Having practiced yoga for eight years and taught for one you would think I would be well aware of all the advantages that come from the practice, yes? Well in a way I am, but like all human beings the things I have grown used to I tend to take for granted. Of course yoga is great for the body and the mind and makes you feel good. I can see it in the faces of my students as they come out of Savasana and enter back into the world, the stress lines that have eased on their foreheads, and the way their posture is erect and proud, with a supple grace that has crept in to replace their hunched and tight bodies. It is a beautiful gift to witness as an instructor the transformation the practice has on my students.
I taught a chair yoga class yesterday, which is modified for people with mobility issues. Rather than the traditional practice on a mat (it is hard for some people to get on the ground, or once they are there to get back up), the practice is modified and the students remain seated with extra support. Most of my students are regulars, and I have come to know their faces and personalities after weeks of flowing together. But yesterday there was one woman who was new to the class. She came in with a balance stick, and chose a seat off to the side. I started class and didn’t think anything more of it.
After closing the practice with a mindfulness meditation, the woman came up to me and introduced herself. She shared with me that she was recovering from her third stroke, and that this was the first class where she felt strong and capable. Her left side had been completely paralyzed, and the doctors had predicted she would not be able to move again, but with determination and hard work she was indeed walking and independent. Because of joint health issues this woman could not do weight bearing exercises, so she was limited to water aerobics and chair yoga, a bitter pill to swallow after working eighty hour weeks in her youth. She had been a prominent member in our academic community as well as being an entrepreneur with her own successful business on the side and a family to care for. The stroke had stopped her in her tracks, and she was having a difficult time adjusting to this new change of pace and relearning everything for a third time.
This woman shared with me that this class was so meaningful for her because she knew the practice has a way of helping to rebuild neural connections in the brain. (This article does a great job of outlining the neural benefits of meditation) Especially in the elderly community, promoting mental health becomes crucial as those pathways begin to degenerate. Because of meditation she felt less stressed and more ready to accept the fact that no, we are not always in control.
Her testimony touched my heart, and in its bare honesty humbled me as a teacher. We can never know what is going on in a person’s life, so these rare glimpses are an honor. Are there benefits in practicing yoga? Yes. Will we always be aware of them? No. And that is okay, as long as we keep showing up and practicing.