teaching yoga to cancer patients

sometimes I can survey a class of students tucked into their child poses, and see the pain steaming up from their mats

There are only 15 minutes left of the yoga class I’m teaching at a New Jersey medical center when the door to the conference room that doubles as our studio creaks open, and Lilly, who had been missing from our weekly hour of gentle yoga, tip toes in and unrolls her mat.

“I thought …. if I could just get here for a few minutes …” Lilly offers, and we all nod and smile, welcoming the intrusion. Lilly’s sheepish entrance into the room and her explanation about the visiting relative who sabotaged her plans to attend class is shrouded in guilt and embarrassment, but there is also a glimmer of pride and defiance in the tale of her sneaky escape. 

Lilly, like the other four women who attend this class, is undergoing treatment for cancer. I don’t know the particulars of Lilly’s illness or treatment because I don’t ask my students about their conditions beyond what I need to know to guide them safely through their asana. Three of my students are grandmothers in their seventies with no obvious or visible signs of illness, and who are actually quite fit. A fourth student, a woman in her early sixties, is in the full ravages of chemotherapy—ghost-pale skin, bone-thin frame, complete hair loss—but exudes poise and strength, practicing yoga with the agility and grace of the ballerina she once was.

Lilly, a mother of two young children in her mid-thirties, is also mid-treatment, but often seems stunned or bewildered by her circumstances. She is painfully self-conscious about her appearance—the weight gain from the medication, the short cap of curly hair hidden beneath her bandana, her loss of strength, mobility and balance. She is compelled to apologize—for not looking like she once looked, for not being able to do what she once could, for not being who she once was. Lilly’s disease has robbed her of the identity and validity that it is our human nature to derive from our physical presence. It’s not so much that Lilly wants to be invisible, but that she thinks she should be invisible. She believes she has lost the right to occupy space. Lilly also, however, desperately needs to be seen—as herself, for herself—the self that can’t stop itself from trying to claw through cancer’s vicious camouflage.

The first time Lilly came to class, she was so apprehensive she appeared hostile, encased in a fortress of defensiveness by her misplaced shame in the failures of her body. But in the safety of this room, Lilly’s walls don’t so much crumble as pancake. She sheds her burden until she has stripped down to the raw, bare vulnerability of a young child, unaware of the force of the energy she’s throwing off. It is a tsunami of need and fear, but also, her power to heal herself, the voracious instinct for survival simmering behind her fragile demeanor. I am not always sure I have the space to absorb this energy Lily transfers into me. I’m not always sure I can summon the strength I need to hold it. I can feel myself physically girding against it, bracing for its impact.

I came to teach a class of cancer patients as a volunteer instructor with Kula for Karma, an organization that works with medical institutions and physicians to promote the integration of yoga and meditation into patients’ traditional medical treatment plans, and provides free therapeutic yoga programs for physically, mentally and emotionally challenged populations throughout New York and New Jersey. I met my Gentle Yoga for Cancer class on a Tuesday morning in October, eager to share with them the healing powers of yoga.  

If there is one truth that all of us who aspire to teach yoga share, its that by the time we find ourselves in front of a class, we’ve likely experienced yoga to be transformative in our own lives and have adopted yoga as an intellectual pursuit, a spiritual practice, an approach to fitness and wellness, a defining lifestyle. However, another univeral commonality among yoga teachers is that, for all the clarity or consciousness yoga may have helped us achieve in our own lives, we can often easily lose perspective that for many people, the idea of touching their toes, much less kicking up into a handstand, is a barely conceivable concept, let alone an everyday endeavor to which they should aspire. Of course, I knew, walking into that room, that I would not be dazzling Lilly’s class with the intricacy of my sequencing, or challenging them to feats of strength or flexibility, or even guiding them into precision alignment. Still, there was a moment of reckoning. Nearly everything I thought I knew about teaching asana would be useless and irrelevant to these students. The success and effectiveness of this class would be measured by a set of metrics with which I was completely unfamiliar.

I had to learn humility. My students did not need to know how high I could lift my own leg in order to practice correctly or safely. I learned to demonstrate poses in a way that would not prompt my students to compare or contrast their capabilities against mine, or any other standard. I cultivated gratitude for my own strength and agility and saved it for my own practice.

I had to figure out how to hold the wild, painful energy Lilly surrenders to me during her hour of liberation, and I came to understand that much of it could be the raw material of love. Lilly thinks I am helping her heal, but she is healing herself by summoning the courage to come here, by letting go of her anger toward her body so she can show it the kindness and affection it craves. So, I experience Lilly’s pain as her own healing energy, and I send it back to her as love. There is nothing else to do with it but send it back to her. Sometimes, during savasana, I’ll massage her swollen feet.

Teaching yoga has revealed to me a world full of Lillies. I will survey a class of students tucked into their child poses, and watch the pain steaming up from their mats. These students may not be suffering from cancer, but they are trying to heal. They are looking for reassurance, validation, relief, solace, comfort—whether it is their body, their mind, or their heart that’s hurting. They want to be seen and heard. After class, someone always wants to talk. Like Lilly, they have an overwhelming need to apologize for or explain themselves. At some point in the past, they were somebody better. At some point in the future, they will be a more improved version of themselves. It’s just right now that they are not this glorious past or future self. Right now, they are suffering. They are terribly afraid, and what starts out as a discussion about a broken foot that won’t heal, or a question about a sensitive lower back, becomes the story of their lives. More often than not, the student who approaches me is the one who seemed the most closed off or resistant during class. Like Lilly, they have sensed freedom from the confines of that hostile shell.

Which is why, perhaps most importantly, I have learned to shut up. Yoga teachers are tasked with providing an enormous amount of information during a class, and we are challenged to strike the proper balance between providing adequate instruction and encouragement, and giving our students the space to explore the restorative practice of silence. Yet, as the mats are rolled up and I watch a student make his or her tentative yet determined march toward me after class, I know it’s my time to be quiet. He doesn’t want my answers or advice. She doesn’t really want to know which asana is best for her shoulder. All they want is for me to listen.

A woman who takes my class at a local studio often lingers afterward to ask for some private instruction related to various physical limitations she thinks she has. None of these problems seem evident to me, but we’ll stay in the empty studio fine tuning her low lunge until she feels ready to leave. One night, she tells me about her grown son’s struggle with drug addiction. The affliction she carries in her body is heartbreak. I think of my nine-year-old son, and have to wonder if the yoga with which I try to help others could relieve all the excruciating ways that pain would break me down.

I’ve learned that sometimes the yoga and the teaching doesn’t really begin until I stand there silently, listening. 

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