A healthy dose of charity

Healing: Yoga teachers, massage therapists and integrative breathing instructors donate time to help bring such services to cancer patients.

January 21, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Gina Fortunato spent an hour yesterday breathing in deeply and letting go, an exercise in relaxation, self-transformation, inspiration.

Oh, and fund raising.

Appreciating the idea of doing good while helping themselves, dozens of people arrived for yoga classes, massage appointments and "integrative breathing" sessions at seven sites throughout the Baltimore area for the HealingAthon, a new charity event.

The money participants paid for their moments of me-time will fund similar services for cancer patients, organizers said.

"My dream is to have the world do this - practitioners worldwide," said Eileen Katz, an integrative breathing instructor and yoga teacher from Rodgers Forge who pulled the event together in two months. She hopes to make it an annual event.

The result was nothing like typical charity "-a-thons" that ask for feats of stamina and muscle exertion. Participants were urged to release tension. "Be at peace with yourself" was the mantra of the day.

"It's a little less challenging than running 10 miles," said Baltimore resident Janine Holc, 40, jokingly.

She and 10 others spent an hour of gentle stretches and slow movements in a sunshine-filled room of the Midtown Yoga Center on East Preston Street.

"Allow your eyes to close for a moment," said instructor Sheron McGuire. "In-hale," she instructed them in measured tones, "aaaand ex-hale."

Breathing - beyond the involuntary in-and-out - was an integral part of the day.

At the Inspiration Community in Owings Mills, men and women sat in a circle on the purple-carpeted floor as Jessica Dibb told them how conscious breathing could help them feel happier, confront deep problems, even connect with the world.

"Allow the breath to guide you, because it will," said Dibb, director of the Inspiration Community. "The breath is literally your life force."

Fortunato, 29, of Roland Park, settled near a window with a pillow and closed her eyes, finding a rhythm of breathing in - and in, and in - and then letting the used air go, gently. She's done this before. It makes her feel united, body, mind and soul.

"This is just a place where I go for myself," Fortunato said.

Ellicott City resident Mary Peitz, 48, showed up for yoga yesterday partly for herself and partly for the cause: She's a breast cancer survivor.

A friend from Baltimore called her and said: "We have to do this." So yesterday morning they drove through slushy streets to LifeBridge Health & Fitness in Pikesville for a class led by Katz.

Later at McGuire's yoga session, barefoot students stretched, surrounded by the subtle scent of incense. They moved from pose to pose (starfish: spine down, chin tucked to throat) and finished the afternoon session by lying quietly on their backs as violin music washed over them.

Instructors who volunteered time yesterday said they feel healthier since finding these "complementary" approaches to well-being. Stan Andrzejewski, who owns three yoga centers in Maryland, is less stressed now. Kim Manfredi, co-owner of Midtown Yoga, regained flexibility and sensation after breaking her back.

Katz thinks men and women suffering from illnesses can benefit from stretching, breathing fully and being massaged instead of being hurt.

"When people are going through something like cancer, they are probed and prodded and they end up in many cases not liking their body very much - they feel like their body has failed them," she said.

Organizers have yet to count how much money was raised, but Katz said the proceeds would go to Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the Wellness Community and the Inspiration Community's Breast Cancer Clearinghouse.

Mindful of that, McGuire released her class with a reflection: "Take a moment to acknowledge everything you just felt within yourself - and how, in this hour, you've also helped countless other people."

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