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Teach What You Know

As a yoga teacher and breast cancer survivor, I have learned that we are all students and we are all teachers.

The practice of yoga is intensely personal. It requires a willingness to be vulnerable – to be honest and to trust. It requires a safe place. It requires a safe place inside of yourself. You start there and you slowly begin to move out to your periphery, where things may not be so comfortable.

I teach yoga while living as an expat in Geneva, Switzerland. I see it as a way to bring people together – to form a community that is inclusive and positive, where we can move our bodies, breathe, share, and laugh together.

One of the first places I was able to feel safe during my cancer treatment 10 years ago was in yoga class. It was so much more than just a place for me to regain strength after surgery and during chemo. The intention of actually connecting to my body in a meaningful way connected me to my life and the experience I was having on a very spiritual level. I was able to find that small, vulnerable, and safe place inside of myself – and I started there. In that place I did not feel alone – and as I began to feel more connected to everyone and everything around me, so did that place begin to feel bigger and safer. Moving to a new country, I again found myself feeling vulnerable and seeking that safe place inside of myself. By creating an environment for others, I was actually mirroring what I myself needed.

Teach what you know.

There is a beautiful woman who comes to my classes. She began yoga with me shortly after her mastectomy and has traveled the journey of her chemo on her yoga mat. She just started on tamoxifen. She is a little scared. But she is also strong and passionate and positive and has the most beautiful sparkle in her eyes when she makes a joke. Every month, each week, each day has been different for her – but she keeps coming to class and in her honesty and vulnerability she is the most present person in the room. She knows exactly who she is and what she is capable of each day, and she has to sometimes accept that one week she may not be as strong or flexible as the week before. In truth, by virtue of her spirit, she is the strongest and most flexible lady in the room!

She and my other students with cancer or a chronic illness have expressed to me their deep gratitude for the yoga practice. They tell me that the asanas help them to feel more flexible after surgery; that they feel stronger and more empowered. The breath work and meditation helps them to feel calmer and more grounded. The philosophy inspires them to see deeper into their hearts and connect with their spirits. The beauty of yoga is that it invites everyone and anyone to start where they are and be present for themselves in this place.

Start where you are.

I know how to verbally guide someone through a series of movements – how to give cues, how to remind someone where they are in space – so that maybe they can connect to where they are emotionally in their body. I know how to smile and look into someone’s eyes and heart and say, “I understand. You are not alone. You are beautiful and strong and brave and amazing.”

It doesn’t matter if you have cancer, are going through a divorce, have just lost a parent, have a child struggling at school, or are trying to adjust to life in a new country. There is something about each of you and the challenges you face that opens you up and makes you vulnerable – and in that place, we make a connection. I have learned more from my cancer and more from my students than I will ever be able to share as a teacher. What has this journey through cancer taught you? How has it made you more aware of the beautiful gifts you possess to offer to the world?

Start where you are. Every day, every hour, every minute will be new – different. Embrace your life. Wrap your arms around that safe place inside of yourself and breathe.

Close your eyes. Listen to your breath. Become so quiet that you can hear your heart beating. Go into that safe place. Let it grow. Observe yourself – your thoughts, your reactions to your thoughts. Know that you are so much more than these words and emotions. Know that you are a true warrior. Know that you are an authentic teacher just by virtue of being alive and sharing this amazing human experience.

Start where you are. Teach what you know.

Michelle Didner is a certified yoga instructor. After graduating from Boston College with a BA in literature she initially pursued a career in the fashion industry. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 38, she found personal healing, empowerment, and compassion in the practice of yoga. Four years later, she attained her Yoga Alliance certification (RYT-200) at Saraswati’s Yoga Joint in Connecticut, and she has recently completed The Yoga Anatomy Principles course with the Breathing Project in NYC. Michelle teaches classes that are breath centered with attention to physical alignment, inspired by philosophy and poetry. She is now pursuing certification as a health coach with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York City. Currently she lives in Geneva, Switzerland with her husband and 2 children.

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