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From laughter yoga to end-of-life care, celebrating 30 years of helping those affected by serious illness

Jan Girard teaches laughter yoga at Pathways with her husband, Pete.
Photo by Emily K. Bright
Jan Girard teaches laughter yoga at Pathways with her husband, Pete.

It’s 9:30 on a Monday morning at Pathways in Minneapolis, and participants are here to laugh. They trickle in one-by-one, hugging each other as they settle into their folding chairs. They’re here for laughter yoga, a goofy exercise that believes, quite simply, that laughter is medicine.

Laughter yoga is based on the idea that the physical act of laughing — whether genuine or not — can lower stress, boost the immune system, and trigger a rush of endorphins and feel-good hormones. It’s a perfect fit for Pathways, a health resource center that helps people with chronic and terminal illness discover their capacity to heal.

Jamie Albertson is one of the last to come into the class. The 45 year-old mother of two was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer a year ago, and she began coming to Pathways at that time. “This has been a really an excellent way for me to deal with my diagnosis, laughing instead of crying,” says Albertson.

Albertson and the half-dozen other participants, aged 40s through 70s, warm up with a hula motion, chanting “aloha-ha-ha.” They shoot pretend arrows at the ceiling. “Don’t make me laugh,” they shout, pumping their arms.

The exercises are wonderfully creative and childish, and you don’t even have to get up from your chair to participate. What you do have to do, though, is look your fellow participants in the eye during exercises.

“I come for the sense of family,” said Tracy Jones, 43, whose struggles with social anxiety led her to Pathways. “When I first started it was very difficult for me, but I’ve overcome it.”

30 years of healing

There’s no way to know what grief or illness participants are grappling with at Pathways, and that’s on purpose. Classes are not illness-specific; people aren’t defined by their illness or situation in order to determine which classes they can take. That anonymity is part the sense of safety Pathways offers, said Executive Director Tim Thorpe.

This year, the center is celebrating 30 years of offered healing to people whose lives have been rerouted by serious illness. Along with laughter yoga, Pathways offers some 90 classes, from reiki to meditation to tai chi. Body-work sessions like massage and acupuncture are offered alongside energy healing, guided movement, art-based programs, mind-body-spirit healing, and grief sessions. Nutrition classes are available for those adjusting to Autoimmune Paleo (AIP), nut-free, and other medically induced diets. An Advanced Care Planning class, open to caregivers as well, walks through practical concerns for end-of-life care. All classes are offered for free. For those navigating the pain, stress, and expense of illness, Pathways can be an oasis.

There’s something homey about the Pathways building, with its central kitchen, its well-lit workshop spaces, and front door garden (kept up, like much of Pathways’ work, by a fleet of volunteers). Located in uptown Minneapolis, the light-gray building is strategically situated 50 steps from the bus stop. The first floor is handicapped accessible, and classes that are scheduled to meet on the second floor can be relocated to accommodate those for whom stairs are a barrier.

Providers donate their time, which allows Pathways to offer classes free of charge. That model — and the breadth of its offerings — makes Pathways “fairly unique” in the country, said Thorpe, who has served as executive director for the last nine years.

Last year, Thorpe says Pathways scheduled close to 10,000 visits, which amounts to 2,000 participants each coming five times a year. Participants attend orientation and are then able to register for the classes that interest them. Thorpe speaks about the list of classes as “a variety of tools that we hope participants can pick and choose from in order to find answers for questions they didn’t even know they had.”

Case in point is their Renewing Life series, an 8-week intensive workshop that offers coping strategies to people grappling with illness. Class sessions with titles like “Making Meaning,” “Expressing Feelings,” and “Nourishing Relationships” point toward the life-affirming attitude of the class.

“At the end of the day we hope they will find an innate capacity to help themselves heal,” says Thorpe. He describes the best part of his days as seeing “the yoke” of a person’s illness come a bit looser after a session.

Branching out

Four years ago, Pathways made a shift that expanded who and where they serve. Rather than require participants to come to their Minneapolis location, Pathways began partnering with other organizations, such as nursing homes, breast cancer groups, and the VA, to offer workshops for specialized populations. A partnership with the Ford Motor Company allowed Pathways to develop and implement breast cancer retreats in six metro areas around the country. In some cases, Twin Cities partner organizations pay both Pathways and the workshop providers, an arrangement Thorpe describes as helpful to “serve more people and keep the lights on.” Last year, 15 percent of those 10,000 scheduled visits were out in the community.

Looking ahead, Thorpe says, “the goal is to grow, but carefully.” He doesn’t want to see the organization stray too far from the Minneapolis location, which he describes as Pathways’ heartbeat. “Where there’s a way to keep the heartbeat beating strong but create pulses out in the community, we will try to do that.”     

A version of this story first appeared on KFAI as part of its MinneCulture series. Support for MinneCulture is made possible by a grant from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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