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4 Ways Yoga Teachers Can Support Their Students with Cancer

This article aims to help you as a yoga teacher to help people who have had a diagnosis or who are under investigation for cancer.

How you can truly help someone with cancer

The prospect of supporting someone with cancer can be daunting. In truth, it's not that complicated. The key is listening. The mistake most people make, is trying to guess how they must be feeling and what they must want. This never goes well!

No two people experience cancer the same way. Cancer itself is the name of over 100 different diseases. We can make no assumptions about how someone with cancer is doing or what they need. What we can do, is get informed and learn a few things that might help.

Have a chat in advance

Make time to talk to your student before they start coming to your class. Ask them to have a call with you first, or better yet, arrange a 1:1 yoga class with them prior to them starting a group class. Your prospective student will likely be only too happy to share the details of what has been going on with them. Now is your time to listen, ask relevant questions and learn as much as you can. Don't forget to find out how their mental health is and if they have any enduring symptoms from treatment.

In your call or one to one, you can assess whether they will benefit from being in a group session, and you can also plan ahead for how you will accommodate any limitations in your class. A one to one is also a great time to give them some takeaway tools such as helpful asana modifications for their specific needs, and any resources you think may be helpful such as links to yoga nidra recordings.

Check your own assumptions

You have assumptions (that's the only thing you can assume), whether you realise it or not. Do you think that people with cancer feel bad? That they have low energy? That they are scared? These are all common assumptions that people make about cancer patients. While your assumptions may be correct, they may be completely off in the case of your student. It's most likely that there will be a lot of fluctuation going on for them both physically and emotionally. Be prepared to hold an open space and keep listening. You won't offend anyone by checking in before class to find out how they are doing. No-one minds being cared about as long as you're sensitive. Avoid fussing and being overly concerned-looking - that can be a big trigger. The vast majority of cancer patients just want to be treated like anyone else (because they are like anyone else).

Try to see the bigger picture

Cancer is a phenomenon that affects the whole person - body, mind, spirit and relationships. There's nothing to actively do here in the yoga space, but reading around about the psychological effects of cancer will make you more skilful at holding space for your students who are going through something big. In order to hold space for people affected by cancer, it's necessary to understand not just yoga and its benefits but the whole landscape of cancer. After diagnosis, a person is plunged into "cancerland" - a place where noone wants to go. It is a whole world unto itself and can be an isolating place to be. Get to know the landscape of cancer and its impact on the whole person.

Avoid saying these things to someone going through cancer. This is advice for yoga teachers and anyone who is supporting someone who has had a diagnosis

I will go into this in more depth in another blog post, but these are common well-meant blunders that people make when they are trying to say the right thing.

👉 Stay positive!

(my personal favourite and one which I was told so many times). Being told to stay positive just puts another burden on you to try and be happy when your world is falling apart. All in all, too big an ask.

👉 It's not that serious.

Trust me, it's serious. There is a spectrum of cancers that ranges from cancers which can be treated in a straightforward way and cancers that spell end-of-life. They are all serious because they all have the potential to kill you.

👉 I suppose you've changed your diet?

I loved it when people asked me this when I had breast cancer. I told them that yes, I had changed my diet from an anti-cancer diet to eating all sorts of crap and drinking red wine every night. That was the truth - for a while. Don't assume that they weren't already doing everything they could to avoid getting cancer.

👉 Have you thought about why you got cancer?

This question is irrelevant and impossible to answer. See your assumptions for an explanation of why this question is bound to alienate people. Cancer can happen to anyone at any time. Cancer does not need a reason.

👉 I'm finding this hard

It can be emotionally challenging, holding space for people who are going through something big. I really empathise with that. Instead of telling the person with cancer about it, tell your friend or another third party. As someone going through cancer, it can be very hard to hear that someone else is finding your situation hard and they may feel as if they have to support you instead of the other way round. Of course, context is everything and in some cases it may be appropriate to talk to someone with cancer about the impact cancer is having on you.

I hope this article has been a support for you to navigate relationships affected by cancer. Whether you are a yoga teacher who wants to skill up or you have someone close to you with cancer and you want to do your best to support them.

What now?

If you would like to learn more about how to share yoga safely and compassionately with people affected by cancer. Click the button below for my free E-book on Teaching Yoga for Cancer. If you're on the mailing list, you will be the first to hear about upcoming mini courses and teacher training in teaching Yoga for Cancer according to the whole-person model.

I'm Morven

I provide training for yoga teachers and cancer care professionals in a whole-person approach to teaching yoga safely and compassionately to anyone affected by cancer. I am committed to helping people to teach yoga confidently and creatively and from an informed background of comprehensive training. Teachers who train with Yoga by Nature will understand the whole-person - body, mind, spirit and relationships in relation to the cancer journey and be able to create yoga practices which help anyone post-cancer diagnosis to live well.


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