Stretching Out, Not Stressing Out

By timtaylor  //  December 14th, 2015  // 

PRI recreational therapist Kimberly Smith practices a yoga move in the Donna and Senator Percy Malone Healing Garden.

PRI recreational therapist Kimberly Smith practices a yoga move in the Donna and Senator Percy Malone Healing Garden.

A number of studies have shown that yoga, a system of exercises based on Hindu philosophy, can help

patients struggling with mental and physical problems. Researchers at the Psychiatry Department of Islamic Azad University in Iran in 2009 found that participating in a two-month yoga class can significantly reduce symptoms in women with anxiety disorders. Another study, published in 2006, showed that practicing yoga and meditation as a means to manage and relieve stress helps individuals overcome other comorbidities associated with diseases and leads to increased quality of life.

More than 20 million people in the United States practice yoga, according to a 2012 survey, and its calming approach to exercise was just one of the reasons Kimberly Smith, a recreational therapist at the Psychiatric Research Institute, began holding weekly sessions for patients on PRI’s women’s inpatient unit involving yoga.

“I’ve wanted to do this for years, to use a holistic approach to care,” says Smith, who brings the patients to the newly opened Donna and Senator Percy Malone Healing Garden each week for sessions lasting from 20 minutes to an hour. “I wanted to utilize the garden in a productive, effective and transforming way. We could have done this up on the unit (located on the fifth floor of PRI), but the garden is better. Atmosphere makes a difference in the energy of the people participating.”

Smith, who has been practicing yoga for 16 years, is aware that not all patients are equipped to handle some of the more difficult positions. “Safety is number one, it always will be,” says Smith, who is currently studying to be a certified instructor in hatha, a form of yoga that involves slow-paced stretching along with simple breathing exercises. “We’ve done some modifications, like using a chair for those who can’t stand for a long period. We’re adjusting to meet their physical needs.”

Nancy Mitchell, RN, a nurse on the women’s inpatient unit, says that even some of the staff have taken part in the training exercises. “It gives them a little rest and relaxation away from the job,” says Mitchell. “It also creates a shared bond between them and the patients.”

“We all need that, we sometimes forget about that as caregivers,” adds Smith.

“The patients have been very enthusiastic about the class. They like being outside on the grass, in the fresh air. They come back to the unit refreshed, asking when they can do it again,” says Mitchell.

“There has been a significant amount of research on the positive effects of aerobic exercise and yoga on mental health,” says Betty Everett, a PRI psychologist. “Aerobic exercise may reduce the stress response system so the body is not as negatively impacted by stress, or perhaps it serves as a different focus or distraction from mental anguish, or helps increase feelings of self-efficacy and increases self-esteem.   Yoga can help give the person a more flexible approach to stress in the body, mind, and spirit.”

The serenity of the surroundings and the sense of freedom that comes with working out in the garden has inspired Smith as well as her students. “The healing garden is a marvelous space. Everything about it is wonderful. The chance to use that space as a therapeutic area is very liberating.”