Wednesday, Sep. 09, 2009


Urban Zen. Taken separately, the words evoke entirely contradictory sensibilities: one bristles with energy, activity, even chaos — the buzz and intensity of everyday life — while the other conjures up feelings of peace, tranquillity and calm.

As different and conflicting as those contrasting worlds are, however, bringing them together makes perfect sense to Donna Karan. The designer's latest passion, the Urban Zen Foundation, a New York City–based philanthropic organization that she created in 2007, is all about exploring the intersection between the complex reality of our busy lives and the simplicity and focus of a more spiritual existence. "It's about finding the calm in the chaos," she is fond of saying.

The quest for that balance has taken Karan far from her studios on Seventh Avenue and landed her in the middle of a cancer ward at Beth Israel Hospital on Manhattan's east side. Through the foundation, Karan has transformed an entire floor of the hospital into a living laboratory to test the idea that integrative therapies, such as aromatherapy, massage and yoga, can improve patient experiences in the hospital and possibly even better help people heal.

For Karan, taking on the role of alternative health-care ambassador is a perfectly logical step. A born entrepreneur who has always followed her instincts, she has become a leader in the fashion community not only for her work in design but also for her broader perspective — from the Seven Easy Pieces collections she designed in the 1980s, which gave professional women a solution to the daily conundrums of the modern world, to her linking of commerce with a cause when she conceived of Seventh on Sale, an annual sample sale of the industry's most coveted labels to help those living with HIV.

Always energetic, often to the point of frenetic nervousness, Karan is described by those who know her best as "passionate," "wild," "insane" and, at times, "cuckoo." It's no surprise, then, that the runways have never been able to contain the Queens-born Karan. She still ends the program notes of her shows with the phrase "To be continued," reflecting her conviction that her education in style, design and inspiration is an ever evolving process — one that often takes her far beyond runways and studios.

Well traveled, Karan is passionate about learning, particularly studying different cultures and disciplines. Fascinated by Eastern philosophies on spirituality, the longtime yoga devotee is now consumed with exploring the world of integrative medicine, an emerging field that combines traditional medical practices with those that are still considered a bit fringe — meditation, yoga, massage and aromatherapy — by most members of the medical community. And Karan, typically, is asking, Why? Why can't these practices be a bigger part of modern medical care?

Just a few floors above the bustle of people and traffic on Manhattan's Central Park West, the 60-year-old designer folds her famously long legs into one of the deep, plush banquettes that have become a hallmark of the Donna Karan–lifestyle look and prepares to answer that question in her own hands-on way. Here, white natural-marble benches encircle the living room; an exotic and soothing mixture of clove flower, lemon, cinnamon and eucalyptus scents the air; and an enormous array of white orchids — cool, elegant and crisp — stretches out from a bowl centered on a glass table. It's peaceful, relaxing — a sanctuary from the city.

"You felt it, didn't you?" she asks, alluding to the solace that a space like this can invoke, how an environment can affect your mood, your energy and how you feel. Quantifying that effect, as best as science can, she says, is the goal of her collaboration with Beth Israel. At one point after her husband Stephan Weiss — an artist, sculptor and executive in Karan's fashion business — received a diagnosis of lung cancer in 1996, doctors told her there was nothing more that medicine could do for him. "Now what was I supposed to do?" says Karan. "I was completely lost. I didn't know how to handle the process."

Karan turned to the only tools she had for navigating life's challenges and the only ones that had reliably helped her during previous crises: yoga and meditation. She urged her husband to explore these modalities in order to relieve his anxiety and improve his breathing. "It wasn't his path — he thought it was another one of my woo-woo trips," she says. "But he realized it was what he needed, and yoga became an important part of his well-being. He would do Iyengar yoga, and it would help him breathe and open up his lungs to keep him calm."

Soon after Karan's husband's diagnosis, her good friend Lynn Kohlman, a model and photographer, learned she had breast cancer, which eventually spread to her brain and required surgery. As someone caring for loved ones who were so ill, Karan realized that the medical system was addressing only one aspect of their needs. While hospitals and high-tech procedures are adept at diagnosing, measuring and treating illness, they do little, if anything, to address how patients feel as they journey through one of the most terrifying and unpredictable experiences of their lives. "I realized they were treating the disease, but nobody was treating the patient," she says. "Who is sitting with you when you're going through chemotherapy? Who is putting you in a state of calm to help you deal with your panic, your fears and concerns over what is happening to your body?"

Sitting around her dinner table one evening with Rodney Yee, her longtime yoga instructor, and Dr. Woodson Merrell, her physician and the chairman of the department of integrative medicine at Beth Israel, Karan expressed her frustration with how modern medicine focuses, laser-like, on treatments and procedures, to the exclusion of a patient's well-being. "There is a sense that you have traditional and alternative medical care, and I said, It's not either/or," says Karan. "It's not a disease we are dealing with but a patient."

Yee suggested bringing yoga techniques into the medical setting to teach patients about calming and restorative postures, but Karan, with her usual creative zeal and passion, was thinking bigger. Within a month, she had called dozens of the nation's leading health-care experts from both the alternative and traditional realms and cajoled them into convening at a 10-day well-being forum to brainstorm about knitting the two worlds together to best serve patients.

From those sessions came the idea to create and train an entirely new member of the medical team: the integrative-health therapist. Working with Merrell and the staff at Beth Israel, Karan donated $850,000 to establish an educational program that will initially train 100 practitioners in yoga, meditation, acupuncture, aromatherapy and other alternative techniques to help patients relax and heal. It's an approach that flows well with Merrell's thinking about health care; he taught one of the first courses in the country on integrative medicine in medical school, at Columbia University. "It doesn't make sense. If things are safe and have a published evidence base, then why aren't they a standard part of the health-care system?" asks Merrell. "Why don't doctors think of recommending the gentlest, safest things first rather than going off with a howitzer immediately?"

So far, the response from patients and hospital staff has been overwhelmingly positive. "We certainly both have and had our share of skeptics," says Dr. Louis Harrison, clinical director of Continuum Cancer Centers of New York, of which Beth Israel is a part. "But the more we do, and the more we see the results with our own eyes, the more the skepticism diminishes."

If seeing is believing, doing can't hurt either. So to launch the program, Karan arranged for the hospital staff — including the management executives, who showed up in suits and ties — to get onto a yoga mat for a daylong workshop on meditation and other alternative therapies.

That was enough to persuade the hospital to give Karan's plan a try. Greeting patients now as they arrive on the renovated floor is a sign that reads welcome to the optimal healing unit, and dispersed throughout the ninth floor are electric aromatherapy pods gently releasing a rotating assortment of soothing scents, from ylang-ylang to lavender. The most obvious new addition is a lounge designed by Karan, with bamboo walls and a cork floor, where patients, their families and the staff can meditate, practice yoga or simply escape.

In the patient rooms, yoga therapists conduct modified yoga practices with patients, many of them in their beds. Juanita Ayala, a 59-year-old grandmother of two and a breast-cancer survivor, learns to arrange pillows while lying in bed to find postures that ease her back pain. "It feels amazing," she says after a 20-minute session. "I feel like I'm floating." Even the nurses are included in the program; they participate in regular yoga sessions in the lounge and can take advantage of the aromatherapy services as well.

For the patients at Beth Israel, the additional services are free; many are enrolled in the hospital's study to measure what impact the alternative therapies have not just on a patient's state of mind but also on a patient's ability to heal and recover. If the study is successful, Karan and the team at Beth Israel hope to persuade the National Cancer Institute to fund more trials of the program at hospitals around the country. "We want to measure, describe and document the impact that an integrative approach to caring for cancer patients can actually have, so we can share that information with other hospitals," says Dr. Benjamin Kligler, research director of integrative medicine at the hospital. Kligler has culled data from the experiences of 90 patients before the renovations to the unit and will compare them with data from a similar group that was able to take advantage of the added integrative therapies. The hope is that these patients not only will feel better and potentially heal more quickly but actually may be able to reduce the amount of pain medications they take and be discharged sooner.

"We are at the seed, seed, seed level of a dream," says Karan. "Do I have all the answers? I don't. Do I have the desire and passion to make this happen? Yes. It's a journey that we have begun. We know what the problem is. We think we know what the solution is. So now we've got to manifest it." The journey, as Karan likes to say, is to be continued.