Fest focuses on the mind-body connection

Wellness House event teaches those on cancer journey more about self-care, relaxation

The upcoming Mind-Body Fest at Wellness House couldn’t come at a better time.

“Certainly the past year and a half has been unprecedented, you could say, in terms of anxiety and isolation and for those who are dealing with cancer, even more so,” said Lisa Kolavennu, executive director of Wellness House in Hinsdale. “Yet engaging in these simple acts of self-care really has an alleviating effect for some of those negative experiences of isolation.”

The event kicks off Saturday, Aug. 28, with a series of 90-minute sessions designed for in-person small group gatherings. Most of the rest of the week’s programming (see sidebar) will be offered online. Kolavennu credited organizers with creating a hybrid event that can meet the needs of many.

“They think so creatively about how to bring people together to get that experience of being in person, yet do it safely, and have so many options for those who can’t be in person,” she said.

The week offers a comprehensive overview of programs so people can see which ones they like best.

“What’s neat about this event is people get to sample lots of different types of stress relief and coping tools,” Kolavennu said. “They can find the ones that feel most useful to them, the ones most aligned with them as individuals, and put them in their tool boxes.”

One of the sessions on Vedic yoga will introduce participants to the practice and its benefits, instructor Saumen Chattopadhyay said.

“A lot of people get confused about yoga and meditation and relaxation and things like that,” he said. “In the end, yoga is connecting to your inner self. You find a door to yourself and start the journey going inward.”

His session will be a condensed version of a course normally taught in installments, starting with an introduction, followed by a focus on breath work, stress management and emotion management.

“The object here is to get people excited about it and starting the quest,” he said.

Some of the Wellness House participants he has worked with initially were not aware their cells could change based on their intentions, said Chattopadhyay, who has been interested in yoga for more than 30 years.

“Yoga actually teaches you that your destiny is not defined,” he said. “You can change everything based on your intentions, based on your practice. There is a better future if you try.”

Chattopadhyay said he’s gratified by students who write testimonials about their experience and sign up to repeat courses.

“That shows me that they still have belief and they are practicing,” he said. “They are looking for more.”

He emphasized that yoga is not a belief system but a scientifically proven practice that works for everyone who learns how to do it.

“You do not have to be a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Jain,” he said. “It really does not matter what your religion is. All that matters is you understand science and the laws of the universe.”

Fellow presenter Mary Lisa “ML” Wahlfeldt, a certified breath coach, also pointed to the science that supports the benefit of proper breathing.

“I’m not making this up because I think it’s a great idea you should focus on your breath,” she said. “Studies have shown when you practice your breathing, you really do have the ability to relax on demand.”

Wahlfeldt explained that the vast majority of people, instead of breathing horizontally using their diaphragm, create what’s called a “vertical breath,” .

“If you watch a cat or a dog or a baby or a toddler, when you watch them sleep, there is a rise and a fall around the belly area,” she said.

When people inhale properly, they are able to fill the largest part of their lungs with oxygen. When they don’t, the lack of oxygen triggers the nervous system to go into sympathetic or “fight or flight” mode.

“Fight or flight was a great thing,” she said. “It’s a great thing for us when we’re in a trauma situation. Our bodies were never meant to be in fight or flight for days and weeks and months and years.”

The additional cortisol, adrenaline, histamine and other stress hormones the body produces in that mode decrease the minute people begin belly breathing.

“You are in control of putting yourself in a parasympathetic nervous mode,” she said. “You’ll start to feel calm and focused.”

Among the benefits are a drop in blood pressure, a boost to the immune system, improved arterial blood flow and better sleep and digestion. The parasympathetic mode also helps mitigate asthma, allergies and acid reflux.

Belly breathing is especially helpful for those on the cancer journey who need to calm themselves during treatment — and for the family members who support them, Wahlfeldt said.

“Clients reach out after class — ‘Boy, this breathing really helps me get through my chemo treatment or my radiation treatment,’ ” she said.

And the benefits will be long-lasting, she noted.

“There will be a moment in your life days or weeks or years down the road, and you’ll find yourself stressed or anxious or upset and not able to breathe,” but your mind will recall how to belly breathe, she said.

The entire slate of programs will help participants now and in the future, Kolavennu said.

“People get to experience the immediate feel-good effects of engaging in self-care and stress relief,” she said. “It also has long-term effects. So tools like deep-breathing or mindfulness, not only are they useful in an acute situation ... but they also are healthy and useful over time.”

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean