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New class eases anxiety through yoga

By Jennifer Vogelsong

Kelly Thoman has a high stress job and bouts with anxiety. Dan Coma had just the idea to help: a special program at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center using yoga to ease anxiety. It’s part of the emerging field of yoga therapy which Coma, a registered yoga instructor,  is completing his training in after teaching group classes at the Medical Center’s University Fitness Center for nine years. He found there was a need for such an evidence-based integrative program after talking with a family medicine doctor at the Medical Center and Deb Tregea, program coordinator at the fitness center.

“We were told that one of the most common conditions people talk with their doctors about is generalized anxiety disorder,” Coma said. Using gentle postures and breathing, Yoga helps balance the autonomic nervous system and increases levels of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain – both good for dealing with anxiety. The program is evidence-based, meaning it is based on research that shows a benefit of using yoga for anxiety.

“Yoga gives you a calming effect and relaxes your mind so you have less anxiety and worry and sleep better,” Coma said.

So in the fall, eight weekly sessions of Easing Anxiety with Yoga were added to the fitness center’s menu of offerings. Unlike most other classes, a referral from a medical provider was necessary to register to confirm an anxiety diagnosis. Although the class fee is typically not covered by insurance, Tregea said some people may have wellness coverage or employee wellness benefits that could help with the cost.

Response to the first session was strong, with 15 people ages 12 to 84 attending.

“Almost half of the people inquiring about the program said they felt they needed something besides medication,” Tregea said. Yoga and meditation supplement standard medical care and are not meant to be a replacement.  “If students are on medication or in talk therapy, I encourage them to stay in touch with their medical provider,” Coma said.”

The class is held in the fitness center’s carpeted multipurpose room with soft paper lights used to tone down the overhead lighting. Calming music sets the tone as Coma leads participants through a series of breathing techniques, exercises, deep relaxation and meditation. The participants can modify the moves as necessary, with some using chairs rather than getting down on the floor.

“Anxiety is also a physiological state – your nervous system is in hyper arousal and it’s not just in the brain,” Coma said. “Your mind follows your breath, so if you slow your breathing, your mind will follow.”

At the end of each session, he serves warm tea for a social close to the group’s time together.

“What I aim for is to give them a feeling of calm vitality by freeing up tension,” he said. “People often come in feeling a little stressed or frazzled and by the end they are mellow and relaxed with a clear mind.”

For Thoman, the benefits lasted longer than just the evening of the class.

“He taught us a lot of techniques to help prevent or rid yourself of anxiety, which I was able to channel during moments in my daily life.”

Her 13-year-old daughter attended the class with her to see if it would help with her trouble falling asleep at night.

“She gets worried about homework and things with school, so I want her to know how to deal with that stress as it comes so it doesn’t become chronic,” Thoman said.

Coma said that is the idea – empowering students to use their own inner resources for self-healing.

“You learn that you have power and control over your situation and what you do makes a difference,” he said. “It takes you from feeling helpless – like your body and mind aren’t a safe place to be in – to a feeling of being powerful and hopeful.”

The next eight-week series begins Thurs. Jan. 5. For information about the program or referral process, contact Tregea at 717-531-7076 or by email at

-Jennifer Vogelsong

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