Self-transformation through Yoga : an interview with Michelle Stortz
What comes to mind when you think of yoga? You might imagine the tree pose, downward dog, or (everyone’s favorite) savasana. For many, yoga is perceived of as a predominantly physical practice. However, the Yoga Sutras articulate the purpose of yoga as the ability to control the fluctuations of the mind, allowing the practitioner to reach a heightened mental state. As a lifelong dancer, Michelle Stortz was drawn to yoga not only for its physicality, but for its integration of mental, emotional and spiritual elements. She taught yoga in the Vinyasa style for several years, but after losing her husband to cancer in 2009, she became certified in Yoga Therapy for Cancer and Chronic Illness. Michelle has experienced the transformative qualities of yoga, and has wholeheartedly dedicated herself to helping cancer patients undergo this transformation on the road to recovery.
Michelle refers to yoga as a crucible, or a container for self-transformation. For many of Michelle’s students, life has been turned upside down by the jarring experience of cancer. Michelle’s work helps to cultivate an openness in these individuals, giving them the tools to learn how to heal themselves. Her practice focuses on empowerment and mind-body wellness exercises, while she adapts the physical elements to meet the needs of each student. These exercises allow students to regain physical strength and importantly, to relieve stress through various breathing techniques, meditation, and deep relaxation through savasana. Michelle’s work emphasizes the healing of the mind-body connection. She reminds her students that recurring thoughts impact the body. At the end of each class, she assigns “breathing homework” and checks-in with her students at the next meeting to learn about their progress. Her students have reported feeling much calmer after employing meditation techniques for both everyday anxieties and treatment-related stresses like MRI appointments.
Michelle is incredibly passionate about her work and grateful to be a part of the growing trend of integrative medicine. In her experience, Michelle has seen great strides in the theoretical support for this approach, but limitations still exist at the organizational level. She has found creative ways to adapt to the often limited spaces for practice within hospitals, and remains hopeful about the continued support of donors and advocates for integrative medicine.
What’s Up Next
Michelle works with cancer patients at Fox Chase Cancer Center, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia, and the Joan Karnell Cancer Center. Michelle also teaches in her home studio, and through her nonprofit work with Unite for Her, an organization that offers complementary therapies for women with breast cancer, she is sent to work with patients one-on-one in their homes. Michelle had the opportunity to lead a workshop for YACC, an experience which inspired her to consider creating a class specifically targeted to young adult patients. Michelle adds, “That’s all I want to do–to find communities of cancer patients or of those who are suffering, and to help them.” She aspires to continue this work by opening her own yoga studio in an area hospital and exploring other forms of outreach, such as yoga with live music, a class that she recently taught at the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia. If you are interested in the transformative power of yoga, you can catch Michelle’s workshop on April 18th at YACC’s Cancervention! Michelle will demonstrate several helpful breathing exercises and discuss the physiological mechanisms at play during various yoga practices.