Positive thoughts are good but changes in the brain happen in two ways, top down and bottom up. Top down is the executive part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), using rational thought. If we are saying to ourselves, ”I am balanced”, but not making any attempt to practice balance, the body and brain will not believe it. The body must feel it too - with breath, with movement with visualisation - this is bottom up. Bottom up comes from the brain stem, experiencing things differently via the body, the embodiment of sensations. Yoga enables this to take place.
The breath is the gateway to the autonomic nervous system-long slow breaths and mindful movement send signals to our body that all is well.This activates our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), with the Vagus nerve playing a major role. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), activates in response to fear or threats, or even normal activities, such as music/drama performances, or job interviews which need a healthy amount of adrenaline. A healthy SNS responds to our body’s need for action - an increased heart rate and release of cortisol and stress hormones. Both systems are valid and needed but sometimes we can be too much in one or the other. Hyperarousal - panic, anxiety and agitation or hypoarousal - low mood, depression, burnt out. After my stroke, I found myself too often in flight or fight, my SNS activated in a state of hyperarousal - heart pounding, very close to panic, high blood pressure, feeling sweaty and full of fear, often waking in the night - my body constantly perceiving an ongoing threat.This was often followed by exhaustion when I felt low and exhausted and could not move off the sofa.Yoga has been an antidote to this, enabling me to recognise sensations in my body and thoughts in my mind, which in turn has allowed me to respond in an appropriate and balanced way and move mind and body to a place of wellness and wellbeing.
There is no space to allow time to discuss the variety of yoga Asana available for stroke rehabilitation, but I do want to mention Contralateral and Cross Lateral or Cross Crawl movements. Cross Crawl means that opposite sides of the body work together to coordinate movement. Humans are contralateral beings, walking, running. We thrive on Cross Crawl movement because it accesses and develops the Hippocampus which is the part of the brain that affects memory and concentration, as well as being the part of the brain which processes information about stress and depression. Cross Crawl creates neurological impulses to pass freely between the right and left hemisphere via the Corpus Callosum. Cross Crawl helps to integrate the Vestibular System (balance) and Spatial Awareness - Proprioception. It creates optimal brain functioning for eye hand coordination as well as memories - all vital in stroke recovery when we need to stimulate brain and nervous system development and integration.
Although I am not a scientist, I hope my essay still holds some evidence based theories to back up my thoughts. It is, however, largely written from a felt sense of what this time, post stroke, has been for me. It is an essay about how Yoga has enriched my recovery and led me on a pathway towards a deeper practice and the inevitable step of becoming a Yoga teacher. Everyday I think how lucky I am because the effect of my ‘earthquake’ could have been so much worse - as it is for thousands of others.
The more I study and practice Yoga, the more I realise what potential it has to enable me and others to live in the present and find a calmer and more purposeful, as well as practical way to approach the difficulties life sometimes sends our way. BKS Iyenger in his book “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” says, “Yoga is an Art, a Science and a philosophy. It touches man at every level, physical, mental and spiritual”.
To conclude, I can find no words better than my favourite poet and writer John O'Donohue, who talks about thresholds in life - moving from one to another and trusting your own internal senses to know how to negotiate the transition. A new way of being, to move or end one part of life, but to step into and start another.
To Bless the space between Us John O’Donahue-Irish Poet, Author and Philosopher and Priest 1956-2008
“To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging. This becomes essential when a threshold opens suddenly in front of you, one for which you had no preparation. This could be illness, suffering or loss. Because we are so engaged with the world, we usually forget how fragile life can be and how vulnerable we always are. It takes only a couple of seconds for a life to change irreversibly. Suddenly you stand on completely strange ground and a new course of life has to be embraced”.