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Teaching Yoga to Someone with Cancer: Is it Different?By Tari Prinster Posted 02-Feb-2015


At first glance, the idea of yoga for cancer patients undergoing treatment and now in survivorship seems obvious, a logical step. What better way to manage anxiety, gain strength, increase flexibility and create feelings of well-being? It seems like everyone knows yoga is good for you.

Cancer survivors come with high expectations of yoga. Sometimes they come with fears and doubts planted by warnings from Western doctors. 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 survivors. They bring life challenges, not just cancer challenges. 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. They are answers based on my yoga experience, as Co-Director of the OM yoga Women Cancer Survivor Program, and on life experience. (Read more about the OM Yoga WCS Program at the end of this article, or go to For the past eight years, I have been teaching cancer survivors at OM Yoga and, for more than five years, I have been training other yoga teachers in this methodology. I am a cancer survivor myself, with a strong yoga practice. However, during my recovery, I noticed I needed something different from yoga and went looking for it. Observing other yoga classes focused on cancer offered by yoga teachers from various traditions, I discovered important differences. Let's explore them.

Safety First
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 and vulnerabilities of cancer treatments and reconstruction are not covered in most yoga teachers 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 to take the time to understand student needs and concerns. The first difference is the knowledge and training to feel confident that you understand the conditions of the wounded body under that baggy t-shirt, then to teach the yoga that is informed by that knowledge.

Risk Factors
I am asked questions about yoga benefits all the time, but rarely asked about its risks. Survivors 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-does-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. The difference in teaching yoga to cancer survivors is that the risks are higher and a teacher should know what they are.

Who's Responsible?
When offering a class for cancer survivors, a teacher is saying, "I am responsible. I know what yoga is best for you and I will protect you from further discomfort or injury, plus calm your doubts or fears.". Students expect yoga teachers of cancer survivors to have that expertise.
Most yoga teachers are trained to ask for injuries or concerns as class begins. Cancer survivors may be reluctant or embarrassed to talk about their concerns, like the newly installed expanders, 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 if such conditions exist and to adapt the yoga for these life-long conditions and side effects accordingly.

The key difference is that teachers need to ask the right questions and to gather this important information carefully, often privately, and with great sensitivity.

Facts Motivate
Other ways yoga for survivors can be different is by cultivating awareness and increasing motivation. Survivors want to know why something works for their condition, not just that it is good for them. I find using research facts about yoga and cancer creates motivation and good public relations. They listen attentively to every fact and suggestion on how to fight cancer using yoga. They feel and see the benefits. They remember and thank me. Then, they bring the information and good feelings back to their doctors. This is truly a win/win for survivors and for yoga. Yoga can make a difference.

Feelings Matter
A yoga teacher has so many things to be aware of during a yoga class. The first one should be the fluctuation of her emotions. It is easy to feel overwhelmed with the suffering of others. Inexperienced teachers may be inclined to treat students with hesitation based on their unrecognized fears about cancer and dying or a lack of confidence in teaching survivors. Hesitation is neither helpful nor healing to the student. In my experience as a survivor, a teacher who was overly compassionate only made me feel more like an invalid. Personally, I found hope and well-being in being treated normal 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.

Who's the Teacher?
Finally, the reality is that some students will not make it. Teaching yoga to those touched by cancer always has the possibility that someone, in the end, will not survive. A yoga teacher must be prepared to face that reality of cancer.

There is so much to learn from survivors about being in a warrior pose. Living with fear helps make a warrior. It is the first lesson cancer teaches a survivor, being prepared for the uncertainty of their new life. Having worn the coat of a life-threatening diagnosis, practicing savasana is no longer just an "idea" or an abstraction, but can be 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. Another difference is that it can become a shared goal for both the yoga teacher and student. If faced directly, cancer is everyone's teacher.

So, the differences are more difficult to describe and, fortunately, fewer than the similarities of teaching yoga to non-survivors. What are the similarities? Well, 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 a sense of well-being, and to see every one leave with that Yoga Glow.


About OM Yoga's Program for Women Cancer Survivors

There is close to a decade of history to OM Yoga's Program for Women Cancer Survivors. It includes weekly classes and specialized training for yoga teachers.

OM Yoga for Women Cancer Survivors Teacher Training is unique in the yoga community. It offers certified yoga teachers the opportunity to gain knowledge about cancer, learn skills and confidence to teach yoga that cultivates hope, healing and support for cancer patients and survivors.

OM Yoga for Women Cancer Survivors Classes are held twice weekly. This gentle class offers inspiration and bonding for women including breathing and balance exercises, slow arm stretches, healing yoga sequences, and restorative yoga appropriate for women during and after cancer treatment. Since 2003, these classes have been offered at OM and taught by teachers specially trained to understand the risks, limitations and many lifelong side-effects cancer survivors experience through treatments and recovery.

Tari Prinster, Co-Director of OM yoga Women Cancer Survivor Program

Reposted :


  • "Yoga teaches that the most effective way of increasing blood to the brain is to allow gravity to do the work for you"

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