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Powerful poses
Claudia deHaven Biddle initially used yoga to overcome paralysis: now, she's at the head of the class

Claudia deHaven Biddle leads students in yoga poses in Marblehead.

As seen in Boston Herald's North Shore Affiliate, Marblehead Reporter

(FRONT COVER FEATURE STORY: LIFESTYLES SECTION)



-- STAFF PHOTOGRAPH CNC--MARC VASCONCELLOS

As seen in Boston Herald's North Shore Affiliate, Marblehead Reporter

(FRONT COVER FEATURE STORY: LIFESTYLES SECTION)

Powerful poses

Claudia deHaven Biddle initially used yoga to overcome paralysis: now, she's at the head of the class

By Mary Kay Rosteck / Correspondent
Thursday, April 24, 2003


LIFESTYLES


IMPROPER BOSTONIAN DECEMBER 2005

That Was No Lion.

That Was Claudia

 

Article By Mopsy Kennedy, Veteran Correspondent

December 2006

 


-- STAFF PHOTOGRAPH CNC--MARC VASCONCELLOS

Twenty five years ago, Claudia deHaven Biddle lay flat on her back after being stricken with a debilitating illness, wondering if she would ever walk again. She was given little hope of walking, let alone surviving past 18.


Now a 13-year veteran yoga teacher and therapist, she has come to Marblehead to share what she's learned about yoga's benefits to students, both able and disabled.

It's hard to imagine that the supple blond-haired woman showing her students a mind-boggling variety of yoga poses continues to live with a physically debilitating disease.

"The syndrome I have, inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CDIP), is very similar to multiple sclerosis," explains Biddle. "It's an extremely rare neuromuscular disorder with auto-immune origins."

As with MS, the sufferer's own immune system eats away at the myelin sheath, which transmits impulses back and forth from the brain to the muscles. When myelin degenerates, no impulses can be transmitted, so the body receives no messages to move and undergoes sensations that are distorted and very painful. During a flare up of the remitting and relapsing disorder, the patient is rendered partially or fully paralyzed.

"In April, 1978, at 13, I was admitted to the hospital," says Biddle. "Soon I had little more than slight shoulder-shrugging ability. I remained there until October, fully paralyzed for seven months. I left the hospital in a wheelchair and the doctors told me I would never function completely normally because of the muscle atrophy that had occurred."

Biddle started rehabilitation therapy. Slowly, with the help of chemotherapy and other experimental treatments, she learned how to walk again. But each time she became ambulatory and doctors tried to lessen the level of the lethal drugs she was taking, the paralysis returned. She went through this ordeal a number of times.

"Realizing I would have to be on a chemo regime for the rest of my life, I began to aggressively search for a way to counteract the side affects through incorporating good nutrition, meditation and physical activities into my daily routine," says Biddle.

She was unable to do anything that involved impact to the joints, or she would end up back in the hospital. Once, when a bout of her illness had kept her at home, Biddle saw a woman doing yoga on TV.

"It was clear that some of the moves in yoga were the same as the stretching, strengthening and balancing exercise I did in physical and occupational therapy," says Biddle. "To re-learn my balance, the therapists had me get on all fours and reach out the right leg and left arm, which is a yoga posture. They had me stand on one leg with legs up by the chest, pressing palms together - that was also a yoga pose, known as tree pose."

She adds, "I've since discovered that, whatever stage my body is in at a particular time, I need to continue applying yoga principles. Whether I'm in a wheelchair, in a bed or on a mat, my pain level is decreased, my recovery is faster, and I lose less flexibility and strength and lessen stress if I do yoga daily, no matter what. So while doctors gave me a prognosis of a life with limited mobility, yoga has helped me achieve a quality of life beyond anyone's expectations."

 

From pupil to teacher

After years of studying and practicing yoga, Biddle began to teach yoga to friends at jobs and at home. Following back surgery and more recovery, she became director of aquatics at the YWCA.

"I incorporated yoga in my teaching, all ages, all levels," says Biddle. "For instance, I would teach children how to breath evenly and rhythmically when swimming, not hold their breath, through Pranayama (life-force breathing). This jump-started my career creating yoga programs professionally."

Biddle particularly values her three years of teaching at geriatric units at Boston's McLean Hospital.

"I saw Alzheimer's patients, with just enough memory remaining to be terrified because they knew they were not at home, but with not enough memory to know their left arm from their right," says Biddle. "I helped them to find a sense of ease and control by being able to coordinate enough to do simple yoga breathing and be able to calm themselves naturally, as opposed to achieving that through drug therapy. It is beautiful to experience that power of healing."

Some major life events then led to a career change.

"When my house burned down three years ago and corporate jobs I had in graphic design dried up, I decided that I really wanted to focus full time on expressive therapies and yoga therapy," says Biddle. "So I created Snow Lion Yoga. I can do restorative yoga therapy, where I focus on the mind like psychology, but find the points in the body where tension, injury, and trauma is held. It's akin to physical therapy. Yoga postures, called asanas, can be combined with breath and mind to heal the body's injuries, such as rotator cuff problems, recovery from back surgery, or to deal with chronic pain, as from arthritis."

A certified 500-hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT), Biddle has logged more than 9,000 hours of clinical and private yoga instruction. She is registered with the national Yoga Alliance in multiple yoga disciplines, holds a additional 500-hour RYT in Ashtanga and is trained in Hatha, Iyengar, Thai Yoga Massage and Chi Kung.

Through her own grueling experience, Biddle has also learned the value of these approaches.

"We are so used to pushing our bodies to the extreme," Biddle tells her students. "This is contrary to yoga, which is designed to help you lessen stress, learn to breathe as humans were meant to and develop strength and grace. Postures are held, yet flow together, creating a vigorous work of the body, but without punishing impact."

Biddle points out that the yoga postures and routines were designed to maintain or restore health over 2,500 years ago and that Western medicine is using identical forms today in injury recovery. Having studied medicine and psychotherapy in college, she believes that a combination of Eastern philosophy of medicine and practices, along with standard Western medicine, is the most effective approach to healing.

 

Landing in Marblehead

Biddle's love of Marblehead has led her to open her business locally.

"For years I have found excuses to come to my friends' house here in town, with its wonderful exposure to the sea and to nature," she said. "There I began teaching yoga to a small group who didn't want to learn yoga at a gym, but somewhere they could learn 'real' yoga without the competitive atmosphere. But as these in-home classes grew, and times didn't always coincide with their family's needs, I had to find a permanent space or discontinue classes."

"I wanted a noncompetitive and soothing environment, and finally found what I was looking for at A Dancer's Dream," says Biddle. "I fell in love with the place, management and the ambiance. At that point, Beth Wheeler, the owner, was looking for someone to establish new yoga classes so it seemed like a win-win situation and I set up shop with my Snow Lion Yoga at 222 Beacon Street."

At Biddle's classes, students can learn as in-depth yoga as they want to.

"I focus on the individual student, providing a safe haven to practice and utilizing the multiple styles of yoga that I'm certified to teach that will be most helpful to them," she says.

Exhilarated by her own personal triumphs through yoga, Biddle has developed a logical approach to teaching that combines Western medicine, Eastern health practices and common sense.

"I specialize in providing one-on-one attention and adapting to the unique needs of my clients for a true holistic mind-body-spirit program," says Biddle. "I respect the fact that a novice may have certain fears and concentrate on making people less apprehensive about embarking on yoga."

Her students have ranged from geriatrics to male athletes, from children to those in wheelchairs.

Biddle lauds yoga's ability "to help maximize health, stamina, flexibility, and serenity." When a person signs up for sessions, she does a thorough health analysis, complete with questionnaire, and modifies postures to suit their needs.

"Classes are offered five days a week at times convenient for my clients," says Biddle. "They're at 8 a.m. on Saturday, 11 a.m. on Sunday and 'Lunchtime Yoga' is at noon on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays."

After working with a new client, Biddle frequently gets excellent feedback. Last week, a woman who had come to see Biddle with a daughter who recently had been diagnosed with Diabetes I and II, sent her this e-mail: "After your wonderful classes, Claudia, my daughter seems very happy with her decision to keep at yoga. You really had a lot of positive things to say and gave her the desire she needed to choose to go on practicing yoga for the many health benefits it will offer her. We want to continue working with you."

Indeed, there's little doubt she

will continue to work with all of her students, despite her illness.

"The only disability," she says, "is a closed mind."


Snow Lion Yoga offers private yoga sessions group, and corporate programs, as well as Thai Yoga Massage. For more information, contact Biddle at 617-905-7301 or visit her Web site at www.Snowlionyoga.com