What’s your favorite part of your work?
Cancer survivors come to my classes with high expectations. They come with fear, doubts and questions about both cancer and yoga. And they come with a desire to know how and why yoga will help them be healthy and stay cancer-free. They come to yoga as people wanting to feel whole and normal again, not just as cancer survivors. They bring life challenges, not just cancer challenges. My students can be patients undergoing treatments or survivors finishing treatments just last week, or ten years ago. They range in ages from 24 to 80, having all types of cancer: lung, pancreatic, brain and even eye cancers, and all stages. The size and number of y4c classes are growing because the number of cancer survivors in the world will continue to increase.
The most enjoyable part of my work is when I witness the benefits of yoga through the bodies of my students and see their personal transformations. At the end of a class when I see a glow on each face and blissful bodies not struggling, I know something magical has happened. Yoga has guided all of us to this moment. I have provided a safe place and opportunity for self-care, self-love. This is my favorite part because this is where the healing happens.
What’s your least favorite part of your work?
My least favorite part of my work is fundraising. It is no secret that cancer can be as economically challenging as it is emotionally or physically. This fact when combined with the good intentions of compassionate yoga teachers creates an assumption that yoga for cancer should be free. The karma in this assumption is undeniable, but it is not sustainable. All yoga classes come with expenses. When starting a class in a studio, hospital or clinic, I ask for money to support a budget of necessary and essential costs (e.g., teacher fees, rent, utilities, insurance, media services). To keep current classes free, I ask for money. And I never ask my y4c teachers to teach for free. All yoga teachers should be paid, especially those who have taken the time and effort to be trained with the special knowledge of cancer and the impact of cancer treatments on the body.
I also raise money to give scholarships to compassionate and interested yoga teacher who seek advance training in yoga for cancer. Most yoga teachers are trained to teach to a diverse, yet general, population. They are not trained to teach to the specific needs of cancer survivors. Having advanced training means a yoga teacher can harness the many yoga benefits relative to cancer, not only to promote treatment recovery but also for prevention.
What still excites you and keeps you engaged with teaching yoga?
As a cancer survivor, I know that getting through treatments can be like going into a wind tunnel. On the other side, you hope to look and feel like you did when you started. But you don’t. The only guarantee after diagnosis and treatments is that life is not the same. However, hoping that the cancer will go away (or not come back) is not a plan. Yoga was my plan. It became my companion on a long journey, my ally to encourage me to take an active role in my recovery. Yoga gave me the daily support I needed during treatments and now, as I live with the uncertainty of a recurrence and the life-long after effects of treatments. Since cancer, nothing has been the same. But yoga empowered me to be healthier and stronger than I ever was before cancer. I want to help other survivors onto that path. I want to give them these transformative tools to create a long term survivorship plan.
The most rewarding aspect of this work is what I call the “ripples effect in Lake Yoga.” The goal is touching the lives of 14.3 million survivors living today in the US with yoga and the many more persons beyond our borders. Although I am proud of the number of lives I have touched directly with my classes and retreats, I am only one woman.
It is extremely fulfilling to see the many ripples of this work being made by more than 1,500 yoga teachers and other healthcare practitioners that I have trained in my methodology, watching them cultivate safe yoga classes all over the world for cancer patients and survivors, then seeing the ripples wash ashore as yoga 4 cancer waves. Working together, we are making yoga waves to help millions of cancer patients and survivors have happier, healthier and longer lives.
If you didn’t teach yoga, what else would you do?
Thinking about this question left me unsettled. I am a teacher; I will always be a teacher… perhaps when not teaching yoga, I will teach my granddaughters how to sew, another ancient tool to make life better, passed from generation to generation – like yoga.
What are you excited about learning next?
I want to build a Klepper kayak and learn to navigate open sea waters. I try to imagine what tidal heaves will feel like with just a thin layer of fiberglass or waxed canvas separating me from the ocean surface. Seventy percent of our world’s surface is covered by water and that percentage is likely to increase. But I am unfamiliar with and fear the ocean. What calms my fear of cancer recurrence is the rise and fall of my breath. So I hope to employ that knowledge and practice on the open waters in a kayak.
Yoga taught me how to live with the uncertainty of recurrence and with lifelong side effects. If faced directly, a life-threatening illness can teach us how to live fearlessly.
Cancer came into my life like an uninvited guest. So I invite and welcome the rise and fall of the open sea that I fear—in my new kayak I will use the cadence of my breath to tame my fear and to learn to ride the waves, enjoying this grand part of our planet.
What’s your finest advice for a newer teacher?
Yoga is a great teacher, so is cancer. Together, they taught me to look under my skin to understand how my body and mind work. Both allowed me to find a better fit and a new kind of body/mind wisdom.
My personal experience provoked many questions: Why did yoga have such positive impacts on my body and help me manage treatment side effects? Were there specific benefits? What is the science behind yoga? What is the science behind yoga for cancer? How does it work on a cellular level? And ultimately, what poses would be most important? What are poses to avoid? All these questions gave rise to reason, evidence, and the ability to explain how yoga works! Cancer and healing made me curious about so many things in life.
To new yoga teachers and those compassionate yoga teachers who wish to bring yoga’s healing powers to cancer patients and survivors, my advice is:
Learn about cancer. More and more cancer survivors will populate your yoga classes. Because teaching yoga to cancer survivors is different, yoga teachers have the responsibility to address the unique needs of cancer survivors.
Get specialized training. If you are a yoga teacher inspired to teach this special population, bless you. But don’t assume that compassion is enough. True compassion is based on knowledge, facts and special training. As Mr. Iyengar said:
“Do not imagine that you already understand and impose your imperfect understanding on those who come to you for help.” – BKS Iyengar, Light on Life
Be curious: Fear is a normal response to cancer. How to manage that fear becomes the challenge. Yoga gave me the curiosity to face loss, discomfort and uncertainties and to stay on the path without fear. That understanding came from researching the biological effects of yoga on cancer. Yoga like cancer is as scientific as it is spiritual! Both guide us to see the light – the life – deep inside.
Evolutionary biology or God(s)?
There are an amazing theories and facts from Evolutionary Biology.
However, God(s) are more fun. We need both!