Question: What’s the difference between a ‘traditional’ yoga teacher and a yoga teacher for a “cancer survivor?”
At first glance, the idea of yoga for cancer patients undergoing treatment and now in survivorship seems an obvious, logical step. What better way is there to manage anxiety, gain strength, increase flexibility and create feelings of well-being? It seems like everyone knows yoga is beneficial. So, why would teaching yoga to cancer patients and survivors be any different than teaching yoga to healthy people?
The popular notion is that all yoga is beneficial, whatever its style or flavor. But as yoga teachers, we know that is not true. Just like cancer, yoga is not one-size-fits-all. Everyone’s cancer, treatments, side effects and body are all different. Yoga teachers must be ready to adapt teaching styles 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 those risks are.
The answer can be found found in the words of BKS Iyengar, from his book, Light on Life:
“Do not imagine that you already understand and impose your imperfect understanding on those who come to you for help.”
Most yoga teachers are trained to teach to a diverse, yet general, population, but not to teach to the specific needs of the cancer survivor. Most likely, their training did not cover the life-long side effects and vulnerabilities triggered by cancer treatments, chemotherapy or radiation.
Compassion starts 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 each student’s needs and concerns. Knowing and understanding the conditions of the wounded body under that baggy t-shirt requires a yoga teacher training specialization. This is the first step to creating safe healing conditions for those touched by cancer.
Many teachers will have their personal fears about cancer. Conversely, many cancer survivors are not familiar with what they should expect from a yoga teacher when seeking a safe and practical class. Yoga teachers should know to shift their pedagogy to meet the needs, often unexpressed, of their students.