Thursday, February 14, 2013

In 'N' Out

Sometimes I notice that I hold my breath when I'm doing something challenging. Pre-stroke I caught myself holding my breath whenever I changed lanes on the freeway. Post-stroke I notice it most often while doing hand exercises.

My occupational therapist used to command me to "BREATHE!"
My retort: "I can pick up this ball or I can breathe, but you can't have both!"

I wasn't the only rehab patient with this problem. I heard other therapists bark the same instruction at other straining patients. 

Here's my new tactic: When I become aware that I haven't exhaled, I stop whatever I'm struggling to do and take a few purposeful breaths. Then I make another attempt while focusing on my breathing. Whenever I do this, I notice my coordination and execution improve. I have become convinced that my recovery will coincide with my ability to breathe easily through my motions. Like golf or yoga, the perfect swing or the perfect pose feels effortless.

Jack Kornfield tells a story about a meditation student who complains to his teacher that focusing on his breath during meditation is boring. The teacher grabs the student by the neck and plunges his head under water. When the teacher finally releases the struggling student, he says: "Do you think your breath is boring now?"

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Body Awareness

Practicing yoga pre-stroke gave me a familiarity with the mechanics of my body. I learned how to roll and tuck my shoulder blades to open my chest. I learned how to stretch my feet both wider and longer. I learned to balance my weight not only side-to-side but back-to-front. I learned to be aware of the subtleties of my body.

In recovery I am aware of my body changing. Some of the exercises given to me in the weeks immediately following the stroke were premature. I stopped doing them in favor of exercises that seemed more helpful. Now I'm realizing my body is ready to go back to some of those abandoned exercises; I need the skills they were designed to teach. 

As I do each exercise, I try to be aware of the muscles being targeted. I often ask my therapist to touch the muscle I'm working. This helps me focus my mind on it, making my efforts more effective. And by being aware of the sensations and behavior of my body, I can communicate better with my therapists. This helps them help me.

For more than two years now, I have been almost constantly and uncomfortably aware of the pains and deficits of my affected side: It burns, buzzes, tingles, cramps. Sweet sleep or an hour of television provides brief escape. But the long-term escape — recovery — comes from paying close attention. My body wants to heal itself … is trying to heal itself. If I pay attention, I can help it.