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Q&A with Seva winner Tari Prinster

Tari Prinster found the benefits of yoga after her cancer diagnosis. Now, she's working to educate teachers on safe yoga practices with cancer patients.

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Tari Prinster found the benefits of yoga after her cancer diagnosis. Now, she’s working to educate teachers on safe yoga practices with cancer patients.

Tari Pinster’s Personal Story of Yoga’s Healing Power

Yoga Journal: Why did yoga make such a difference to you while you were recovering from cancer?
Tari Prinster: A cancer diagnosis is like falling off a swing as a child—the shock, hitting the hard ground, that thud sound, then the gasp for air, all in a split second. The word cancer pried loose my hold on life and time seemed to stop. At least it stopped until I took the next breath on my yoga mat.

I had always been active, even winning a cross-country ski race the day before my diagnosis. So I wanted to continue being active during my treatment. I started practicing yoga 21 years ago at age fifty, but largely for vanity reasons: to avoid the dowager hump and manage menopausal symptoms. During my treatment, I found that yoga was the only exercise that I could do and wanted to do. Although I didn’t know why at the time, it helped me physically and emotionally throughout my surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. And ultimately yoga played the lead role in taking me from active treatment to maintaining my new normal.

First, I learned to use two yoga tools—gifts, really—to prepare myself for my oncology journey: breathing and meditation. The chemotherapy made me anxious, but it also produced new fears, such as damage to healthy cells and a further loss of personal control. Fear is not pleasant, and feeling vulnerable is hard work. Anxiety causes muscles to tighten, palms to sweat, your mouth to get dry as blood pressure and respiration rates elevate. Wait, was I breathing? No! Gone was that critical supply of life-giving oxygen. The realization that I was holding my breath was pivotal in my recovery.

In the past, I had underestimated meditation. Now meditation let me rest my mind whenever I chose, especially in the chemo chair. I could monitor my thoughts, which helped me sleep at night. I felt in charge again. With breathing and meditation, I was growing emotionally stronger, giving myself a way to strike a bargain with my treatments.

SEE ALSOOne Yogi’s Breast Cancer “ChemoAsana”

I started to rebuild my former yoga practice, largely ashtanga—slowly and gently, of course, but with a different focus. What interested me was not so much what I could not do, but what I could do. I was surprised when I brought my attention to other parts of my body that were healthy, like my legs, which seemed eager, ready to move and stretch. And with focused practice, I was able to bring strength back to my arms and upper torso, which had suffered from surgeries, chemo ports, and radiation. The slow progression of my new yoga practice and using my own body weight initially gave me strength and flexibility in a safe and comfortable way.

I also learned that an active yoga practice was possible and vital to my recovery. Restorative, gentle, or chair yoga was—and often is—the common recommendation for cancer patients and survivors. But this wasn’t fulfilling me. Despite the strange looks from teachers and fellow students, I would go, baldheaded, to more active classes. Often people thought I was a Buddhist nun because the concept of a cancer patient in an active class was so foreign. During class, I would listen to and witness my body, making modifications if my body was unable to participate. But I found that an active yoga practice charged me with energy, enabling me to live life and enjoy my days during treatment.

I wasn’t the only one noticing the impacts that yoga was having on my recovery. My oncologist would remark about how well I was reacting compared to others in my chemotherapy trial. Neither of us knew why, but we both had our suspicions. It was the yoga. We both thirsted to understand the whys and hows so we could help other survivors and patients. This was the beginning of my next chapter.

The Research Behind Yoga for Cancer

YJ: You wanted to share the gift of yoga with other cancer survivors and research why it was so effective. What did you learn in your research?
TP: My personal experience provoked many unanswered questions: Why did yoga have such positive impacts on my body and help me manage the side effects of my treatment? What is the science behind yoga—and behind yoga for cancer? How does it work on a cellular level? And ultimately, what poses would be most important and what poses should be avoided?

Before I could help anyone, I needed to know the facts. This was 15 years ago, and there was little to no research available about the benefits of yoga, and even less on the benefits of yoga on cancer. So first, I studied the science and nature of cancer, and the side effects of cancer treatments. Then I explored the biology, physiology, and physics of yoga, essentially the science behind yoga. I recognized how both approaches overlapped, found some answers, and then applied that knowledge to the needs of cancer survivors. My goal was to understand how yoga could promote recovery and reduce risk of future cancers. Along the way, I discovered that yoga, like cancer, is as scientific as it is spiritual.

READ MORE Cancer Survivors Sleep Better With Yoga

The secrets of healing and managing cancer lie in the complexity of the human immune system. Here are a few concrete ways the science of yoga keeps the body’s immune system strong from the inside out, making it a powerful tool in the defense against cancer or in managing the side effects of cancer treatments.

  • Yoga boasts immunity. Research shows the best defense against cancer, or a cancer recurrence, is a strong immune system. And research shows that a regular yoga practice increases circulation of our natural cancer-fighting immune cells and that meditation improves brain and immune function.
  • Yoga detoxifies the body. Disposing of dead cells, toxins, rogue cancer cells, or other pathogens is the job of the lymphatic system—the body’s plumbing and trash removal service. I observed how the respiratory and lymphatic systems work intimately together to increase lymph fluid flow using breathing techniques and postures such as inversions and twists. The heart muscle circulates blood; similarly, yoga poses and sequences use muscles to “squeeze and massage” internal organs, guiding toxins into the lymphatic system and out of the body.
  • Yoga builds bones. How are strong bones linked to cancer prevention? Bones house bone marrow, where new red and white blood cells are constantly being produced. White blood cells form natural cancer-fighting immune cells that give us protection. Also, standing poses build bone, especially those on one leg. It takes only 30 seconds to ignite this cellular effect on the skeleton. Additionally, cancer treatments impact bone strength, making breaks more common so it is vital to longterm health and well-being.
  • Yoga is weight managementObesity is one of the biggest risk factors for most cancers. The American Cancer Society recommends 300 minutes per week of moderate exercise to reduce obesity and the risk of cancer. Yoga is one of their recommendations. Additional studies show that yoga used as weight management had a more positive impact on obesity and depression than aerobic exercise. Yoga can be active and calorie burning. It is safe, physically accessible, and welcoming.
  • Yoga reduces stress. No one doubts that a cancer diagnosis increases stress. The reverse—stress causes cancer—is not yet established. What we do know from recent research is that yoga provides emotional benefits and teaches positive ways to manage stress. Studied as a relaxation technique, yoga improves cortisol levels and psychological measures of stress, well-being, fatigue, and depression.

YJ: You have said that you dream that Western medical professionals will come to recognize that yoga should be part of their prescription for cancer survivors. Can you elaborate?
TP: Yoga empowered me to be healthier and stronger than I ever was before cancer. Emerging from my fears and discomforts, I realized yoga was the prescription I needed for the rest of my life to stay a healthy. And I wanted to bring it to others. I believe yoga should be prescribed as an adjunctive therapy with treatment plans in the same way anti-nausea drugs are given. As the effects and benefits of yoga are more widely researched, I believe many answers will emerge to help everyone have a long, health-filled survivorship.

But there are two important discussions to have with both the medical and yoga community. First, yoga is not “one size fits all.” Second, yoga for cancer survivors requires advanced training.

Generally, yoga for cancer patients and survivors makes sense as a way to manage anxiety and foster feelings of well-being. Yoga for this population is commonly thought of as a gentle yoga, including restorative poses, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques. However, it should not be assumed that a cancer patient couldn’t handle an invigorating practice. Actually, based on the American Cancer Society exercise guidelines, an active practice should be the recommendation. The perceived benefits of improving immunity and gaining strength are often overlooked or not recognized. The correct premise should be to adapt yoga to the individual, just as cancer treatments are adapted to each cancer and individual patients.

This brings me to the second fundamental discussion. Today, yoga teachers are typically trained to teach a diverse, general population from a range of disciplines. Most programs do include some anatomy, but with only 200 hours of study, they can hardly be expected to get into details of the human body and diseases like cancer that impact it. Although compassion can drive them to work with the cancer community, only knowledge and understanding can make them effective and safe yoga teachers. As a cancer survivor, I hope that health care institutions will require and support yoga teachers to have specialized training and certification, just as they would expect of other professionals.

SEE ALSO The Healing Power of Yoga for Brain Injuries

Yoga teachers need to learn the risks and how to adapt a practice accordingly. In offering a class for cancer survivors, a teacher is saying, “I am responsible. I know what yoga is best for you. I will protect you from injury. I will calm your doubts or fears with knowledge and information.” Students expect yoga teachers of cancer survivors to have that expertise.

I believe yoga as a wellness plan improves the odds against cancer, giving survivors the tools to fight more effectively during active treatment, or in the years after. I envision health-care professionals giving this prescription. “Do yoga.”

Finally, I give health-care professionals these guidelines in choosing the yoga teachers they hire to provide yoga classes/session in their institutions. A yoga teacher must:

  • Be prepared with answers to the questions, anticipated and unanticipated, that will arise about yoga and cancer.
  • Learn the facts about cancer. Know that true compassion flows from knowledge and facts, not just from the heart chakra.
  • Learn the benefits of yoga as exercise beyond a relaxation technique.
  • Be able to identify potential risks or impacts that might not be visible to anticipate modifications—for example, Lymphedema, neuropathy, and limited movement.
  • Acknowledge your own fears about cancer. Be prepared to professionally handle deaths.
  • Empower patients to participate in their healing.
  • Be aware that the science of yoga and cancer is still in its infancy. Stay open to the limits of new research. Yoga, like cancer, has scientific as well as spiritual dimensions.

The Rewards of Seva

YJ: When you look back over your work, what gives you the most satisfaction?
TP: Cancer survivors come to my classes with high expectations. They come with fear, doubts, and questions about both cancer and yoga. And they come with a desire to know how and why yoga will help them be healthy and stay cancer-free. They come to yoga as people wanting to feel whole and normal again, not just as cancer survivors. They bring life challenges, not just cancer challenges.

My students can be patients undergoing treatments or survivors finishing treatments just last week, or ten years ago. They range in ages from 24 to 80, and have all types of cancer—lung, pancreatic, brain and even eye cancers—and all stages. The size of and number of y4c classes is ever-growing because the number of cancer survivors in the world will continue to increase.

The most enjoyable part of my work is when I witness the benefits of yoga through the bodies of my students and see their personal transformations. At the end of a class, when I see a glow on each face and blissful bodies not struggling, I know something magical has happened. Yoga has guided all of us to this moment. I have provided them a safe place and opportunity for self-care, self-love. This is my favorite part because this is where the healing happens.

Yoga empowered me to be healthier and stronger than I ever was before cancer. It taught me how to live with the uncertainty of recurrence and with lifelong side effects. It led me to my mantra: “Cancer steals your breath. Yoga gives it back.” A life-threatening illness can help us all learn how to live fearlessly––if faced directly. Both cancer and yoga are great teachers.

But the most rewarding aspect of my work has only been really felt recently. It is what I call the ripples of ‘Lake Yoga’. Although I am very proud of the lives I have touched directly with my classes and retreats, I am only one woman and yearned to get beyond my grasp to the 14.3 million survivors living today in the US and the many, many, more beyond our borders.

My ultimate fulfillment comes when I have begun to see the ripples of this important work. Over the past 15 years, I have trained more than 1,200 yoga teachers and other healthcare practitioners in my methodology. Many have gone on to cultivate safe yoga classes all over the world for cancer patients and survivors. And with the publication of my best-selling book, Yoga for Cancer, I am seeing how those ripples are washing ashore for those beyond my grasp.

Nearly two decades ago when I stepped into what I call Lake Yoga with the intention of teaching other survivors how to make yoga their daily companion, to manage long-term side effects from treatments, to boost the immune system, and to lower the risk of recurrence, I made a simple, single ripple. Now that ripple is joined by thousands of others made by many other y4c yoga teacher. Together we are making waves that continue to change the lives of cancer patients and survivors, creating happier, healthier, and longer lives.

My future focus is to continue making these waves through online teacher training programs, expanding classes and services for survivors everywhere, providing trained yoga teachers with resources and guidance and working with health care providers so that ultimately every survivor can get into Lake Yoga.

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