Cancer as a Teacher: Yoga and the Timeless Essence of Life

Today I was teaching a man with Stage IV cancer. I led him through a yoga practice and wrote out the practice in small pictograms so he could do it again on his own. He is a long-time friend and has two preteen daughters. I teach him for free, but I get so much out of it. Perhaps it is because my own mother died of breast cancer when I was 18 that I feel such a connection to what he is going through. All I know is that it is a gift for me. 

I have been doing yoga since I was a child, and teaching yoga since 2001. I specialize in working with individuals on a one-on-one basis. I have had the good fortune to have studied with TKV Desikachar and many of his most serious students, who have taught me to focus on teaching individuals and tailoring yoga practices to fit their needs. Although group classes are beneficial, a personalized yoga practice can allow a person to move more deeply inward and have a more profound effect on body, breath and mind. 

My friend is not in pretty shape. He moves slowly, but the most visible sign of the cancer is a very distended belly and hugely bloated feet and legs due to edema. Today he wore a pair of oversized pants and used suspenders to keep them on. This is a man who went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as a youth was voted by his local Rotary Club to be the most likely to succeed and is brilliant. More than that, he has a passionate connection with life and wanting to live. 

As we are going through his yoga practice, I reflect on what it is that I do when teaching. I look for signs that the person is relaxing and enjoying what they are doing. I look for signs of their breath getting longer and smoother. In his case, it seems to be most effective to harness the exhale with sound, finding organic sounds like humming or “maa” to relax body and mind. 

As I teach, I am not thinking of adding anything, nor about getting him to change. Rather, I look to create a space where he can let go of unnecessary stress so that he can feel even just a little bit better. The ancient teachings of yoga tell us that the light of well-being already exists within. This might mean that we each do something different, and for each of us there is an approach that is appropriate to the individual. This appropriate approach is a process of negation.

Today, after our lesson, he said to me: “Usually I’m in pain or discomfort for one reason or another. But at times when I do yoga with you I feel bliss.” Last week he said the yoga practice was “a little piece of heaven.”

At the end of our first lesson several weeks ago, I was surprised at how I felt. I guess I expected that working with him would bring up the grief I feel for my mom, and that I would want to have a good cry afterward. Instead, at the end of that lesson I felt a powerful sensation in my heart. I felt grateful.

It reminded me of the poignant learning that went along with the death of my mother. It was an extremely painful time for me, and I was in shock. But along with that sorrow and shock I had a clear perception of the fragility of our existence. Life seemed so short, not as a cliché, but as a fact. Along with the cancer and then her death, there was a bright clarity, a message. The message goes something like this:

“Life is short. Your life is a gift. Remember every moment that your time here in this body, and on this mysterious earth is precious.”

Today as we were finishing our lesson, I felt such a sense of gratitude and wholeness. We were in a wordless, timeless space. In my student’s case, there are no promises. I cannot cure him; I’m not an oncologist. But as he has experienced, as I experience in my own practice, yoga points to a health and, yes, bliss, that is not just of the body, but of the wholeness of which we are.

Breathe in the gift, breathe out the gift. Relax.

Reprinted from Huffington Post with permission from the author.

Rowan Octavia Frederick Lommel (ROFL — hee hee) has been teaching yoga since 2001 and is certified as an E-RYT by the Yoga Alliance. She trained at the Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco and at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India. She has worked in-depth with Mekhala Desikachar and TKV Desikachar and his students. She has a yoga therapy practice working privately with individuals in Ojai and Santa Barbara; her website is

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