretching exercises to keep their bodies mobile, meditation to help with stress and anxiety, and visualization to cope with the pain,” says yoga teacher Amie Koronczok. “And we deliver all these in a fun and playful way.”
Yoga therapy for children embraces the same theories and philosophies as adult yoga, but with a greater element of creativity and whimsy. It can be combined with storytelling, games, art and music.
In Koronczok’s class, children roar like lions, hop like frogs and flap their arms like butterfly wings as they get lost in their imaginations, playing, moving and breathing.
Afterward, they listen to stories, sing songs and create artwork that complements their stretching exercises. They may craft sparkly butterfly wings with construction paper and glitter after gliding through the room like the winged insects, and listen to Koronczok read a story about a caterpillar that transforms into a beautiful butterfly.
“It’s all connected,” Koronczok explains, “and designed to be uplifting and symbolic. A child who’s lost her hair may identify with the caterpillar and butterfly analogy. When her hair grows back, she’ll be that butterfly.”
Fre’derick likes the oak tree exercise because it makes him feel powerful.
“I can beat cancer because I’m big and strong,” says the outgoing first-grader who was once in remission but is battling leukemia for the second time.
Toddlers to teens
Little Yogis launched last summer as an eight-week pilot program.
“Our adult patients love yoga, so we thought, ‘why not kids?’” says Catherine Powers-James, Ph.D., a psychologist with MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Program, which partners with Pediatrics to offer the class. “Yoga is ageless.”
The pilot program was hugely successful, and now Little Yogis is here to stay. Classes are free, and parents and siblings are invited to grab a yoga mat and join in.
From toddlers to teens, kids leave their beds and gather in the activity room on the 9th floor of the Main Building. Older kids help younger ones, and able-bodied kids help those who aren’t as agile.
“Hospitals can be very isolating places for kids,” says Powers-James. “It’s important that they socialize with other kids going through the same thing.”
Sessions are tailored to meet the needs of each child, depending on the child’s age, physical condition and mental state.
“I can’t arrive at class with a plan,” says Koronczok. “Instead, I adapt and adjust activities based on who’s in class and how they’re feeling on any given day. Maybe one child is dizzy and needs to sit, while another will stand. It’s tailor-made yoga, yet the whole group is cohesive.”
Mind and body
The more researchers learn about yoga, the more they realize its benefits, says Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor and director of the Integrative Medicine Program.
“Yoga increases our flexibility and strength, improves our balance, helps us sleep better and benefits all our bodily systems,” he says, “including cardiovascular, respiratory, immune, endocrine and musculoskeletal.
Yoga strengthens the mind as much as the body. Breathing and meditation techniques can reduce stress and anxiety and redirect patients’ focus away from pain. Yet little research has been conducted on the benefits of yoga for children. MD Anderson plans to expand in this area.
In Koronczok’s class, children use yoga’s relaxation techniques to prepare for medical procedures and to calm “monkey mind” — rapid-fire thoughts that produce anxiety and stress.
Will that needle hurt?
Will my hair grow back?
Will I fall behind in school?
Will I ever get out of the hospital?
A nurse dropped in on a recent class to take Fre’derick to chemotherapy.
“Can we have five more minutes?” Koronczok asks.
She shakes a snow globe and hands it to Fre’derick. He watches intently as the swirling glitter begins to settle.
“Your mind was whirling like the snow,” Koronczok says. “But now your thoughts are becoming peaceful as the snow settles down.”
The last speck of snow settles and Fre’derick is ready. As the nurse returns and takes him by the hand, he looks back and flashes a thumbs-up.
“I got this,” he says.