“Settle into the ground. Let your whole body just merge into the earth,” says Maggie Mellor, a yoga instructor at The Wellness Community Valley/Ventura in Westlake Village.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Mellor leads a beginning yoga class for cancer patients, cancer survivors or family members of cancer patients. Like all programs at The Wellness Community, Mellor’s class is free. The yoga students, seven adults at varying points in middle age, lie on multicolored mats around the large living room. Couches and furniture have been pushed against the walls for the class.
Before Mellor dims the lights, the room feels like a comfortable but funky bank-turned-community center, complete with odd 1980s-era light fixtures on the ceiling. As soon as she dims the lights, however, Mellor’s voice comes into focus, with a light hint of a South African accent glinting through.
If Mellor’s voice could be alchemized into a food, it would be a soothing cup of orange spice tea, with a spoonful of dark, exotic eucalyptus honey. Setting the tone and feel of the class, Mellor’s voice creates the perfect thread, helping students sew together their mind, body and spirit throughout the hourlong class.
“Try tuning in to the tidal flow of your breath. Our breath is always with us, from the moment we take our first to the moment we take our last. Yoga invites us to become conscious of our breath,” says Mellor.
Beyond her voice, there is the sound of traffic from the 101 freeway mingled with Native American flute music lilting quietly from a stereo. There is the whoosh and fwww of people breathing loudly, deliberately. With their eyes closed, the students carefully follow Mellor’s instructions. Her voice becomes a beacon in the dark room, her calm and thoughtful directions creating an aura of calm.
After finishing some floor and breathing exercises, Mellor asks her students to stand up to try a “tree” yoga pose. The lights are turned bright again. First she asks the students to balance on one leg, with the other bent and the foot tucked into the crook of the knee, with hands above the head. The students try to balance, some teetering over. This is a typical yoga class moment. But Mellor, conscious that these are not typical students, asks them to execute the tree pose in a new way.
She asks the students to find partners. Standing side by side, Mellor instructs them to try the tree pose together. Standing hip to hip, each student wraps their arms around the other, each carefully lifting one leg and raising one arm. They touch palms, in prayer pose, above their two heads and lean against each other for support. For a moment, they balance then someone tips over and the class lets go. The students laugh and then applaud.
In that moment, the power of community is palpable. Mellor has demonstrated, without words, the importance of finding a friend, a stranger, any other person to lean on in times of crisis. That is exactly what The Wellness Community provides for people in the midst of battling cancer.
An inner journey
As Mellor leads her class through yoga poses and guided meditations, she speaks with clear conviction and compassion. After all, as a fellow cancer survivor, Mellor understands their pain. She first started teaching yoga at The Wellness Community 10 years ago, after recovering from breast cancer. “I had actually applied to teach here before [I got cancer], but they weren’t interested in me. Once I got breast cancer, they called,” says Mellor with a playful laugh.
Mellor has a clear affection for The Wellness Community and the people in her classes. She calls the Community “a very special place,” and she considers herself lucky to work with these students. “It is a complete honor to be working with people who are [battling] cancer. It levels people, and they have a lot of pain,” says Mellor.
Besides teaching at The Wellness Community, Mellor takes people on yoga adventures and teaches other classes. Mellor, who was born in Holland but grew up in South Africa, says “being from somewhere else” has always enriched her life. Despite living in many different places, her practice of yoga has been a connecting thread since she started studying the Shivananda lineage of yoga at age 13.
Now, Mellor brings the benefits of yoga to others who are going through the hell of cancer, giving them the opportunity to connect their physical bodies with their spiritual souls. Mellor sees the classes as a voyage. “During the class, I take people on a journey through the body and the psyche. It is an inner journey. Yoga allows people to connect with their source,” says Mellor. Of her own journey through breast cancer, Mellor says after receiving news of a suspicious mammogram, she went into denial. Eventually, she accepted reality. “I had to face that I had cancer. It was very scary. In our culture, it’s a huge load,” says Mellor.
Throughout her diagnosis, treatment and recovery, Mellor returned to yoga for support. “I remember doing my first yoga stretch after surgery. I felt this life force move through me. I had been protecting myself from pain, but I felt my body open up again. It was like the first time doing yoga again, even after so many years.”
All of Maggie Mellor’s hard work at The Wellness Community is being recognized this month. Suzanne Drace, president of The Wellness Community of Valley/Ventura, says Mellor is this year’s recipient of the Community’s Celebration of Hope Award. She will be given the award June 8 at the Celebration of Life gala event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village. Drace says The Wellness Community was started 25 years ago by Dr. Harold Benjamin in Santa Monica. Now there are 22 chapters of the organization nationally, and the Valley/Ventura branch is 16 years old. “Each chapter is independently governed and funded,” says Drace.
The whole purpose of The Wellness Community is to offer support to cancer patients and their families, according to Drace. “After a cancer diagnosis, the world goes out of control. We offer workshops and support groups that are all a part of the process to [gain control] and reduce isolation ... We give people the chance to relax and socialize and share their stories.”
Remembering to appreciate life and restoring hope to patients and families are all part of The Wellness Community’s mission, according to Drace. She says Mellor’s yoga class gives people the chance to “step back and breathe” and get relief from stress. “Cancer patients ... are faced with so much stress. There is so much to think about. But when they come into the mindful meditation class or yoga class, they can leave it behind.”
For Harriet Wasserman, who attends Mellor’s yoga classes regularly, The Wellness Community has been a lifeline for herself and her daughter Nancy Colton, a cancer patient. Wasserman has been coming to The Wellness Community with her daughter since February 2006. “My daughter has metastatic cancer. She found out in October of 2005. She had a double masectomy, her ovaries removed and reconstructive surgery,” says Wasserman.
At first Nancy wouldn’t talk to anyone about the cancer. Eventually, Wasserman and her daughter started coming to support groups on Wednesday night (one for family members and one for patients.) Now, Wasserman says her daughter looks forward to the group so much that she gets mad at anyone who plans anything else on Wednesday night.
Now, even though Nancy’s health is “not great,” Wasserman said her daughter, who is a mother of three, has “a great attitude.” The speakers, the information available and the support the organization provides are all things that keep Wasserman and her daughter coming back to The Wellness Community. Her only wish is that more people knew about the services provided there. As she says, “I wish that the word would get out so they could serve more people. It’s such a gift. I wish more people would know about it.”