Or … cancer is everyone’s teacher!
by Tari Prinster
Why are words so powerful? Why do we say the things we do, or don’t? Yoga teachers work hard to create relevant images and to artfully weave them into a thematic tapestry throughout the class. A metaphor can be like miniature impressionist painting: Art painted in words by a yoga teacher! The mind rests on such images as if upon a small pillow. The images you create are more than inspirational—the best have a certain magic that can mesmerize, hypnotize, and modify consciousness. They can change physical awareness, and habitual patterns, and can weave together mind and body, facilitating a self-healing process that adjunctive medicines cannot.
On the other hand, words can be dangerous. All teachers use words to direct student thoughts. Will saying cancer or scar or chemo create a negative experience? What are their effects, and how do they translate in the mind of a cancer survivor?
Words have new meaning when you have been personally touched by cancer. There are people who do not want to hear the word cancer every again. They are not likely to come to this class. There are teachers who are afraid to use the word, believing it creates a negative atmosphere. Both need to be realistic.
An example of the first came to my attention after a WOCS class. A student told me she felt uncomfortable that I used the “C word” as well as being with others who were currently in “the palace” she left behind. She did not return to class. That’s okay. Maybe for her, she was right about the “C word.”
A quote from Woody Allen, in the movie Manhattan, says it all: “You know I can’t express emotions. I internalize. I grow a tumor.” The power of suggestion, as a theory, has existed in our culture for about a century. It remains a centerpiece of our contemporary view of mind-body interactions. Even skeptics of eastern meditation practices (like some psychotherapists) believe in suggestion.
Are we so powerful that the use of a word will have causal effect to harm or heal? Some insist the answer is yes, that one can take the mind’s effects on health seriously and even harness them in the service of healing. I agree, but also add, “In mind-body work there is a need for some fresh narratives that emphasize the healing power with truth telling over deception, a need for authentic language.”. Patanjali also said, “A yogic mind refuses to accept negativity.”
On the other, other hand, the choice of words is vitally important for all practitioners, especially when working with those facing death or certain decline. Yoga teachers need to be “mind-full” not to miss this, not to fear that we will enter territory they do not know because they have not faced death and disfigurement. It is difficult to paint word abstractions from imagined suffering. Of course, on the other hand, it would be sad to lose any opportunity to provide genuine hope and comfort.
The fear of using words and images in shades of negative associations can be overcome with authenticity. You may be concerned that the concept of creating a space that provides a deep healing experience for everyone who enters is promising too much. To quote Patajali again, “Yoga fills the reservoirs of hope and optimism, helps to overcome all obstacles to health and spiritual contentment.” Yoga promises a lot. This can play or prey on the vulnerabilities of those seeking hope and healing. Warriors choose to come because they are looking for something. As teachers we are responsible for those expectations and vulnerabilities. And we are also responsible to not over promise.