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Healthy Balance

Nia: Giving Cancer Patients Something to Dance About

Each Monday this month, we’re looking at the UVA Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Program.

Nia taught in the cancer center helps patients reduce stress.

When you meet Kristy Harvey, it’s not surprising to learn that she’s the one responsible for bringing Nia to the Health System as part of the integrative medicine program and the UVA Mindfulness Center. Her smile is infectious and her enthusiasm palpable as she shares what she loves about this dance form and why it’s so helpful for people with cancer.

Nia — What?

“It’s a movement form – a blend of dance, martial arts, healing arts and uplifting energy that puts you in the mindset that you can do anything,” she says. “It’s empowering, freeing, and mood-elevating in addition to being a great cardio workout, and all about the joy of movement.”

Harvey first started teaching Nia at the Cancer Center in 2009. She was then working as an administrative assistant in the Cancer Center. “My coworkers were all stressed out. So I had them come to the waiting room  — 24 people showed up. From that first class I started a series for front desk staff, nurses, anyone who wanted to come.”

The classes were so popular and successful, cancer center leadership asked Harvey to keep the classes coming. Since then, Harvey, who is now the administrative director of the UVA Mindfulness Center, has taught Nia to cancer patients, UVA employees, nurses, the public, even “some troubled boys at a residential home. They loved it – they told me it helped them with their anger issues. It’s adaptable from that to women going through the worst things of their lives.”

Dance — for Anyone?

Nia’s adaptability excites Harvey. In her work with cancer patients, for instance, she abbreviates sessions and helps students adjust their movement for age, level and body type. She’s convinced that anyone can do Nia. “You can do it seated. And because mindfulness is such an integral part of the practice, even imagining it can be beneficial. You tune in rather than tuning out, learn to be aware of what’s going on in your body, listen to your body – if it feels good in your body, do that. Everyone is always working at their own level, never out of breath or overexerted.”

Stress Reduction for Healing

For patients just diagnosed with cancer, stress is abundant. New patients can feel anxious and depressed. Those undergoing treatment may experience changes due to drugs, weakness from chemotherapy, severe fatigue and fear.

And this is not helpful for healing. “The immune system is weakened by stress,” Harvey explains. “Stress triggers adrenaline in the body’s parasympathetic system — the fight or flight reaction — that extra pump of adrenaline. The body tenses up, blood pressure rises, and then you’re thinking about it 20 minutes later, which can then cause yet another reaction. Over time, this damages your heart, your nervous system and creates an inability to focus.”

Nia teaches cancer patients how to listen to their bodies and avoid the adrenaline rush, to prevent stress in the body, which in turns aids in healing.

“It’s very hard to be depressed and anxious when wiggling your belly button,” Harvey says. “It’s play, it’s inviting play back into your hectic, stressed-out day for just a moment. Why not feel good while you’re going through chemo?”

Nia is also a mindfulness practice, meaning that patients are invited to stay in the moment with their awareness as a way to train the brain to react differently to situations – even if that situation is cancer.

Nia “provides a space for cancer patients to get grounded in themselves. To turn their body into a place of gratitude, when their body has turned on them,” Harvey says. “To get them out of this place of gloom and doom, self-pity and self-destruction.”

Stay tuned: In October, Harvey found out that her proposal to do research on the effect of the Nia technique on the quality of life of women with treated breast cancer got approved.

Learn more about Nia and other offerings from the UVA Mindfulness Center.

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