What Yoga Teachers Need to Know About Teaching Cancer Survivors


by Tari Prinster. Published in Kripalu.  See the original here.

What Yoga Teachers Need to Know About Teaching Cancer Survivors

Yoga for cancer patients—what better way to manage anxiety, gain strength, increase flexibility, and create feelings of well-being! A growing body of research points to this path, both during and after treatment. But it’s important for teachers to realize that teaching yoga to cancer patients and survivors is different than teaching yoga in a typical class. Here’s why.iStock_62230944_XXXLARGE_header

Specialized Training Is Required

B. K. S. Iyengar said it best: “Do not imagine that you already understand and impose your imperfect understanding on those who come to you for help.” Most yoga teachers, whatever their style or practice, are trained to teach a general population. While 200-hour trainings typically include anatomy modules, there’s not enough time to cover specific physiological topics, such as cell development, or psychological challenges, like the acute anxiety induced by a diagnosis of a life-threatening disease. It’s not possible to cover the specific needs or risks of the survivor in a standard yoga training.

A specialized teacher training about cancer, like my Yoga4Cancer(y4c) methodology, helps teachers identify and work with the lifelong side effects triggered by cancer and its treatments. Yoga teachers need the essential facts about both cancer and yoga because understanding, not just compassion, is essential. Compassion might, for example, lead a teacher to provide only gentle or restorative poses for a cancer survivor. But yoga is not just a relaxation technique; movement is necessary to stimulate the cardiovascular and lymphatic systems that assist in recovery and in creating long-term stability. Recent research suggests that the physical exercise provided by yoga improves immune function, reduces inflammation, and enhances the efficacy of chemotherapy and radiation. Still, there are limits, especially right after surgery, or if a survivor is physically challenged. Only training and supervised experience can inform a yoga teacher about safe and effective methods of adapting yoga for this population.

Safety Comes First

Healing begins with feeling safe. Safety for a cancer survivor, whether physical or psychological, can be different than for a typical student. The effects of some cancer treatments go beyond hair loss and fatigue to create serious long-term fragilities requiring special attention. For example, a Forward Bend, a yoga staple, can be dangerous to cancer survivors, because bone loss created by chemotherapy is a common long-term side effect; doing a Forward Bend quickly without warming up can fracture or rupture spinal vertebrae. Yoga teachers who work with cancer patients need to anticipate such risks.

Emotional safety is important as well. Survivors bring their fears to class, such as the fear of developing lymphedema (fluid retention and swelling caused by a compromised lymphatic system), which may be as strong as the fear of cancer. Students need to hear that the teacher understands their fears and will know how to provide modifications of poses or sequences they teach. A student touched by cancer might be struggling to understand the new limitations of her body and will be looking for reassurance and informed advice.

Risk Factors When Teaching Survivors

When teaching workshops or giving y4c trainings, I am often asked about yoga’s benefits. Rarely am I asked about its risks. But, like cancer, yoga is not “one size fits all.” Each survivor’s specific cancer, treatments, side effects, and body are different, and yoga teachers must adapt to their needs. The difference in teaching yoga to cancer survivors is that the risks are higher and a teacher should know what they are.

My short list of risk factors includes:

  • Fragile bones that increase the risk of fracture
  • Abdominal obstructions and sensitivities
  • Weak or missing muscles
  • Peripheral neuropathy affecting balance
  • A compromised immune system, increasing the risk of infection.

Becoming an Authentic Teacher

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 possible discomfort and injury, and calm your doubts or fears with knowledge and facts.” Survivors expect teachers to understand three general topics: first, the effects of cancer treatments on the body; second, the poses that have the most benefits; and third, the poses that can be harmful.

Survivors will come with questions:

  • Will Downward-Facing Dog cause lymphedema?
  • Would hot yoga be good for flushing chemotherapy toxins from my body?
  • When is it safe to start doing yoga after starting treatments?
  • If I have implants, could they rupture doing yoga?
  • Is it okay to practice yoga with axillary nerve damage?
  • Forward bends cause me pain. Am I doing something wrong?

Be prepared with answers to questions, anticipated and unanticipated, about both yoga and cancer. Authenticity starts with having answers to such questions without hesitation—and also having the honesty to say, “I’m not sure, but I know how to get the right answer.”

It’s also important that a yoga teacher for cancer survivors takes the time to reflect on and process her personal fear of cancer and dying. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the suffering of others. Inexperienced teachers may treat students with hesitation, due to a lack of confidence or their own fears about cancer and dying. In my personal experience as a survivor, a yoga teacher who was overly compassionate only made me feel more like an invalid, rather than on my way to health and recovery. I found hope and well-being in being treated as “normal,” without coddling or denial.

I hear the same from my students. They get treated as patients by their doctor, nurses, family, and friends. Having to reconnect with that feeling is not why survivors come to yoga class. Learn the facts about cancer and appreciate that true compassion flows from knowledge and facts, not just feelings.

Cancer Is the Real Teacher

Some survivors will not make it, and a yoga teacher must be prepared to face that reality. I believe that living with fear makes me a warrior. It is the first lesson cancer teaches a survivor: having to be prepared for the uncertainty of a whole new life. For someone with a life-threatening diagnosis, practicing Savasana, the final resting pose, is no longer an abstraction. It is 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. If faced directly, cancer is everyone’s teacher.

Learn more about getting the training you need from Tari and yoga4cancer.  Click here for details and schedules.

Navigating Cancerland with Yoga – by Tari Prinster


As featured in the Spring 2015 issue of the Yoga Therapy Today by IAYT. Download the pdf here Spring2015_YTIP_NavigatingCancerland.


Fourteen years ago, when I heard those three words, “You have cancer,” they took my breath away. A cancer diagnosis is like falling off a swing as a child—the shock, hitting the hard ground, that thud sound, then the gasp for air, all in a split second. That is how I felt.

No matter the type or stage, cancer is a cold new reality. I survived the initial shock only to find myself enrolled in Cancer Boot Camp, what the late Christopher Hitchens called “cancerland” because of its strange customs and scary words. 1 Suddenly, I had to learn medical terms like “sentinel node biopsy” and “metastasis;” I heard about remedies like macrobiotic diets and mistletoe treatment that sounded odd to me, and I heard frightening statistics about survival rates. There was no time to sort out personal emotions before making life-and-death decisions. I found myself flooded with emotions and existential questions. How could this be happening? What did I do wrong? Why me? What do I do next? It was all so exhausting.

I had to get this roller coaster under control. Just as frustrating were all my questions about cancer as a disease, the treatment options, and their long-term side effects, none of which were ever fully explained by either my surgeon or oncologist. So, I read as much as I could, and I learned that there are few simple answers to what causes cancer or how to cure it. Sometimes, even though we follow health guidelines, don’t smoke, and eat right, we develop a cancer that starts with a random cell mutation.

When the diagnosis conversation started, my first question to my doctor was, “How do I get rid of it?” My doctor explained the basics: what a tumor is, why it should be removed, how that is done, and what happens after that. At first, I could barely hear the words, and I certainly didn’t understand them. I had a serious breast cancer—a large palpable tumor— and the treatment regimen would be aggressive because of the tumor grade.

The prescription given to me was the conventional Western route: lumpectomy surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy for ten months, then radiation. My navigation through the healthcare system started with a sentinel node biopsy, which is a diagnostic procedure to remove lymph nodes in the chest wall to check for possible metastasis outside the original tumor. Before cancer, I had no idea how many lymph nodes lived in my body, or where they were. My understanding of the immune system was minimal. That would all change.

Cancer treatments force you to think about the smallest details of daily life. I had worn a long-sleeved T-shirt to the hospital for my second surgery, but I had to use a surgical scissor afterwards to cut it open because I could not raise my arm over my head. No one had told me how to dress for cancer surgery! (Wear shirt that buttons up the front.) More seriously, no one told me that removing lymph nodes in the chest wall would traumatize the pectoral muscles.

Fears began to pile up fast. Range of motion was gone in my right arm. Removal of lymph nodes created the risk of lymphedema: a disfiguring, physically limiting condition in which lymph fluid builds up in tissues, causing swelling. As many of my yoga students now express, fear of lymphedema can be stronger than the fear of dying. Then came the warning that the loss of sensation in my right arm could be irreversible. After surgery and before chemo, my nurses explained how I would empty the surgical drains left in my chest wound and wished me well as I took the first step on the path of survivorship and went home.

Honestly, I left the hospital grateful for the knowledge and expertise of my doctors and nurses, but also feeling let down, alone, and with many more questions and fears than answers. Leaving the hospital, I had a fistful of pain meds, but no prescription to manage long-term side effects. I was warned what not to do, but not prepared with any “this is what you should do.” The big questions about living with cancer and rebuilding my life were never discussed. Caught up with so many details, I didn’t think to ask those questions, and my doctors didn’t think to volunteer such answers. Perhaps someone tried, but I was too distracted to hear.

Chemo was next, which is when I started to think about yoga. (For six years prior to my diagnosis, my practice three times a week combined Iyengar, Ashtanga, and self-practice.) Up to this point, cancer had been a great teacher. Chemo drugs, of course, are poisons designed to kill cancer cells, and in the process they kill other fast-growing cells such as hair follicles. As everyone imagines, the chemotherapy procedure creates anxiety, but it also produces new fears such as about the damage to healthy cells and a further loss of personal control. Fear is not pleasant and feeling vulnerable is hard work. Anxiety causes muscles to tighten, palms to sweat, your mouth to get dry as blood pressure and respiration rates elevate. Was I breathing? No! Gone again, that critical supply of life-giving oxygen. That I was holding my breath was a pivotal realization in my recovery.

I learned to use two yoga tools, gifts really, to prepare myself for chemo: breathing and meditation. In the past, I had underestimated meditation. Now, it allowed me to rest my mind whenever I chose, especially in the chemo chair. I could monitor my thoughts so I could go to sleep at night. I felt in charge again. With breathing and meditation I was grow- ing emotionally stronger, giving myself a way to strike a bargain with my treatments. Breath counting did not work for me, but alternate nostril breathing did. I was in control, not the chemo.

L1080562In New York at that time I found only one class for survivors, most of whom were advanced Stage IV and the focus was restorative yoga. I also started to rebuild my former yoga practice—slowly and gently, of course, but with a different focus. What interested me was not so much what I could not do, but what I could do. I was surprised when I brought my attention to other parts of my body that were healthy, like my legs, which seemed eager, ready to move and stretch.

Chemo made me tired. had expected that and anticipated the cumulative effect as I became bone-weary. However, an active yoga practice helped. It gave back energy. At the same time, I was growing emotionally stronger. It seemed that yoga focused me on the path of being a healthy survivor. I became curious. How and why were these effects of yoga happening?

At each stage of recovery, I experienced something different in my body and I had to adapt my yoga practice to the changes. Many questions arose in me about the effects of cancer treatments. But I also had questions for yoga: How to use yoga to optimize my health and to feel comfort- able in the body I now had?

L1080864When chemo finished, I asked myself whether my yoga practice needed to be different. Usually, restorative yoga with guided meditation is recommended for cancer patients and survivors. Was this what I needed?

My hope was that yoga could be a way to reclaim life during and after my cancer treatments, to get me back to normal. Hope, though, was not a plan; yoga was. I placed great expectations on yoga to give me full range of motion lost in surgery, to manage my fears, to help me flush out chemotherapy toxins, and to strengthen my immune system to resist a recurrence.

I wanted to know: What poses would be most important? How can yoga be healing and why? What are poses to avoid? What are the specific benefits and modifications for specific cancers? What is the science behind yoga? How does it work on a cellular level?

I was not a yoga teacher fourteen years ago, so I asked my teachers:

  • Will downward-facing dog cause lymphedema?
  • Would Hot Yoga be a good way to flush my body of chemotherapy toxins?
  • When is it safe to start doing yoga after starting treatments?
  • If I have implants, could they rupture doing yoga?
  • Is it okay to practice yoga with axillary nerve damage?
  • Forward bends cause me pain. Am I doing something wrong?

In the fourteen years since my diagnosis, research has begun to show evidence of yoga benefits for those with cancer. Along with patient navigators,some oncologists now recommend yoga. However, there are still many skeptics in the medical field, and much research needs to be done to bring yoga into main- stream care.

I believe yoga as a wellness plan improves the odds against cancer, giving survivors the tools to fight more effectively during active treatment or in the years after. Yoga helped me cope emotionally and physically with chemo, radiation, and other treatment challenges. This is the prescription I envision yoga folk and health care professionals giving: “Here is your last prescription. Do yoga.”

Finally, in speaking to yoga teachers and therapists as well as healthcare professionals, my experience led me to develop these guidelines:

  • Be prepared with answers to the questions, anticipated and unanticipated, that will come about yoga and cancer.
  • Learn the facts about cancer. Know that true compassion flows from knowledge and facts, not just from the heart chakra.
  • Learn the benefits of yoga as exercise beyond a relaxation technique. Acknowledge your own fears about cancer.
  • Acknowledge your own fears about cancer.
  • Encourage the curiosity of your patients and students who want to know how yoga works and how to live with cancer.
  • Appreciate that your patients want your recommendation on how they can participate in their healing.
  • Be aware that the science of yoga and cancer is still in its infancy. Stay open to the limits of our understanding and the possibility of misunderstanding. Yoga, like cancer, has scientific as well as spiritual dimensions.

L1080469Yoga empowered me to be healthier and stronger than I ever was before cancer. It taught me how to live with the uncertainty of recurrence and with lifelong side effects, and it helped me create my mantra: “Cancer steals your breath. Yoga gives it back.” A life-threatening illness can help us all learn how to live fearlessly—if faced directly. Both cancer and yoga are great teachers.

Tari Prinster, a cancer survivor, yoga teacher, and author of Yoga for Cancer, developed the y4c methodology using contemporary research on cancer and yoga. Since 2003, Tari has trained more than a thousand yoga teachers and worked with thousands of survivors. 


1. Hitchens, C. (2010). The topic of cancer. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/ culture/2010/09/hitchens-201009

2. Prinster, T. (2014). Yoga for cancer: a guide to man- aging side effects, boosting immunity, and improving recovery for cancer survivors. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.

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.