Teaching Yoga for Cancer Patients

This entry was posted on Jun 15, 2021 by Charlotte Bell.

Betsy was tall, lanky and tanned. She loved to swim and take beach vacations with her family. Betsy loved a good joke, and knew how to tell them. Somehow her husky smokers’ voice made her jokes all that more colorful. She had stopped smoking a few years before I met her, but cancer had already invaded her lungs. It was now eating away at her spine. I met Betsy when I was teaching yoga for cancer patients at Cancer Wellness House in 1997.

She loved the class and came every single week—until two weeks before she passed. The last time she was able to come, her daughter had to help her up the stairs. Her body was not willing to do too much at that point. But she loved yoga so much that it was worth it to her to come, even as her vitality was slipping away.

Betsy loved yoga so much, partly because it was a way for her to relate to her body in a positive way. So often, when someone receives a cancer diagnosis, they suddenly find themselves in an antagonistic relationship with their body. (The most common way we describe cancer treatment is as a “battle.”) For Betsy, yoga was a time for her to reconnect with what she enjoyed about living in her body. It reminded her that her body could be her friend, even in the midst of radical cancer treatment, and even as her body was winding down. This is the gift of teaching yoga for cancer patients. It’s an opportunity to help people reconnect with the joys of living in a body, even in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

Yoga for Cancer Patients: A Creative Opportunity

I taught yoga for cancer patients at Cancer Wellness House for two years. Then in 2014, I began teaching this population again, this time at Huntsman Cancer Institute. At Huntsman, I teach yoga to cancer patients, their familial caregivers, and hospital staff. This presents a unique opportunity. Some of my students are quite fit, avid skiers, hikers and cyclists. Others can have severe limitations.

I learned back in my Cancer Wellness House days that it was important to make sure everyone felt welcome and safe. This meant that I catered each class to whoever was there. In Betsy’s class, there was a core of about six people who came almost every week. That core included Betsy, whose balance was unstable because of her spinal problems. She loved standing poses, but she had to stand near a wall for one-legged balancing. Another student had a colostomy bag. Facedown poses were off limits for her. Yet another student’s shoulder strength and flexibility had been severely impacted by a double mastectomy. She practiced Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) with her hands on the wall.

I had to think on my feet. Each class was different, depending on who was there. But I felt it was important to focus on what my students could do, rather than the limitations their cancer had imposed on them. They were already coping with the physical, mental and emotional impacts of reduced function. I didn’t want my yoga classes to be yet another reminder. So in the hour-long classes, I avoided poses that students couldn’t do, or had to modify in some extreme way. That way, every student could participate fully—and reap the benefits.

Mixed-Level Yoga Classes to the Max

My Huntsman classes are different in that not all my students are dealing with cancer diagnoses. Several of my students are athletes with no restrictions. Others are dealing with significantly reduced function. But my focus in yoga classes has always been the practice’s effect on the nervous system. My intention is to sequence my classes in such a way that after Savasana (Corpse Pose), my students feel both refreshed and calm. Strength and flexibility are happy byproducts of this type of practice, but the nervous system is my focus.

This transfers well into a class where students’ physical conditions are all over the map. So even though some caregivers and staff may be accomplished athletes, they appreciate a gentle practice as much as the patients do. A slow-moving, gentle practice with a generous Savasana allows them to de-stress and replenish their energies.

Yoga for Cancer Patients Benefits Students and Teachers

A yoga practice, no matter how committed, can’t cure cancer. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful on the physical level. Certain yoga practices can help patients deal with side effects of treatment. For example, here’s a yoga sequence that can facilitate lymphatic flow in breast cancer patients suffering from lymphedema. Movement in general can help boost immune system function. And of course, a gentle, mindful yoga practice can replenish energy and help patients and caregivers cope with stress.

As a yoga teacher, I’ve felt privileged to get to know a sliver of this population. A cancer diagnosis has a way of resetting our priorities, inspiring us to dig deep and ask big questions. (For the record, I received a breast cancer diagnosis in 2016, so I’m well aware of the clarity that can come from a diagnosis.) These yoga students relish the opportunity to reconnect with what there is to love about living in a human body. I’m honored to play a small part in this.

Teaching yoga for cancer patients has helped me stay creative and responsive in my teaching. There’s no “prescription” or set routine that works for everyone. Of course, this is true in the general population as well, but the cancer patient population is even more varied. I never know who’s going to show up, and what their unique needs might be. This has increased my ability to see each individual—cancer patient or not—and address each student’s needs more skillfully.

One of the challenges of teaching yoga for cancer patients, of course, is that students sometimes defy treatment. Just last week, a dedicated student of several years succumbed to prostate cancer. As with Betsy so many years ago, the loss of this student hit hard. His passing is a loss for all of us in the Huntsman wellness community. But we’re all grateful to have had the opportunity to know him and to share in his kindness and wisdom during his journey with cancer.

If you choose to teach yoga for cancer patients, remember to stay open-minded. You may need to throw a lot of what you think you know out the window. But that’s a positive thing that leads to greater depth in your own knowledge and teaching skills. Teaching yoga for cancer patients is a journey with lots of twists and turns, but it’s well worth the trek.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, please consult your physician before embarking on a yoga practice. Then find a cancer-specific class in your area. Start slow and always listen to your body.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.