Check out this really beautiful article about teaching yoga to someone with cancer. Tari Prinster, explains important factors to keep in mind when teaching and address the question; is yoga for cancer patients and survivors different?
Each year globally, 12.7 million people learn they have cancer, and 7.6 million people die from the disease.* With cancer affecting so many people it’s more likely than not that someone close to you may be struggling with and fighting for survival against cancer. Thankfully, with western and eastern medicine, treatments, and practices we can help our loved ones remain positive and stay healthy as they heal themselves during and after their brave fight against cancer.
Teaching Yoga To Someone With Cancer
By Tari Prinster, Founding Director of Yoga4Cancer
At first glance, the idea of learning about or teaching yoga to someone with cancer undergoing treatment or to someone in survivorship seems an obvious, logical step. What better way to manage anxiety, to gain strength, to increase flexibility, and to create feelings of well-being? It seems like everyone knows yoga is good for you. Cancer survivors come to yoga classes with high expectations. These expectations are not any different than those of regular students.
So, why would teaching yoga to cancer patients and survivors be any different than teaching yoga to healthy people?
I have some answers to that question based on my personal cancer journey, my yoga experience, my experience teaching yoga to cancer survivors for more than ten years, and on research. During my recovery, I noticed I needed something different from yoga and went looking for it. Observing other yoga classes focused on cancer patients and survivors taught by yoga teachers from various traditions, I discovered important differences.
Healing begins with feeling safe. Yoga teachers are trained to teach to a diverse yet general population. Awareness of the limitations imposed by surgeries, chemotherapy, and the many life-long side effects/vulnerabilities of cancer treatments and reconstructions are not covered in most yoga teacher’s training. Conditions for safety start with a teacher’s willingness to learn about cancer, to be properly trained to teach yoga for cancer survivors and patients, and to take the time to understand student particular needs and concerns. Knowledge and training will help you feel confident in understanding the conditions of the wounded body under that baggy t-shirt and will help you to teach yoga that is informed by that knowledge.
I am asked questions about yoga benefits all the time, but rarely asked about its risks. Survivors and patients expect teachers to understand the effects of cancer treatments on the body, what poses have most benefits, and what poses can be potentially harmful.
The popular notion is that yoga is good for you whatever its style, flavor, or size, but we know that is not true. Just like cancer, yoga is not one size fits all. Everyone’s cancer, treatments, side effects, and body is different; nothing about cancer is static or predictable. As a teacher, you must be ready to adapt your teaching to the changing needs of students. Know that the risks are higher and a teacher should know what those risks are.
When offering a class for cancer survivors and patients, a teacher is saying, “I am responsible. I know what kind of yoga is best for you and I will protect you from further discomfort and injury plus calm your doubts or fears.” Students expect yoga teachers of cancer patients and survivors to have that expertise.
Most yoga teachers are trained to ask for injuries or concerns as class begins. Cancer survivors and patients may be reluctant or embarrassed to talk about their concerns, like the newly installed expanders, the chemo ports, or the neuropathy in their feet. They may not even know that some conditions, like osteopenia caused by cancer treatments, can put them at risk in certain activities or positions. The yoga teacher needs to know the risks of such conditions and adapt the yoga practice for these life-long conditions and side effects accordingly.
The key is that teachers need to ask the right questions and to gather this important information carefully, often privately, and with great sensitivity.
Cancer patients and survivors can have the desire for cultivating awareness and increasing motivation. Survivors and patients want to know why something works for their condition, not just that it is good for them. I find using research about yoga and cancer creates motivation and good public relations. Students listen attentively to every fact and suggestion on how to fight cancer and it’s side-effects using yoga. They feel and see the benefits. They remember and thank me. Then they bring this information and good feelings back to their doctors. This is truly a win/win for survivors and for yoga. Yoga can make a difference.
A yoga teacher has so many things to be aware of during a yoga class. The first one should be the fluctuation of emotions; your feelings come first. It is easy to feel overwhelmed with the suffering of others. Inexperienced teachers may be inclined to treat students with hesitation based on unrecognized fears about cancer and dying or a lack of confidence in teaching patients and survivors. Hesitation is neither helpful nor healing to the student. However, in my experience as a survivor, a teacher who was overly compassionate only made me feel more like an invalid. I found hope and well-being in being treated normally without coddling or denying that I had cancer. The difference is that authentic, open teaching starts with recognizing and acknowledging everyone’s emotions, not just the student’s hopes and fears.
How do cancer patients and survivors feel? It may not be obvious. Sometimes they bring fears and doubts about yoga planted by warnings from well-meaning doctors practicing traditional western medicine. But mostly they come with curiosity and a desire to know how and why yoga will help them be healthy and stay cancer-free. They come to yoga as people wanting again to feel whole and normal, not like cancer patients or survivors. They bring life challenges, not just cancer challenges.
Who’s the Teacher?
The reality is that some students will not make it. Teaching yoga to those touched by cancer always has the possibility that someone will not survive. A yoga teacher must be prepared to face that reality of cancer.
There is so much to learn from survivors and patients with a warrior pose. Living with fear helps make a warrior. It is the first lesson cancer teaches a survivor and being prepared for the uncertainty of their new life. Having worn the coat of a life-threatening diagnosis, practicing savasana, final resting pose, is no longer just an idea or an abstraction, but an unavoidable part of daily life. I believe this is the biggest difference in teaching yoga to cancer survivors: a life-threatening illness can help us all learn how to live fearlessly. It can become a shared goal for both the yoga teacher and student. If faced directly, cancer is everyone’s teacher.
The differences are more difficult to describe and, fortunately, fewer than the similarities of teaching yoga to non-survivors and non-patients. What are the similarities? For this yoga teacher, it is the most satisfying job I have ever had. It fills me with joy and gratitude to deliver yoga’s gifts to all students. The similarity is the privilege to witness the rejuvenation of each body, the transformation of stress to relaxation, the unfolding of the sense of well-being, the balancing of mind with body, and to see every one leave with that yoga glow.