Using metaphors in our Oncology Yoga classes

A cornerstone of the yogacancer method and subsequent classes for cancer patients and survivors worldwide is this use of a metaphor. That metaphor is introduced by the yoga4cancer Teacher at the beginning of a class and often is referenced throughout and at the end. In a recent teacher training webinar, Tari shared how and why the use of metaphors became that pillar of the method.

Tari explained: “During my cancer treatment recovery time, I dragged out Susan Sontag’s 1978 book “Illness as Metaphor”. Her wisdom gave me cause to include a metaphor in every yoga4cancer class that I have taught since 2003.

My collection of metaphors poetically linking yoga and cancer continues to grow.

  • Yoga, like cancer, is humbling.
  • Cancer and yoga are both good teachers. We learn from both how to sit with impermanence and fear.
  • Yoga and cancer are both transformative experiences. The three words “you have cancer” are life changing. Likewise, the practice of yoga changes both body and mind.
  • Each individual’s cancer and yoga practice, and how they exist from day to day, is unique. Start there.
  • Yoga and cancer are windows, through which we see who we really are and how we really feel in each present moment.

The importance of language used to reference illness, especially cancer, is the topic of a recent video from BBC. Survivors talk about how words can heal or not. In the powerful program, the author – a Stage 4 bowel cancer survivor – asks experts what impact these militaristic metaphors actually have on those living with cancer, and asks current and former patients what we should talk about when we talk about cancer.

Like Sontag and Cara, we profoundly reject the war references, e.g., “fighting the battle”, “winning the war on cancer”. You can’t avoid the association that if one wins their ‘battle’, does that mean others have lost? Was it because the failed tactically or strategically in said battle. Collectively, we encourage our students and community to avoid that language and focus on supportive means of expressing the cancer diagnosis, treatments and recovery.
From the journal ‘Metaphor and Symbol’, many other writers and research studies give reflection on the power of words in the article: Emotional Implications of Metaphor: Consequences of Metaphor Framing for Mindset about Cancer.