What I Learned from Teaching Yoga to Cancer Survivors


“Don’t wait until you’re ready, or you’ll be waiting your whole life.”

I’ve no idea who said this. An internet search suggests  it could be anyone from Hugh Laurie to Lemony Snicket. Regardless, I can remember thinking I wasn’t ready when the opportunity to teach at a cancer center presented itself to me shortly after I moved to Colorado in 1999. I wasn’t ready because I hadn’t been teaching yoga long enough and I wasn’t a doctor and I had no direct experience with cancer or radiation or chemotherapy and I couldn’t possibly relate to the physical impact of their surgeries never mind the psychological component. I had a journalism degree for chrissakes. I just wasn’t ready.

So I said yes.

It wasn’t arrogance or ignorance that led me to this decision, but the same curiosity that had driven me to leave a successful career behind and start over as a yoga teacher in the mountains (in the days before such a thing was quite so commonplace). Moreover, it was a fundamental understanding of yoga as a practice that helps us to digest our experiences and of Hatha Yoga as a practice that helps us reconnect to our bodies. Sure, I wasn’t a doctor and certainly I hadn’t mastered yoga but I was clear that my lack of readiness wasn’t going to change if I wasn’t willing to let the students teach me about their experiences. And if I was going to tout the health benefits of yoga, how could I say no?

I was scared.

The hiring process, being one for a hospital, required a background check and vaccinations and rigorous training in health and safety. I learned that most cardiac arrests occur in the morning, when my class was scheduled, and I read a lot of books about cancer. So when I showed up for my first class, I was afraid that I would break them, or it would be too painful to see them fighting for life or maybe that they’d be hooked up to machines.

What I got was four years in an incredible, supportive, hilarious community of unlikely people who had been brought together by one thing. And honestly, that one thing wasn’t cancer. It was optimism. These were people who, on the face of it, got handed a shitty deal. They received terrible news followed by invasive treatments and financial burden. And they responded with community, compassion and connection. And I’m the yoga teacher?

The first thing that can be good to know if this scenario sounds daunting to you is that many of your students in this type of setting aren’t necessarily in treatment. Some are many years in remission, in great pysical shape, and simply still benefit from the yoga classes. Some come to support a husband, wife, brother or sister. And some incredibly selfless individuals are simply community locals who recognize the need for support, so they come weekly and make friends with the patients who are often hundreds of miles from their own communities. If this isn’t the case, I recommend cultivating it. We had potlucks and birthday parties outside of the center, and I’d often run into them in small groups at the movies or out to dinner.

If you’re afraid that somehow you won’t be able to provide a meaningful enough experience for people who face such huge adversity,  here’s the thing: your role isn’t to lead a kick ass flow set to a sweet playlist and then drop an inspiring pearl of yogic wisdom on them as they go into Savasana.

More than anything else, you are holding space and listening to them and learning from them so that you can serve them in small, powerful ways. After the first few classes, I’d realized that showing up with a plan (and god forbid a theme) was futile. We had an hour and the first 15 minutes at least were spent socializing. This, I quickly realized, was a really important of the experience. Some students were in the thick of deep, painful treatment and being in the midst of laughter and bitching and some semblance of normalcy for a moment was much more therapeutic than any pose or quote from the Sutras I could spout.

In between the gossiping and laughter and tears, I ultimately aimed to achieve three things in our practices: first was to invite a loving connection to bodies which had betrayed them. This could be as simple as really approachable, supine poses that simply feel good to the exhausted body. Second was to encourage a connection to breath. This can be as easy as inhaling the arms up and exhaling the palms together at the heart, but if you have a student fresh out of a mastectomy, have them lie on the mat with a blanket on their bellies and breath into it. Third was to hold space for deep, guided rest. They need it.

I am certain there are expert Yoga Therapy teachers out there who would give you a much more structured, technical approach, but I for one can’t say that there’s a one-size-fits-all method. My experience was that if you can offer your presence and invite physical connection, you are helping.

I also learned quickly that you don’t need to beat around the bush with diagnoses and treatments. It’s important for you to know what a student is going through and you can simply ask “What type of cancer do you have?” and “What kind of treatment are you receiving?” Just as important though, is to ask about their lives outside of cancer: where are they from? Do they have kids? What are they looking forward to getting back to?

I hope I never see you again.

Unlike studio-based yoga, where return students are the driving factor and numbers reign supreme, we celebrated the day when a student said it was his or her last class. In-patient care involved stays of three or six or eight weeks during treatment when patients would have to put their lives, usually elsewhere in the state, on hold and their days comprised of treatment and recovery. So on their last day, when the doctors gave them the okay to return to their lives, we said: “I hope I never see you again” and we meant it.

And sometimes you did see them again. That’s the thing – teaching yoga to underserved populations isn’t all fancy catchphrases and handstands. You can’t save everyone with downward dog. It’s rewarding as all hell but it can hurt like a bitch. You have to be willing to sometimes be the target of misdirected anger because, well, you’re there, and look into the eyes of women who have just undergone traumatic double mastectomies without crying, and sometimes you have to attend funerals of people you love.

I know, I’m not selling it all that well. But there are few things that I can recommend more. Teaching yoga to cancer survivors teaches you about bravery, and the importance of human connection, and yoga, before we made it about the leggings. It teaches you more about the nature of life, which is short and changing and sometimes merciless and more often sweet, than any yoga pose I know. And it teaches you that readiness is simply a willingness to grow.

About the author: Julia Clarke
Julia's creative and passionate teaching weaves her deep connection with nature and her love of Ayurveda through dynamic and powerful Vinyasa Flow, contemplative Yin Yoga and thoughtful Restorative Yoga.