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Angel By My Bedside

Synergistic and Holistic, Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Is Bringing Care Back Into Healthcare


Last Updated: 12/12/2016 9:27 am
  • Annie Internicola

Harley Decker was 19 when his left lung collapsed and he was rushed to Southampton Hospital for emergency surgery in 2013. He had a condition called blebs, prevalent in tall, thin white males (Decker is 6'2"), in which microscopic air pockets form on the lining of the lung, where they can rupture and compromise the vital organ. The operation involved inserting a chest tube between two ribs and then "sandpapering" the tiny air pockets so that when they healed they would fuse to the chest cavity, preventing the lung from future collapse. It was not his first surgery, and in previous post-ops he had responded well to morphine. But not this time. "I was getting severe morphine sickness," he recalls, with three days of nausea, painful vomiting, migraines, and sleeplessness. His mother, Gina Decker, was by his side, helpless to relieve her son's suffering and not getting much sleep herself. When he had his chest tube removed on day four he felt no better—until yoga teacher Sarah Halweil came into the room and laid her hands on him with Urban Zen Integrative Therapy.

"I'm very open-minded to things like Reiki and Eastern medicine, but in the position that I was in, I didn't believe that anything would help," Harley says. Yet the moment he felt warm hands on his body, the effect was instant relief. "I watched in awe," remembers Gina, as Halweil administered the healing touch that helped her son breathe more deeply, transporting him into a deep and much-needed slumber. For about 30 minutes Halweil worked on him, from his head to his chest to his feet, and a smile came over the sleeping boy's face. "She finished by putting her hands in a heart shape over his chest area, and when she left the room I felt this profound sense of calm," says Gina, who watched her son sleep for three hours. As Harley awoke she leaned in close, like she was looking at a newborn. "How do you feel?" she asked softly. After four days of nothing but agony and agitation, his response was one word: "Great." "How is your headache?" she inquired. "Gone."

Treating the Whole Person

Much more than just hands-on touch, Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT) is a system of five healing modalities inspired by fashion designer Donna Karan and created by yoga teachers Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee. In 2001 Karan's husband, Stephen Weiss, was dying of lung cancer, and Karan got a close look at a healthcare system that was geared to treating a disease rather than a person—and that subjected doctors and nurses to burnout and fatigue. Eager to put more care into healthcare for both patients and caregivers, she turned to her yoga friends Rodney and Colleen to mastermind a solution. Launched in 2007, UZIT combines yoga therapy (including gentle movement, restorative poses, breath awareness, and meditation), Reiki, essential oil therapy, contemplative care, and nutrition-based wellness.

"The [healthcare environment] has become so sterile that the human care aspect of it leaks out of the equation," says Rodney Yee. "It's unfortunate because human touch and interaction are a big aspect of healing. Healing is not just fixing the physical body." With many hospital coordinators and CEOs realizing that patient satisfaction is important, there is a need for services that offer a more human experience. "We came up with the idea that we're not going to pretend to heal cancer or anything like that, but we're going to do what we do best—we're going to bring people into the present moment with our techniques," says Yee. "We're going to create as best we can the optimum environment so that the body and mind can do what they already want to do, and that is heal and balance." Each of UZIT's modalities is designed to address the symptoms of PANIC—pain, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, and constipation—as well as exhaustion and sadness. Practitioners are trained to draw from a toolbox of healing practices to address a wide range of scenarios for the patient or caregiver.

While Harley Decker experienced mainly touch healing, a typical UZIT session will combine and synchronize aspects of all five modalities. It's in this synergy that the magic happens and the power of each modality gets amplified. "At first I thought we should just use pranayama [breathwork]," says Yee. "When we started using five modalities, I was blown away. It wasn't just 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1. It was 1 plus 5 plus 5 plus 5." For someone experiencing anxiety, an UZIT practitioner might have the patient inhale an essential oil called Peace & Calming, and then put them into a Child's Pose. They might use Reiki hands on the lower back or feet to give a sense of grounding. Then the practitioner might talk the patient through a body awareness meditation. Later, the patient might get some nutritional guidance. "We also utilize something called bearing witness, from the Zen Buddhism community, which is listening deeply to the person you're with," says Yee. "So with PANIC we created a chart of things to do in a half-hour or hour session."

In 2008, Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan conducted a yearlong research project using UZIT on one of its oncology floors—and the result was a savings of nearly $1 million that year on medications for pain, anxiety, and nausea. Since the strong endorsement of that study, about 750 practitioners have trained to become Urban Zen integrative therapists, and the program has spread its wings to UCLA Medical Center, Ohio State University Medical Center, Boulder Community Hospital, and about 10 different facilities in the Greater New York City area. Not just in hospital settings, UZIT has also branched out to rehab centers, women's shelters, yoga studios, and classrooms, with a modified version tailored for kids in inner city San Francisco schools.

"In the institutions that we're in, the staff members are so happy we're there because the patient is happier and there are better patient outcomes," says Mary-Beth Charno, a Kingston-based holistic nurse and one of UZIT's senior nurse trainers. "A lot of times the physician will say, 'I don't know what you're doing, but keep doing it.'" Charno is bringing UZIT to the Hudson Valley with a series of workshops to begin in January at Wellness Embodied in New Paltz. Designed for laypeople as well as health practitioners, and appropriate for any caregiver, from a nurse to a parent—the UZIT model begins with self-care. "The whole foundation of the practice is self-care," explains Charno. "You have to get yourself into the yoga poses and feel them. You have to become the lavender oil that you use." The philosophy is simple: You can't effectively take care of other people if you don't take care of yourself. We can't give from an empty vessel or from an exhausted, stress-wracked body.

"We like to think of [UZIT] as a life vest," she explains. "As clinicians, we're trained with this multitasking mind. We have to hold 10 or 12 things in our mind and juggle them. It creates a fragmented being because the mind is separated from the body. These therapies offer an invitation for the mind and body to have a moment to come together. Whether you simply recognize that your body has weight, or take a moment to feel your feet on the ground before you walk into a patient's room, that's where the magic is. There's an availability to be present to what's unfolding in front of me. I can hold those 10 things that I need to keep in my mind, but there's something more supportive there. I can see the patient and what they actually need in that moment." In the hospital room, the UZIT practitioner is trained to keep the language neutral and accessible, not using words like yoga or meditation. "When we present it as, 'I'm going to have you move your arms and legs in bed so that you don't get a lung infection,' that's understood by everyone. Really what we're trying to do is get the patient back into their body, and into their breath."

Finding Refuge from Suffering

Marina Vandenbergh, a functional medicine nurse based in Peekskill, took the UZIT training in 2012 and did her clinical rotation at Health Lodge—a free place to stay for cancer patients receiving treatment in Manhattan. "Many of the people I met were extremely sick and doing experimental treatments," she says. "A few minutes into a session, everybody would be asleep. Just from sheer exhaustion." Yet the tables turned for Vandenbergh two years later, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and Lyme disease. She already had a self-care practice in place thanks to UZIT—a practice that she slipped into like a hammock for her discomfort-wracked body. "I have a daily breathwork practice that grew because of that training, and that has really helped ground me over the last few years. Whereas some of my other go-tos, such as yoga with large movements, weren't as accessible, the breathwork was. Sometimes there's no other way around [the pain] but through the breath."

Applying UZIT to herself has helped Vandenbergh find some comfort and a home in her body through difficult symptoms and a daunting diagnosis. Her situation also underscores the flexibility of UZIT, which can be adapted to suit anyone in any state of health. Sick patients can be guided through yoga-based movements right in their hospital bed, or in a chair. However it is administered, the multifaceted therapy gives people a chance to pause and reset. Vandenbergh knows that UZIT won't cure her, but that hardly deters her from doing it. "During what could have been a very fear-driven time, I was able to keep my head on. I can only imagine what this would look like if I wasn't caring for myself in this way. If I didn't have a commitment to easing my body, my mind, my nervous system, what this could be is so much worse."

Whether it's rolled out in a healthcare setting or served up in a classroom, UZIT is not trying to fix anything. Instead, it's about helping people to "be here now," says Yee, quoting the American spiritual teacher Ram Dass. As an example of how the practice can help center and ground even the most hard-to-reach individuals, Yee tells about a story about how his UZIT-trained sister uses the therapy with her special-education students. "She had a kid they called the Screamer. He was autistic. After a few Urban Zen experiences, he would come into the room, pick an essential oil, lie down in a restorative pose, and wait to be Reiki-ed. He can learn now. It's about preparing the body and mind to receive."

The plan now is to take UZIT far and wide,with trainings in the works in more cities as well as internationally. Whether it's close to home, where the comforting therapies can help ease a child's stomach ache, or at a corporation, shelter, or hospital, relief is on the way.


Mary-Beth Charno

Marina Vandenbergh

Urban Zen Integrative Therapy

Wellness Embodied

Rodney Yee

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