Cancer Alchemy and Yoga.

Posted on March 28, 2012


I taught a yoga class to ladies in treatment for cancer yesterday. All of them were in different stages: just diagnosed, in treatment, in remission or wandering somewhere in between. I was awe inspired, humbled and terrified. Awe inspired because of the beautiful, graceful presence these woman held as they practiced. Humbled because as I move through life there are many times I fail to think beyond the body of “me” and look through the lenses of others. Terrified because no matter how much experience one has teaching others – there is an in borne fear of doing harm.


For me, the question to any answer in health based matters is always: How can I best facilitate healing without causing harm? In the veterinary profession as well as in the teaching profession the primary impetus is to help others and create a space where anything broken can be addressed. It isn’t a fear of not knowingness. It is a fear of knowing and failing to listen to what another person is telling me through movement and action.


I feel like the word fear gets a bad rap sometimes – as enlightened humans we are asked to seek ways to eradicate fear and embrace the “hero self”. The truth is – becoming a hero is knowing that fear exists in different ways and working this knowledge to grow as a person. I spent 12 years working with small animals before transitioning to a career in academia (and teaching asana). During this time I learned a few things about trauma, fear response and giving aid:

If it’s a gut fear that comes from the primal part of the brain… listen to it – it means something needs to change in the methodology. It means that something isn’t quite right. You know gut fear. Your body knows gut fear and acts upon it. The automatic nervous system exists for you to know this fear.

The challenge with this kind of emotional response is finding how to use it. Listening to it without reacting and adjusting your perception in response. I’ve helped stabilize many a dying animal and my first level of response has always been a little voice in my heart whispering RUN. Run away from the blood and pain. I’m a bit soft hearted and it took years of conditioning to respond to the situation instead of reacting. When run fails to be an option another level of knowingness kicks in and the body moves to action. Automatic response to the situation becomes GIVE AID instead of run. This is how EMT’s and Soldiers and ER doctors do what they do. They take fear and in an internal alchemical process- turn it into forward movement and action. Feed this fear. Stoke it when it happens and use it to grow…unless of course you’re in a situation that requires running – like the zombie apocalypse. Then use the fear to Go.Faster.

If it’s fear of failure or some other thing of the ego – look at it, see why it’s happening and shed it like a second skin. Fear of failure or embarrassment or change only stymies personal growth and passion. For me, when I become inundated with this kind of fear it is a sign to look inward. Usually it means that I am losing hold of my conscious world and allowing the underworld to open up and embrace me. (Jungian archetypal speak I know). Have you ever read the myth of Innana or the one about Demeter and Persephone? If so, you get it when I say that personal darkness can be the most seductive and destructive lover one has ever had. Let loose this kind of fear because it serves no one, especially you.

SO. Cancer.

With these women I was scared. Before taking to my mat I froze – felt the terror telling me to run and to be honest – I was a hairsbreadth from doing so because what did I know about teaching people who have cancer?

My answer to this is everything. The real question I should have been asking myself is how best can I facilitate calm and presence in the room. How best can I understand and support another person who is walking a path that I am sure held fear for them at the beginning…perhaps it still does and yet they walk .They come to yoga class and spend that class radiating deep beauty and patience and understanding.

Ego fear or animal fear. The distinction isn’t always black and white but it can be. Not that you have to ask every time you find yourself approaching a fear reaction but becoming accustomed to knowing the difference is a thing I strongly recommend. Without doing so you’ll have a lot of hindsight moments where you think …Well. Shit. I was just too afraid to _______________ and now that I’m far enough away from it doesn’t look that scary at all.

This phrase: How can I best facilitate healing? It is the MOST applicable to how you treat yourself. Remember this as you wander the maze of life and perhaps remember – sometimes the interaction is wordless. Sometimes you need to pay attention to how it moves your thoughts or your soul in order to find the message. Sometimes you have to sit with the numbing aspects of fear to know where your next footfall should be and sometimes, with enough conditioning it’s easy to walk the hero’s path.

-Signing off for now –