By Melody Lima
In the past couple years, I’ve had several students in my yoga classes who are battling cancer.
Some were in the midst of chemotherapy, some were recently diagnosed and some were thriving.
My many years of teaching prenatal, restorative and basic beginner classes, has given me many resources to structure a healing class for these students. Offering gentle restorative poses, accessible meditation practices and the simplest of pranayama. I break down yoga to its fundamentals. It is a nice, gentle, healing class for my students.
And then a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I immediately stepped into my yoga teacher, first responder mode. How can I help? Yoga is great for you now! What do you need? I can teach you how to breathe! You’re family too!
To say my emotions became heightened is an understatement. My friend—a mom with three kids—was under the age of 40 when diagnosed, with no family history of breast cancer. If she can get this, anyone can.
We began to spend some time together; me sharing my yogic tools and her sharing her experience, her fears and emotions. I learned so much about some of the details of day-to-day living with breast cancer and treatment. For example, my friend strongly disliked her spacers. The inserts to stretch the skin during treatment before reconstruction. With a foreign object in your body, it is difficult to sleep.
One day my friend said to me over tea, “If I get one more ‘How to live with cancer book’ and I’m gonna scream! They are all pink—I hate pink!”
My friend always made and continues to make me laugh. I would plan these mindful, yogic, meditative lessons for her healing. Every time she would make me feel better, just for showing up. Laughter became the best medicine.
The most important thing I learned from my friend was to forget she had cancer. And then, if her nose bled or I visited her at home or in the hospital it was time spent together. Whether we were out at lunch or we were corralling the kids for a school activity, it all made the day a bit more of an adventure.
This was extremely valuable to me as a friend and as a yoga teacher.
I continued my education and become more mindful of my students dealing with cancer.
Here are the 5 things about teaching gentle yoga to cancer patients/thrivers:
1. Read uplifting quotes and poems. This is not the class for observing yourself, contemplation or everything happens for a reason dharma talk. Try the sun is shining today and I am smiling poems.
2. Osteoporosis guides the asana sequencing in a Yoga for Cancer class. This is not the only factor guiding the poses: PICC lines (a Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter inserted into a vein in the upper arm), oxygen tanks, neuropathy (decreased sensation, tingling or pain in feet and hands), recent surgery and more are key. For me, to eliminate the rounding of the back was very surprising. Gentle yoga must have a cat/cow sequence, right? Cow (arched back belly toward the floor) yes, cat (rounded back toward the sky), NO! This rounding compresses the front of the vertebrae and can cause fractures, spinal fractures.
3. These students had full lives before cancer came along. Let them be people. They can be cranky, frustrated, content, overwhelmed, happy or tired as they walk in the door. It is possible that a student may be anxious from the traffic on the ride to class. Or maybe the grandkids are demanding and spoiled, and their boss is a jerk. The rest of their lives does not take a pause with a cancer diagnosis.
4. No doctor or medical talk. Cancer patients come to yoga class to forget they have cancer. They need, want and desire to feel better for a moment, a few minutes, or may be even for an hour. Engaging in questions like, “Who is your doctor? Do you like them? What procedure did you have? What side effects are you experiencing?” is not why you are there. Be the yoga teacher with compassion, a smile and kindness.
5. It is all about LOVE. Be the person who shares some time, some yoga tools, holds sacred space, and offers a warm smile to these folks. Many are dealing with nervous, scared or absent family members, technical, stoic, detailed medical teams and unfriendly insurance representatives. Simply share love.
This will help anyone challenged by cancer to embrace some yoga and find a way to look ahead onto their paths.
Yoga pal, writer and author of Yin, Yang, Yogini A Woman’s Quest for Balance, Strength and Inner Peace, Kathryn E. Livingston says it best in her book.
“…when you’re in the light, don’t step back into the darkness. Live in that light, and breathe it in fully. I’ve spent so much of my life going over and over the sadness and fear of the past. But we don’t need to go there when we’re not there. When we are in the light, be here, now.”
Whether you are a teacher, friend, family member or cancer has come to visit you, a path of comfort, light, compassion and love can be healing.
Editor: Dana Gornall