When on an airplane, the instructions given by the flight attendant always include something like "Put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others." Have you noticed the far-reaching wisdom behind that directive?
How can we be of assistance or service to others if we're "out of air" ourselves? Taking care of ourselves can easily slide into the background when we're responsible and involved in giving care to those who rely on us, but caring for ourselves is basic to our ability to be of value to others. If we aren't taking care of ourselves, how can we effectively care for anyone else?
A tired helper is more likely to be impatient, less aware and, certainly less focused. Yoga is a valuable and supportive practice, not only for the caregiver, but for the care receiver, as well. If all parties are relaxed, peaceful, and feeling empowered, the interaction between them will be much clearer, more heart-connected, and more effective. Yoga is a simple, yet powerful path to opening awareness, focusing power, and instilling serenity.
For the caregiver, a yoga practice not only enhances our sensitivity and instills a sense of steadfast calm, but gives us the physical and emotional steadiness and strength we need to be of responsive and compassionate service. Conscious breathing (pranayama), health-enhancing poses (asana) and calming meditation techniques are the foundation of a yoga practice. Together, they can provide a base for the caregiver to rely on, to touch into, and to bring them back to a calm physical, emotional and psychological core. When the going gets rough, we need only to "put on our own oxygen mask", breathe deeply, and touch back into the serenity we experience through yoga.
For the recipient of care, yoga can encourage a sense of personal control that is empowering and reassuring. Yoga is adaptable to everyone's level of ability. I like to tell my anxious beginning students, "If you're breathing, you can do yoga." Even those who are bedridden have control over their breath. Their breath may be shallow and labored, but they can still be encouraged to "breathe a little deeper with each inhalation." The benefits of oxygenating the body, even a little bit more, will bring them a sense of peace and relaxation.
Adapting the poses to the patient's level of ability requires a creative mind and an enthusiastic attitude. Yoga can be done lying in bed or sitting in a chair. Chair yoga is a very safe place to start, both physically and psychologically. A few seated beginning poses can still build strength, increase circulation and oxygenation. Begin to introduce yoga gently; any yoga is better than no yoga at all. Success in yoga isn't measured by the level of ability to perform a pose, but by a positive attitude and experiencing the benefits of doing the pose at an appropriate level for the yoga student. Being an encouraging and supportive caregiver who is guiding and cheering the patient through a yoga routine can bring him or her to new levels of psychological optimism and physical well-being.
For the care receiver:
Yoga poses can be done gently; just simple stretches along with conscious and deep breathing are effective and powerful. Try them yourself and feel the results in your own body. Here are a few examples from our "Sitting Fit Anytime" video:
Yoga for those in a chair: "Sitting Fit Anytime":
- Sitting up straight, inhale and draw your shoulders up toward your ears.
- Squeeze them tightly.
- Press your shoulder blades toward each other, lifting your heart, feeling the stretch across your chest and shoulders.
- Exhale and relax as you release your shoulder blades, sliding them on your back.
- Repeat five times or more. Remember to breathe deeply!
- Relaxes shoulder and neck tension, increases circulation to the head, neck and shoulders
- Relieves headaches and releases upper back tightness
- Inhale deeply as you raise your arms out to your sides and overhead, palms facing upward.
- Interlace your fingers and turn your palms to face the ceiling.
- Straighten your elbows as much as you comfortably can.
- Exhale as you press through the heels of your hands.
- Inhale as you press through your fingers and drop your shoulders down away from your ears.
- Breathe deeply 3 to 5 times. Move your body and your breath together.
- Feel your shoulder blades push gently against your back as you exhale.
- Expand and stretch as you inhale, soften and relax as you exhale.
To release the pose, press out through the heels of your hands, fingers spread wide apart, and continue to press outward as you slowly lower your arms on the exhale.
- Stretches, relaxes and brings increased circulation to arms, wrists, hands, shoulders, back and chest
- Counteracts effects of typing and helps to prevent carpal tunnel problems and headaches caused by shoulder tension
- Raise your right arm overhead, sit up straight and lengthen through your arm, all the way to your fingertips.
- Inhale deeply.
- Exhale as you arch to the left. As you stretch, keep your shoulder blades flat on your back and lift the right side of your ribcage with each inhalation.
- Keep your back flat and your arm extended.
- Take three to five deep breaths, and then come back to center as you inhale.
- Exhaling, consciously and slowly lower your arm.
- Raise your left arm overhead and repeat the stretch to the right.
- Stretches the chest and shoulders, the arms, ribcage and spine
- Massages organs, stimulates the nervous system, and hydrates spinal discs
- Sit up straight toward the edge of your seat. Cross your right leg over your left.
- Place your left hand on the inside of your left knee.
- Inhale deeply as you raise your back arm overhead and twist to the right; exhale as you bring your right elbow or shoulder around toward the back of your chair.
- Take 3 to 5 full breaths. Lift through the crown of your head as you inhale and twist a little deeper as you exhale. Keep lengthening your spine.
- To unwind the twist, inhale as you raise your back arm overhead and come back to center on the exhalation.
- Repeat for 3 to 5 breaths on the other side.
For those in bed:
- Massages organs of digestion and elimination, relieving constipation and indigestion, releases back strain and tension, and relaxes the nervous system
- Creates flexibility in the spine
- Lying on your back with your legs slightly elevated, place your right hand over your heart and your left hand in front of the arc of your ribcage, over your stomach. Close your eyes, take a long, deep breath and focus on your breathing rhythm.
- Take another deep breath counting to three, four or five as you inhale and exhale for the same count.
- Create a consistent breathing rhythm.
- Focus on your heart lifting and your ribcage expanding as you inhale.
- Notice your chest drop and your ribcage contract as you exhale.
When your breathing rhythm feels comfortable, inhale deeply for a comfortable count and hold your breath gently for the same count, then exhale to the same count.
Repeat as often as desired, consciously feeling and deepening your breath.
- Relaxing, centering, calming, energizing
- Increases oxygenation throughout the body and strengthens the respiratory system
- Lowers blood pressure, detoxifies, and cleanses the body
- Triggers the "relaxation response"
- Lying on your back without pillows under your head or legs, stretch your right arm out to the side with the palm of your hand facing the top of the bed.
- As you inhale, raise your arm overhead, keeping your elbow as straight as possible.
- At the same time, press toward the foot of the bed with your left foot.
- Take several long deep breaths, expanding on the inhalation and stretching on the exhalation.
- Consciously, keep your arm straight as you lower it to your side as you exhale.
- Then change sides.
Stretches, relaxes, and brings increased circulation to arms, wrists, hands, shoulders, back, and chest.
- Lying on your back without pillows under your head or legs, take a deep breath and as you exhale, slowly draw your right knee up toward your chest.
- Take another deep full breath and as you exhale, curl your forehead toward your knee.
- Inhale deeply as you release the curl. Repeat several times.
- Change sides.
Stimulates the systems of digestion and elimination, strengthens the abdominal muscles, hydrates the cervical disks, and stimulates flexibility of the spine.
- Lying comfortably on your back, draw the soles of your feet together and upward toward your groins.
- Place supportive blankets, pillows, or bolsters under your knees to support your legs.
- Let your arms rest along your sides, palms facing upward. Breathe deeply.
- Rest as long as you comfortably can.
Relaxes the hips and buttocks, allows for deeper circulation and relaxation throughout the abdominal cavity, and calms the nervous system.
A few simple, restorative poses for the Caregiver:
- Come to your hands and knees and gently bring your buttocks into contact with your heels.
- Stretch your arms out in front of you on the floor, lifting your palm and reaching with your fingertips.
- Let your heart be soft, reach forward with your fingers as you exhale and hold onto the floor with your fingertips as you inhale. Keep your hips and heels touching.
- Breathe deeply.
If you need support for your upper body, you can:
- place a blanket between your heels and your buttocks,
- place a blanket between your chest and your thighs,
- roll up a blanket and place it between your legs,
- or all three.
- Relaxation, stretches the lower back, relaxes the spine, arms, shoulders, and legs
- Pressure on the abdomen brings more circulation to the organs, cleansing, stimulating, and massaging them.
- Come to your hands and knees. Place your knees hip width apart and your hands directly under your shoulders, middle finger pointing straight ahead.
- As you inhale, press your hands into the floor and tip your tailbone up toward the ceiling.
- Lift the crown of your head and your tailbone upward and allow your spine to release toward the floor.
- As you exhale, tip your tailbone down toward the floor and arch your spine up, bringing your belly button in toward your spine.
- Draw your forehead toward your thighs.
- Repeat the movement several times, leading with your tailbone and developing a smooth, flowing rhythm, combining your movement with your breath. Feel the movement in your spine.
Increases spinal flexibility, strengthens thighs, arms, shoulders, tones the abdomen and abdominal organs.
- Lie on your tummy and bend your knees.
- As you exhale, reach back and grasp your ankles or feet, take a deep breath and as you exhale, begin raising your feet toward the ceiling, lifting your legs and chest off of the floor.
- Breathe deeply.
- Release gently and return to the Child's Pose.
- Repeat 3 times, if possible.
Opens the chest, strengthens arms and stretches thighs, stimulates the spinal nerves, increases spinal flexibility, stimulates the endocrine system, stimulating, relaxing and rejuvenating.
- Lie on your back with a folded blanket under your shoulders and your neck extending beyond the edge of the blanket. Allow your head to rest on the floor.
- Gently bring your legs toward your chest and your feet behind your head.
- Bring your hands to your back near your waist for support.
- Walk your shoulders toward each other to support your neck and slowly raise your legs overhead.
- **The back of your neck should not be touching the floor!
- Your body weight should be on your shoulders, not on your neck or head.
- Try to keep your legs together.
- Breathe deeply. Stay up as long as you comfortably can.
If you can't straighten your legs, you can let your knees rest on your forehead or you can place your feet against a wall behind you. You can also do the alternative, "Legs up the Wall" pose described below.
- Increased circulation to the upper body, the heart, lungs, brain, endocrine system
- Relieves pressure in the legs, good for varicose veins and swelling in the legs
- Brings circulation to the abdominal organs, cleansing, revitalizing them
- Improves digestion and elimination.
You can get similar benefits by lying on your back with your buttocks against a wall and stretching your legs up the wall. If it's too much of a stretch for your hamstrings, move your buttocks slightly away from the wall. You may also place a folded blanket under your lower back for support. Rest, breathing gently, for about 10 minutes.
Enjoy your yoga!
Susan Winter Ward is an internationally recognized certified yoga instructor who has created the "Yoga for the Young at Heart" Collection; accessible yoga programs in books, videos (VHS & DVD), CDRom, audios and on TV, offering inspiration and instruction for a healthier life through yoga. For more information, go to www.yogaheart.com or call 800-558-YOGA (9642).
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