Friday, December 6, 2019

A Caregiving Warrior Exhales with Yoga Practices

Mount Fuji in Clear Weather by Hokusai
By Elissa C. Rosenthal 

In the early morning darkness, I awake with muscles taut, staccato breathing, and my mind on watch. Before my sleepy consciousness catches up to the present reality, it reverts to caregiver mode. It’s a reflexive response. I cared for both my parents, who lived with me until my father’s death at home two years ago and my mother’s passing in a nursing home six months ago. It has been a brutal few years. 

I can still hear the sound my father’s frantic voice calling me downstairs at 2:00 a.m. Off we’d fly to hospital more times than I can count, he in the ambulance, me driving behind. My memory flashes frequently on to my mother, ten months after my dad died. Her slight frame is sprawled across the floor with a fractured hip, her walker spilled over inches from her grasp, and her moans steeped in pain, fear and anger. 

For each crisis, I assumed the stoic stance of a soldier on the verge of war. I constricted my emotions and my breathing to perform the duties demanded of me. At home, at the hospital, or at the rehabilitation center, I met each medical complication like a warrior in hand-to-hand combat. And it was messy. 

When I was actively caregiving, one of the few places I could be myself and for myself was my yoga practice. In this refuge I exhaled the breath I was unaware I had been holding. Breathing became the counterweight to my futile attempts to direct events beyond my control. 

Slow, deep inhalations followed by even slower exhalations steadied me during moments of emotional turmoil. Standing at my father’s bedside in the emergency room in the middle of the night, I would perform conscious breathing: inhale to a count of 4, pause for a count of 4, exhale to a count of 6, and pause again for a count of 4. This pranayama corralled my runaway thoughts and deepened my shallow breath pattern. 

I also discovered a meditative practice that clicked with my jumpy monkey brain. Seated in a chair with eyes closed, count internally from 1 to 4. Completing each cycle, start again. Wandering to 5 or 6, guide the count back to the beginning. In the face of complex decisions and upsetting events, the simplicity of this repetitive task practice rests the mind. 

Sometimes, I’d join my breath with a mantra. Although there are beautiful Sanskrit mantras to support acceptance and strength, I reached for the language of my spiritual heritage, Hebrew. Repeating with my inner voice to my hurting heart until I believed it to be true, I recited,: "Hineni.” “Chazak.” “Har.” The words translate to: “Here I am.” “Strong.” “A Mountain.” This has become my go- to mantra when my faith in my ability to endure falters. 

There were also many asanas that served me during these hard days. Three poses in particular offered me what I needed most as caregiver: a place to be strong and a place to be vulnerable. 

In Warrior 2 pose, centering my torso and hips between my heels, I rooted myself in the present. I resisted the urge to lean too far forward into the future, leaping to the next imagined catastrophe, or to lean backwards, lingering on past what ifs. Warrior 2 affirmed my view of myself as a solder, one who could be both fierce and gentle. 

Mountain pose was the physical embodiment of my mantra. It showed me how much can be happening in the body when one is standing their ground, rising from a solid foundation. I monitored myself for tension and released my shoulders away from my ears. When I lifted my sternum and stretched my pectoral muscles, it was as though I was opening my heart towards hope. 

Half Pigeon pose (One-Legged King Pigeon) allowed me to express my pent-up feelings in the safe zone of my mat. I’ve heard the hips don’t lie when it comes to emotion and this was true for me. Then, as I moved into the forward bending version of Half Pigeon I could finally release tears of worry and fatigue onto my mat. I was grateful to a respectful yoga teacher who offered me the space and compassion to cry them. 

During my caregiving days, loving family and friends kept me aloft. But my yoga practices were also essential, and I can’t imagine how I would have emerged intact without them. They gave me the structure and permission to care for myself. And they renewed my warrior spirit so I could more effectively care for those in my charge.

Elissa C. Rosenthal is a yoga teacher and registered occupational therapist who has worked in mental health settings, nursing homes, home care, public and private schools, and a residential care facility for developmentally delayed adults. Inspired by her patients and her own deepening yoga practice, in 2014 she completed a 200-hour teacher training through the Mukti Yoga School taught by Elyse Foster and Jacqui Bonwell. She holds additional certifications in children’s yoga, chair yoga, and Yin Yoga, and completed her Accessible Yoga teacher training in October 2019. The principles and practice of accessible yoga are a natural complement to her more than forty-year long career as an occupational therapist offering a client-centered compassionate approach to individuals with disabilities. Her articles and essays have been published in newspapers, magazines, and online websites in the Boston area. 

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog.

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