My dad can do anything, he can build houses, computers, software programs, cars, solar tracking systems, businesses and the list goes on. An engineer at heart, he loves learning how things work as well as problem solving and solution finding when elements in the material world go awry.
On Monday October 29, 2018, my father suffered a stroke; which reduced movement in his right arm and leg, as well as impaired his speech. We were lucky that the damage was not permanent and together, we could work to repair the disrupted neurological networks.
What was interesting was that my father did not rely upon his engineering background to resolve this multi-dimensional issue but rather credits his decades long yoga practice in providing the essential tools for his recovery.
You see, my father is not your typical “Yoga Guy” and it took a lot of coaxing on my part to get him to try yoga therapy 10 years ago when he experienced extreme back pain. Once on board and after personally witnessing the benefits of yoga therapy, he has been faithfully committed to his twice a week practice at my studio, Be The Change Yoga and rarely misses a class. I also have to mention, that he has inspired many men to join my class and as a result, my male / female ratio is about 40% / 60%.
In this blog, I hope to share my fathers insights as well as practical yoga therapy applications for stroke prevention and recovery with the intention of honoring my father’s great work and spreading these valuable tools to uplift others on their unique journeys.
Preparation for Whatever Life Throws at You
My father states that his “aha moment” while lying in the hospital bed, was that “Yoga is not just a preventative strategy but it’s preparation for whatever life throws at you.”
After being physically compromised due to the stroke and with the goal of returning to prior level of function; he reflected upon where he would have been if he hadn’t been practicing yoga for 10 years and lived a more sedentary lifestyle, as well as how much lower his prior level of function would be, and how much harder it would be to regain.
The physical therapy and occupational therapy at the rehabilitation hospital was challenging and physically demanding, not to mention that everything after a stroke requires more energy to perform the same task as before. Luckily he was familiar with many of the physical therapy practices and recognized them as yoga poses. As a result, he knew what his body could do, providing a barometer of his new baseline; which not only helped him to develop his own goals but was both comforting and empowering. The PT’s were shocked at his flexibility and coordination for a 69 year-old post-stroke patient and their praise along with mastery of the yoga postures fueled his progress.
Ready, Set, Action!
While at the rehabilitation hospital, he spent many hours of the day in bed, literally tied to the bed with an alarm that would alert staff if he dared to move because all post-stroke patients are at a higher risk of falling.
His facility offered 3 hours of therapy per day; which included physical therapy (PT), occupational therapy (OT) and speech therapy (ST). The issue he noted when getting up for PT or OT was that his muscles were cold and unpredictable due to many hours in the hospital bed and then asked to turn on immediately to walk (with the walker) or perform rehabilitative postures.
In our studio yoga classes, we offer at least 30 minutes of warm-up poses before attempting standing or balancing poses. To help him prepare his body for both PT and OT, I brought him his yoga strap and block; which he was able to actively use while in the hospital bed to warm up his legs and low back before therapy. He also used the strap to strengthen his arms and improve fine motor skills while grasping the strap.
While appearing to be very simple exercises, they played a profound effect in his recovery. He was now able increase the amount of physical movement per day, better prepare his body for stronger movements in PT, reportedly felt stronger and increased his level of control when transitioning out of bed.
He also stated that spending that many hours alone each day was psychology intense and that the yoga practices he was able to do in bed, provided a sense of familiarity, allowed him to feel in control and reminded him of being in class with his friends; which lifted his spirits.
The Breath and The Mind
I was fortunate enough to attend many of his PT and OT sessions and was able to integrate the breath and pair it with the movements, as we do in yoga practice. On our own, we also introduced mudras such as the kirtan kriya synchronized with breath to improve fine motor skills; which he was also able to practice numerous times throughout the day between therapy sessions.
He actively employed belly breathing to not only improve oxygenation of the body but also calm and focus the mind when processing the ups and downs of such an unexpected traumatic situation.
We also created a gratitude list and bhavana (positive vision for the future); which we hung on the wall in his hospital room. The staff would comment on his goals and expressed their appreciation to be included on his gratitude list; which fostered higher levels of positivity and growth on both ends of the therapeutic relationship.
My father’s positive attitude and optimism proved to be invaluable for not only his personal recovery but also fortified his relationships with hospital staff and nourished our family during this challenging period.
After spending 2 weeks in the hospital, my father was ready to come home. Together, we navigated this new reality, discovering new boundaries and practices to ensure his safety.
I must admit, I was a bit nervous when he wanted to come back to my group yoga class the following week (after recently learning to stand up on his own again) but it was important for him to get back to his practice and community right away. We have built a strong culture in our studio that encourages our students to modify each and every pose according to their needs and safety is our number 1 priority in all classes.
He remarked that attending his group classes provided three essential elements to his rehabilitation:
- Offered weekly on-going physical, mental and emotional therapy and group support.
- Provided feedback about his progress, as each pose provided a barometer of his current level of strength, flexibility and coordination.
- Informed him of which specific muscles were still impaired by the stroke, as certain ones had difficult communicating or would shake in certain postures.
April 29, 2019
Today, he celebrates his 70 th birthday and it has been 6 months since his stroke. He has lost 25 lbs and still attends my classes twice a week. In fact, he is now able to perform advanced poses he was not able to do before his stroke (such as a twisted high lunge)! I am in awe at his dedication and personal transformation.
He truly embodies the path of someone who can achieve anything he puts his mind to. With his constant thirst for new knowledge, his willingness to try new things (even yoga!), his optimistic mindset and dedication to achieving his goals, he serves as a shining example for us all. I couldn’t be prouder of him and look forward to the next phase in our personal and familial evolution where he will soon become a grandfather.