A guest article by Morven Hamilton
When I completed my teacher training as a yoga for cancer teacher in 2011, I had not previously worked with cancer survivors and I had never had a cancer patient in my class. My grandmother had had breast cancer and had overcome it in her 60s, and then again in her 70s, but I was living many hundreds of miles away and was too young to realise the gravity of her illness.
So, there I was, in front of my first group feeling very excited about what was about to ensue. Despite my inexperience and naivety I was 100% committed to the practice and absolutely sure that yoga can help anyone to overcome their difficulty and come to terms with their situation. I was on a quest to share the power of yoga with people who were suffering, and that quest had led me to Penny Brohn Cancer Care in Bristol as their resident teacher.
The group were absolutely lovely, and they still are – I still see many of that first group as they come to my classes elsewhere, now I have moved on from the cancer care centre where I once worked.
I realised quickly that teaching yoga to people affected by cancer is very similar to teaching any restorative class where you have people with injuries, people feeling tired, people feeling nervous and of course people with scars from surgery and side-effects of their treatment.
The teacher training I had attended thankfully was very thorough in teaching us modifications for the types of physical limitations to be expected in a cancer patient so I was able to fuss over the class participants and make sure they were all well-propped and comfortable. Looking back I was probably a bit too enthusiastic at first with the swaddling – there had been an underlying assumption there that people with cancer all feel terrible and weak and are extremely breakable. Not true! Of course some do –and don’t we all sometimes? But some people feel fine throughout their illness. They’re certainly not made of glass, as I had assumed. Most of the people in the group were women with breast cancer, although there were many others who passed through too.
My main fear was of aggravating lymphodoema, a condition which causes swelling due to an inability to drain lymph from the body. This can happen when people have had lymph nodes removed in cancer surgery. At the time, it was thought that weight-bearing could cause lymphodoema but in fact there is no evidence to support this and it is suggested that weight-bearing is very good for cancer survivors to help them get strong again.
My initial yoga for cancer teacher training was very body-based. In the yoga for cancer course that I initially taught there was an opening relaxation, an asana sequence with a theme such as “opening to the breath”, “building relaxed resilience” and then a long closing relaxation.
As time went on and my own teaching in restorative yoga and mindfulness developed, I began to weave these elements into the course that I was teaching. I introduced breath work as I came to a deepening understanding of how vital a familiarity and command of the breath is to healing. We would do a lot of abdominal breathing and other pranayamas, but mainly we would soothe with the breath in long-held restorative poses.
Sometimes I would walk into the class and ask “How’s your energy today everyone?” and they would all reply “Tired”, “Weary”, “Need yoga” – and so my lesson plan was thrown out of the window and we would do a totally grounding, breathy, slow supported practice mostly wrapped around a bolster. I would guide the students to breathe into different areas, explore discomfort and pain with the breath. In mindfulness, I had learned to lean into the edges of resistance with breath and kindness – no stretching required and an enhanced sense of wellbeing and openness guaranteed.
And so evolved Healing the Whole Person. People affected by cancer are on a journey through the darkest, messiest parts of human experience. Yes, they need to stretch and move like us all, but they need to rest and soothe, accept and develop self-compassion more than anything.
I believe this so strongly I have been on the advanced Breathworks teacher training programme to be able to fully integrate mindfulness and self-compassion into the Healing the Whole Person teacher training programme. My new quest is to support other teachers to give the best help possible to people affected by cancer. The course gives you a grounding in all you need to know about teaching cancer patients, and also in mindfulness for pain and illness so that teachers will be able to work in this field with confidence and compassion.
If you want to work with people with cancer and you have any questions about the job, please do get in touch with me, I will be happy to help. I have taught hundreds of people with cancer and seen their lives transform through yoga. It truly is a gift.
You can also find details of the Yoga for Cancer Teacher Training offered at Yogafurie by Morven in May 2019 here.
For free resources for teachers and students, take a look at the resource hub at www.healingthewholeperson.co.uk