“I was frustrated by the healthcare system because I felt it was only disease-oriented and that nobody was taking care of the patient…” explained fashion designer, philanthropist, and long time yogini Donna Karan in an interview with LA Yoga Magazine in October 2012. She described to us the impersonal health care environment she’d witnessed while caring for her husband, Stephan Weiss, who had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Weiss had found Eastern therapies instrumental in elevating the quality of his life during his last seven years (he passed away in 2001). “I was fortunate enough to have someone who could take care of my husband holistically, but I wondered, ‘What do other patients do?’”
In direct response to the lack of holistic care provided for those undergoing treatment for serious illnesses, Karan collaborated with yoga teachers Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman, as well as Karan’s personal doctor, Woodson Merrell, to launch Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT). The program integrates the modalities of yoga therapy, essential oil therapy, Reiki, nutrition, and contemplative care to add the human element into the medical equation, bringing relief and personal connection not only to patients, but their loved ones and caregivers as well. A pilot program at Beth Israel Medical Center confirmed that UZIT led to a significant decrease in pain and anxiety amongst patients, elevated their mood, and provided better rest. A million dollars per year per floor cost was saved as a result of faster healing, shorter hospital stays, and reduced need for medication.
UCLA picked up the program in 2011, which, along with Yoga Works, is showcasing the power of the UZIT program in Los Angeles, specifically. The UCLA Health System has certified 150 of its caregivers as UZIT therapists; a fourth training program is scheduled this fall. “What is unique about the UCLA model compared with other institutions is that our own employees are trained in the techniques as an adjunct to the clinical skills they already possess,” says Ellen Wilson, Director of Therapy Services at UCLA. The training is a 500-hour program, made up of 100 hours of clinical rotations, 50 hours of community service, and 350 hours of study. UZIT services are complimentary to patients – all they need is to request treatment.
“I was gently eased into a chair and administered a soul-soothing treatment to my shoulders and neck. Now I know firsthand how beneficial these treatments are,” says a recent patient. The parent of a patient hospitalized in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit at UCLA noted, “I found the Urban Zen therapy performed by Denise Brown RN, to be a wonderful and innovative treatment modality which I feel greatly added to my daughter’s healing. These measures (of yoga and essential oils) eased her pain and discomfort and had a calm and soothing effect.”
Casey Coda, a trainer for Urban Zen Integrative Therapists, explains that health practitioners often experience the “dark caregiver secret” of burn out; they themselves are not in the best of health. By the end of the training, she sees them awake, on fire, and exclaiming how good they feel. “Having healthy caregivers is just as important as healthy patients,” says Dr. Shadi Vahdat, internal medicine physician at UCLA. “That’s what’s great about the Urban Zen training: it can be used for patients, families, colleagues and personal use.”
Not limited to healthcare professionals, Yoga Works offers UZIT training to anyone seeking to bring Eastern healing techniques to hospitals, outpatient care centers, support groups, corporate environments, medical schools, and education systems. There are two levels to the training: Level 1 provides 100 of the 500-hour training, addressing each modality and how they integrate for self-care; Level 2 shifts the focus to a professional practice including clinical rotations.
“Going through the Urban Zen training gave me a way to seamlessly blend all my existing skills to address symptoms suffered by almost everyone at one time or another,” says Hazel Patterson, a UZIT trainer and Yoga Works instructor. As a certified UZIT therapist, one day she’s helping ease the pain of chemo and post-surgical patients; the next, she’s leading an Urban Zen yoga class.
Yoga Works offers weekly Urban Zen classes at their South Bay, Larchmont, Tarzana, and Westlake Village studios. Patterson sees about 30 people in class, on average. “There was the feeling of floating and I could feel the energy working well after practice,” says Joe, a regular student. “I have a heart condition and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and yet my breath came naturally and without effort.” Patterson reiterates, “It is results like these that are opening the doors of mainstream medical establishments to this parallel treatment system. Hospitals are seeing that when the human side of a patient is addressed, the healing process is greatly enhanced.”
The vision is to have UZIT offered in every healthcare facility, education system, and yoga studio in the nation, and the training to be a required track for nursing schools. “We don’t want to just create the effect on one hospital — we want to change the nation and the international scene of health and wellness,” explains Yee. “I believe that Urban Zen Integrative Therapy is going to be the physical therapy of the 21st century.”