Three years ago, Sher Breen, a certified yoga teacher and therapist, began working with Billy Anderson*, a stroke patient who had sustained brain damage. The stroke had left him confined to a wheelchair and unable to use the right side of his body. He spent most of the time slumped over in his wheelchair; and he minimally engaged in physical therapy. His life changed when he was introduced to yoga.
At the onset, Breen taught Anderson yoga nidra (deep relaxation) and breathwork, which helped Anderson connect with his physical body.
Those subtle connections quickly led to dramatic changes. Anderson remembers “a very obvious change in his movement.” He was able to move more freely as time progressed.
By the end of the first year, Anderson was doing chair yoga and deeper breath work. Breen incorporated yoga blocks and straps as well as mantra meditation into her lessons.
Breen believed she could only be there for Anderson as a guide; if he truly desired to heal, he would have to embrace yoga and make the practice his own. In the beginning Anderson was scarcely committed, much less hopeful.
“At the time it seemed like it was just something new the group could do,” Anderson said as he spoke to YogaBasics staff with the help of a staff member at his rehabilitation center.
Over the past three years, Anderson has regained movement and sensitivity to parts of his body he could once not feel or use. He is now able to move and stretch his left arm and leg.
“Yoga calms me down, not just yoga practice but the meditation that Sheri does too,” he said. “It has increased my ability to live with this (brain injury).”
Breen said Anderson is now completely connected to his body and able to move into poses.
“I’ve seen him gain a lot more mobility in the right side of his body,” she said. “He is always sitting in his chair with his back rounded but now his posture is so much better. He still has days when he slumps, but when he thinks about it, he pulls himself back.”
Anderson’s experience is one of the many stories from the growing body of work documenting the myriad health benefits of yoga.
From easing chronic low back pain, to alleviating anxiety, depression and the impact of exaggerated stress responses among veterans, to helping to relieve symptoms associated with cancer, asthma, diabetes, drug addiction, high blood pressure and heart disease, yoga has been shown to be a powerful healing tool.
“I really truly believe that yoga at its core is healing,” Breen said. “I think in our country sometimes we lose sight of that because the fitness industry takes what it likes and what works and pulls it apart. But at the core is the mind and body connection. We are all here. We are all suffering the human experience. How can we use this practice to heal or tolerate something?”
Yoga teachers and practitioners alike find it difficult to explain how this ancient practice promotes healing, but Breen is certain much of it has to do with surrendering to non-doing and goals, and simply experiencing being in the present.
“This practice works in the nervous system, rewiring the neural pathways and changing the internal chemistry and subtle body energy,” Breen said. “We can’t measure prana kundalini, but when we are open to the practice, we are taking healing to such a deep level. It’s more than strengthening muscles or making muscles more flexible.”
These days, Anderson approaches life with a positive attitude and believes that someday he’ll be able to walk. He has embraced practicing yoga and advocates its power to heal the mind and body.
“I wish it was something I had started a lot earlier,” he said.
*Name changed for privacy.
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