Cheri Clampett: Yoga’s Healing Power
How yoga helped her heal cancer, correct scoliosis, became her life’s work and inspires life-altering transformations in her students.
A certified yoga therapist with over twenty years of teaching experience, Cheri is passionate about bringing the benefits of yoga to those recovering from or living with injury or illness.
She has presented Therapeutic Yoga at Beth Israel Medical Center and Rusk Institute at NYU Medical Center and currently teaches yoga at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Yoga Center. In 2009 Inner Traditions published the highly acclaimed Therapeutic Yoga Kit which Cheri co-authored with Biff Mithoefer.
Cheri’s teaching focuses on the healing aspects of yoga: freeing the body, breath, and flow of energy through practicing with awareness, compassion, and love.
How did you first discover yoga?
I had scoliosis as a young teenager — a condition in which a person’s spine, rather than aligning straight, instead, curves to one side. My chiropractic doctor, Dr. Leroy Perry, helped me correct scoliosis through a combination of innovative water exercises, chiropractic treatments, and yoga. This was my introduction to the incredible healing power of yoga.
What was your first ever yoga class like?
In my twenties, I was invited to take a class with a couple of friends. At the end of that class, while laying in Shavasana (final relaxation pose), I realized something was wrong with my body. I felt as if I was listening to my body for the first time and it needed me to take action. I went to see the doctor and was diagnosed with cancer. I still look back at that class with tremendous gratitude and feel that yoga may have saved my life.
How has your practice developed over the years?
After my cancer surgery, I began avidly studying various forms of yoga in Los Angeles, where I was living at the time.
Yoga felt like such a natural fit for me. I thought it was brilliant, with so many interesting facets to it. The breathing had helped me through the healing process, and the more I practiced yoga, the more it unlocked and healed within me. Once I was on the path, it felt like the absolute right path to be on, and I’ve never left it.
Today, my practice is soft, slow, and gentle. I focus on infusing it with mindfulness. It’s essential to have a balance of yin and yang in one’s physical practice. I tend to do more vigorous exercise out in nature, whereas when I am on the mat, I am looking for the recharging benefits of a yin approach.
Last week, I was with a friend as she took her last breaths and was working with different poses to help bring her body comfort even in her final moments. Now, I’m using yoga for myself as I process my grief. To be able to surrender into a restorative pose and feel the heartbreak of this loss is just an incredible gift.
What made you decide to become a teacher?
I studied energy healing and bodywork, and I saw how much it would help my clients to incorporate yoga into our sessions. I took my first teacher training at the White Lotus with Ganga White and Tracey Rich, two brilliant teachers, and I fell even more in love with yoga.
I initially had no intention to teach group classes as I was very soft-spoken and shy back then. As fate would have it, shortly after I finished that first training, I ended up going to a number of classes where the teachers didn’t show for a variety of reasons. Inevitably, someone else taking the class would suggest that I teach that day instead, as in “Hey, you just took a training, didn’t you? You should teach today’s class.”
After this happened enough times, I started to get the idea that the Universe was attempting to tell me something.
What benefits has a yoga practice and teaching brought into your life?
I came to yoga to be more in tune with the amazing instrument that is my body. This is especially important when you’re going through a healing process, the more you can stay in a stress-free place, the more the body can focus on mending itself.
Teaching yoga is my life’s passion. It’s my dharma. It gives me such joy to see the practice touch people’s lives. Personally, it has helped me through great losses and physical challenges.
I cannot imagine my life without it. Sometimes, I look at people in the street and see how stressed out they are and I just want to give yoga to them — to everybody! It’s so life-changing and can support how we age and through all that life brings.
What benefits have you seen in your students?
I have witnessed remarkable healing in the people I have had the privilege to work with. As a yoga teacher, I have the honor of holding a safe and sacred space, to help observe and guide practitioners towards transformation. What I see is that the transformation yoga offers is always possible, but it takes willingness and courage to step on the mat and meet whatever is there.
Sometimes it’s beautiful, and sometimes it’s dark. The body has tremendous wisdom that can guide us to healing when we listen and follow the messages from within.
One simple, sweet moment stands out in my memory. Years ago, a grandfather came to me after class to tell me that since he had started taking my yoga class, he was able to get down on the floor and play with his grandchildren — something he hadn’t been able to do before. While yoga can prompt deep transformation, it can also offer us simple gifts that allow more freedom in the body — the freedom to live life to its fullest.
Can you recall any unusually profound examples of transformation you’ve witnessed or helped to facilitate in your students?
There are so many, but I’ll share one that’s stayed with me over the years. I was teaching classes at a cancer center in Santa Barbara and started a program there many years ago — I think it’s been about seventeen years now. A woman who recently had been diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread to her liver and her lungs began taking my classes.
During this time, she was receiving regular chemotherapy treatments, had colon surgery and eventually had to wear a colostomy bag. She attended classes regularly and was experiencing a lot of benefits like stress reduction and developing a deeper connection with herself. I was impressed by how passionate she was about yoga — not only attending my classes but others as well. Eventually, she decided to participate in one of my weekend workshops in the midst of this trying time in her life.
During the workshop, she was in a pose called ‘resting half moon’ which is a sort of side bend. In TCM, it’s a pose that’s meant to activate the liver and gallbladder meridians. During my rounds, I came over to her, put my hand on her liver and was just present with her as she breathed through the pose. Suddenly, she began to sweat profusely.
When she came out of the pose, she sat up and said, “I felt my cancer leave.” I said, “What did that feel like?” and she said, “It felt almost like a popping sensation.” I encouraged her to go to her oncologist and have everything checked out. Her doctors did another cat scan, and there was no sign of cancer in her body. They scheduled surgery to confirm it and then re-connected her colon.
I visited her in the hospital while she was healing from surgery. It was major surgery, and her recovery took a while. I said to her, “What do you think happened? Her answer was so profound. She said,
“I always believed it could happen. I’d read about spontaneous healing and people going into remission, and I thought why not me? At that moment (during your workshop) I was totally focused on believing it could happen for me.”
I’ll never know how it happened or why it happened, but it was incredible! This is why I always turn to the power of the mind over the body and yoga’s ability to bring us back to ourselves — to tune in — and actually meet what’s going on within us and bring more grace to our journey.
I ran into her five years later, and she was still cancer free!
This is a big part of what I do as a yoga therapist — believing that healing is possible and trusting the body’s wisdom. The combination of yoga, conventional medicine and listening to what’s right for us as individuals can help to support transformation.
Part of what I love to do is teach yoga to other teachers, physical therapists, and nurses. Therapeutic yoga can support the work that doctors do by incorporating mind-body practices to enhance medical treatments and give patients an active role in their own healing process.
What is happening for you this year?
2018 is a big year for me.
- I co-founded the Therapeutic Yoga Training Program with Arturo Peal in 1998, so this year, we are celebrating its twentieth anniversary. Since it began, we have been teaching not only yoga instructors but also healthcare professionals such as nurses and physical therapists who want to incorporate yoga into their professions.
- We are pleased to be part of the new IAYT 800 hour yoga therapist certification program as part of the core curriculum at the Integral Yoga Institute.
- Last month, I taught a yoga retreat in Yelapa, Mexico. I’ve taught there a few times now, and it is just such a fantastic spot to relax and unplug from the world.
- My husband Avahara and I are in the middle of recording several new guided meditations and will be releasing them shortly.
What is your focus moving forward?
I want to touch more lives with yoga and help people understand that yoga is more accessible now than ever! If you can breathe, you can do yoga. You don’t have to be flexible. You can be in a wheelchair. You can be any age.