Teaching Yoga to Someone with Cancer: Is it Different?

By Tari Prinster

At first glance, the idea of yoga for cancer patients undergoing treatment and now in Tarisurvivorship 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. 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 personal cancer journey and 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 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, 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 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 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.

Feelings Matter
Your feelings come first. 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.

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 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.

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 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, 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. Another difference is 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 the sense of well-being, the balancing of mind with body, and to see every one leave with that Yoga glow.

Published: by Tari Prinster, founding director of yoga4cancer published on Austin Yoga Hub: http://www.austinyogahub.com/yoga-for-cancer-patients.html

To find learn more and to sign up for upcoming y4c trainings, click here.

Yoga for Cancer Workshop with Tari

It was a rainy day in San Francisco–perfect weather for being inside a spacious yoga studio with a wall of windows. I was surrounded by a group of teachers dedicated to helping themselves and others heal. Some of them were cancer survivors in remission. Others were in the thick of treatments. And yet others (like me) either work with those affected by cancer or were somehow inspired to do so.

As people began introducing themselves around the semi-circle, I could feel their words like music that speaks directly to your heart–the kind of music that takes you out of your head and delivers you to life. I knew that I’d probably cry when I did my introduction. (I’ve always excelled at crying in front of others. My emotions diffuse through my skin, and I’m so sensitive to people’s energy, which makes it hard to keep from crying. I was always embarrassed of this as a kid, but I’ve learned to run with it and embrace it as a strength.) I could feel my mom in the yoga studio with me and the stories of those around me were so moving. There was some serious strength present and I felt honored to be a part of it. This manifested as tears.

Tari Prinster, a yogi and a cancer survivor, shared with us some of her wisdom. I learned the science of why certain postures strengthen the immune system and why some should be avoided. She addressed the emotional, mental and physical needs of someone with cancer and how to work with these needs. I started going back through my notes tonight and wish I had done this a day after the workshop, rather than a week. I can barely read my own writing! Tari was wonderful and I hope that I can do a future training with her. Normally her teacher trainings are 45 hours. This was just a 2 day workshop (and I could only attend one day).

I look forward to sharing what I learned with others. I’m going to start with my husband’s aunt who is interested in incorporating yoga into her treatment. From there I hope to offer a class to other people in the community.

Here is a quote from BKS Iyengar that Tari shared with us. I think of it as remembering to keep a ‘beginner’s mind‘ or the curiosity of a child when teaching or with everything, really… To stay awake means, “To not imagine that you already understand and impose your imperfect understanding on those who come to you for help.”

Colleen Gavan


MY POSITIVE LIFE: Positive Luxury.com

MY POSITIVE LIFE: Positive Luxury.com

Tari Prinster is a New York based yoga teacher, author and now film personality. As a ten-year breast cancer survivor she attributes that very survival to the practice of yoga with her inspirational story featured in the new film Yogawoman. As someone that has battled and succeeded in facing the sometimes devastating obstacles placed in her way she now shares her experience, helping other woman to overcome breast cancer and face their own challenges through yoga. Positive Luxury spoke to Tari and attended the London premier of Yogawoman- this is her positive life…

It is estimated that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lives and yet when Tari was diagnosed with the disease she describes how it felt like, “a punch in the stomach”. After all it is the news that everyone dreads and the ‘c’ word remains, for most people, synonymous with invasive treatments and facing-up-to our very mortality. It wasn’t the disease that initially spurred Tari on to practice yoga however, the root of that decision she places firmly in one word, “vanity”.

“I was driving down the street and saw my reflection in the windscreen. Like my mother before me I felt that I was developing a hunch, I looked shrunken and I just thought, ‘I have to do something about that.’ I tried the gym and running but it wasn’t doing it so I thought I would try yoga and it succeeded where the others failed.”

Of course vanity soon became secondary and Tari realised that in her fight with cancer yoga was giving her a strength of being, a peace and a fitness that made the struggle easier. Simply she says, “Cancer steals your breath away, yoga gives it back.”

Now a survivor for over ten years, Tari has become an inspirational figure and found purpose in helping others. Tari started a class at the OM Yoga Centre in New York City for cancer sufferers and cancer survivors that has grown from a few women to being attended by thousands every year. “I find that some of the woman battling cancer have gone to the wrong place and had a bad experience with yoga. They are, after all, dealing with a possibly fatal disease. There is a certain way they need to be touched and they need to feel a sense of community and a sense of understanding.” In Tari’s class women are free to discuss their trials and their jubilations and, as she says, “leave their wigs at the door.” For so many women it has become a liberating experience, helping them to find well-being during the most turbulent times of their lives.

Tari’s powerful story is now featured in the groundbreaking new documentary film, Yogawoman, which examines the place of yoga in the lives of over 50 exceptional women. In it Tari speaks candidly about her own experiences, but as opposed to focusing on the negative, is a shining beacon of vitality and energy on the screen, offering hope to women who are going through, have gone through or may yet go through, the fight she herself has faced.

When asked who inspires her most, the answer seems obvious, “It’s not a person, yoga inspires me.” In person Tari herself is vivacious, witty and possessed of a youthfulness, both in energy and looks. Her charm and positive outlook are infectious and her valiance in so openly sharing her experiences and in willingly dedicating her time to helping others is a true inspiration.

‘A Lesson Not Learned From Breast Cancer’ by Shelley Lewis

‘A Lesson Not Learned From Breast Cancer’ by Shelley Lewis

Joining the Club—Once a Week

After all that time spent avoiding the campfires where breast cancer ghost stories were told, (chat rooms, support groups, etc.) I was finally ready to hear some, now that I was at a safe distance from my own experience. I wanted to know what other women had learned and see whether it applied to me as well. And I knew I had some unfinished business with breast cancer. I had to get into a relaxed, safe place and allow myself to feel whatever emotions I’d suppressed. It wasn’t a renewal of the quest for spiritual transformation so much as it was an effort to take inventory on my emotional shelves and see what was missing.

So, when the opportunity to take this yoga class presented itself, I took it.

I was a little worried about having to show some kind of proof of eligibility when I went to register. I pictured myself having to show my scar at the door. But the people at the front desk just signed me up and pointed me toward the studio. The instructor, Tari and assistant, Susan, were warm and welcoming, and about ten seconds after I walked into the class I realized that it was a great idea.

As it turned out, I became aware of my buried feelings in the very first session, as I was breathing deeply in that yoga way, and listening to our instructor talk about healing.  My eyes were closed but I could feel tears spring up almost immediately behind my lids.  Whoa, I thought to myself.  Who knew I had so much emotion right beneath the surface?

On any given day there may be 10 women, and something less than 20 breasts. But it is so not about the breasts.  Everybody is there to get back something they lost, whether it’s flexibility, muscle tone, their sense of wellbeing or their place in the world.  Some are pale and bald, some old and determined, some heartbreakingly young and beautiful. But every one is strong. We’re all there to work on ourselves, inside out.

The class was created by Tari Prinster, a yoga instructor who’d had breast cancer herself years ago. Her class is about self-healing and self-acceptance, and what she, and others, call “post-traumatic growth syndrome.”

It’s a syndrome I don’t have, but maybe someday I will.

Tari says she began doing yoga when she was 50, for all the wrong reasons.

“Vanity,” she said, smiling.  “It gave me great muscle tone, I was stronger, I had better posture.  I never thought of myself as spiritual.  When I got breast cancer, though, I decided I would continue to do yoga right through the treatments, every single day.  It made me feel I was part of my own healing process.  Everything is done to us when we have cancer, but we have to be participants.”

Tari is the least judgmental woman I’ve ever met.  I watch her sometimes out of the corner of my eye during class and wonder what’s going on in her mind. But maybe the secret is what’s not going on in her mind.

“It’s important to be participants in our healing. We can have a lot of control. I hired a friend to come over while I was in treatment to teach me how to do positive meditation, which helped a lot with anxiety.  That was a big gift to myself.  What made me healthy was to be treated as normal, as a strong and healthy woman, not as a freak or a fragile creature.”     

—Tari Prinster, Yoga Instructor

Yoga City: Breast Cancer Survivors Find Support

Yoga City: Breast Cancer Survivors Find Support 

The Connection is the Thing

The first time Susan Bloom saw a reconstructed breast was in the dressing room at Om Yoga. The woman, who was in her sixties, had undergone a double mastectomy, and was happy to explain to Susan what the process was like. Both were attending one of OM’s Women’s Cancer Survivor classes, and this was part of the support—the talking, explaining, sharing. 

This is only one of the reasons that Bloom says yoga has changed her life. A two-time cancer survivor, she found yoga through a support group at Beth Israel.

 Now, she is a yogi who practices five to six times a week.  

Aside from the physical practice, which can help cancer survivors and those undergoing treatment recover strength and flexibility, the emotional support one can experience in a yoga class is a source of solace that Tari Prinster, a teacher at OM and cancer survivor herself, says her students find to be invaluable. Prinster became a certified teacher at OM eight years ago, after searching for yoga support during her own cancer treatment and feeling disappointed in what was available to her. 

“There wasn’t a lot of education or sensitivity to the specific needs” of the patient community, she says. So she made it her mission to develop a program that was exactly what she was searching for. 

So far, Prinster has trained over 70 teachers in a certification program at OM, spreading the gospel of understanding, sensitivity, and physical awareness of what recovering bodies can and can’t do while undergoing treatment or recovering after surgery. Most important, she says, is that teachers are able to “separate themselves from their own anxiety about cancer.” 

“This is about the students,” she says. “This isn’t about them.”

For survivors and patients, overcoming the physical challenges presented by breast cancer and breast cancer treatment is a daunting task. Dr. Marisa Weiss, founder of breastcancer.org, an online resource for survivors, and co-author of the critically acclaimed “Living Well Beyond Breast Cancer,” written with her mother Ellen, a breast cancer survivor; says that “cancer patients and survivors face an array of physical challenges and discomforts. The practice of yoga can have a profound therapeutic benefit on women recovering from treatment. In addition to help with relaxation and concentration, yoga has helped many of my patients improve their strength, range of motion, flexibility, balance and posture.”

But swelling and pain, a reduced range of motion, and nerve damage from chemotherapy all can affect a student’s physical capability on the mat—and it’s the teacher’s responsibility to understand each student’s abilities on any given day. 

“The connection with the student is the most important thing,” Prinster says. Often students arrive to class 30 minutes before it begins to chat and prepare. That’s the time when a teacher should find out how they are doing, what they are feeling, and what they need that day.

Yoga isn’t a cure. But using yoga techniques as a tool for recovery from cancer offers patients a point of focus and concentration. In a time filled with uncertainty and discomfort, it is a welcome respite for survivors like Susan Bloom, who says she “didn’t think I’d ever feel fine again” during treatment. 

Time, they say, heals all wounds. And while Bloom still needs a compression sleeve on her arm to help support her while she practices, she’s more focused now on conquering her headstand than her anxiety about her body—proof that with a little time, and a lot of support, you can shift your perspective in ways you never thought possible.

-Biba Milioto-  February 8, 2010

The Sport of Yoga

The Sport of Yoga – February 11, 2009

Where we value sports these days is a gray area in society I think we need to look at with more focus. Sports stars are seen as role models, heroes even. But are we giving them too much value? Don’t get me wrong; you’ll be hard pressed to find a bigger fan of sports than I. Competition, building your character, testing your mental and physical limits, learning to control your emotions, understanding being part of something larger than you are just scratch the surface of what sports can do. But what should we call something that goes farther than that, and still involves all the physical attributes of a “sport?”

I’ll be perfectly honest with you; I’ve never actually done yoga before. All I knew about yoga before I wrote this was what I had seen on TV. I never knew about the spiritual aspect of yoga, or what a community it can build. I was introduced to Tari Prinster, a local New York yoga instructor, and I quickly found out how much more yoga can be.

Tari was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after several treatments and recoveries, she is alive and well. More than that, Tari found mental peace in her yoga. “I was doing yoga for all the ‘wrong’ reasons. It made me buff and strong. . . what happened after [my diagnosis] was a BIG surprise…there was a change. I began to understand the meditative aspects, the power of breath to calm my mind and the need to relax as part of a healing process…cancer gave me enlightenment to use yoga as more than exercise and toning.”

But this wasn’t where Tari drew the line. In 2002 she founded Yoga for Women Cancer Survivors at OM Yoga, a program specifically for women cancer survivors. Since 2002 her program has grown from 3-5 women a week to a full 24 classes a week. I asked Tari if she could talk about the before and after class experiences, asking about the community feeling. She said, “they feel safe. And they come for the experience of ‘well-being’ that a yoga class can give. There is nothing in their lives that give them the time and space to just BE. They feel stronger, normal and hopeful.” What started out as just exercise has become something personal, something communal, something giving.

So would we consider Tari a “sports star?” I think we can make the analogy that Tari is a head coach, teaching and inspiring, but she has gone farther than modern sport. When something takes the next step; when something takes that step beyond competition; when something takes that step into the realm of helping other people, it goes beyond sport. It goes beyond a combination of fitness and entertainment and it becomes larger. In a time where our athletic role models are only seen in the news for scandals, drugs, crime, contract hold outs, it is refreshing to hear about a woman like Tari. A woman who should be a hero to everyone, sports fan or not.