Newswise — (MEMPHIS, Tenn. – December 19, 2013) At St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the centuries-old practice of yoga is combined with nutrition education to help young cancer patients manage their disease today and lay the foundation for a healthy future. The program was created by the departments of Clinical Nutrition and Rehabilitation Services.

“We’re focusing on all of the benefits of yoga, which include balance, coordination, a decrease in pain and improving quality of life,” said Jessica Sparrow of St. Jude Rehabilitation Services. An occupational therapist trained in providing yoga for children, Sparrow adds that having this special combination of yoga and nutrition as a service provided for patients is a true complement to treatment.

“Our ultimate goal is that they take this practice into their everyday lives—like breathing exercises to help with anxiety and pain,” Sparrow said. “We intend to monitor the outcomes and track the progress as evidence-based research to not only improve upon existing knowledge at St. Jude, but also to share with others.”

Sparrow worked with Danielle Doria, also of Rehabilitation Services, and Karen Smith of Clinical Nutrition to create the program’s outline. After each yoga session, patients get a lesson on healthy eating, which often includes a hands-on demonstration from a St. Jude chef.

“We focus on foods that bring patients out of their comfort zone but are also tasty and healthy,” Smith said. “The younger kids are more open-minded about trying new foods. The parents, who are present at the sessions, can see that their children are eating hummus or something they might not have thought they would try. It encourages the families to make good food choices.”

Also a licensed occupational therapist, Doria is enrolled in a special certification for yoga therapy, which will eventually allow her to expand the program to treat more medically complex patients. “We use yoga to meet the child at his or her level of strength, which is what makes this practice so perfect for the children at St. Jude,” she said. “We can alter it to fit their needs, giving them a sense of empowerment, which is important when they’re going through treatment.”

The combination program has been successful, with many of the patients using basic poses at home or even in the hospital’s hallways. “We want to offer healthy options like yoga and good nutrition so they can be healthy survivors,” Smith said.

In 2013, the hospital added a class geared to teenaged patients.

“To me, the most rewarding aspect is seeing these kids—who are going through life experiences most people don’t until later in life—gaining physical and emotional strength and changing their eating habits,” Doria observes. “It’s really empowering.”