Often chanted in its Sanskrit form at the beginning of a yoga practice, the following invocation encapsulates the ideal relationship—one of mutual protection, elevation, and peace.
Together may we be protected
Together may we be nourished
Together may we work with great energy
May our journey together be brilliant and effective
May there be no bad feelings between us
Peace, peace, peace
This verse also describes what is likely the complete opposite of a caregiver's day-to-day relationship with their elderly loved one.
As a caregiver, it can often feel as though you are the only one doing the protecting, nourishing and working. And forget about peace—that word seems to have no place in the caregiver lexicon.
Yoga may be an effective way of reaching peace and enlightenment for some people, but it doesn't seem to really fit into the life of a stressed caregiver.
So, what is yoga really about? Can caregivers really benefit from adopting a personal yoga practice? How are you supposed to find the time? And, how on earth are you supposed to do a headstand?
A practice for all ages
You may be thinking that yoga is the sole purview of the young and bendy (as well as those who enjoy the occasional chant).
If this isn't you, don't worry. It turns out that the over 2,000 year old discipline can be extremely valuable for caregivers—no matter their age, ability, or desire to intone.
Lucy Lomax, a certified Anusara Yoga instructor with more than 2,000 hours of teaching experience under her belt, has seen first-hand just how valuable a yoga practice can be for all types of people.
She says yoga's holistic focus can be adapted to practically every skill level. A yoga practice isn't just another way to work-out—it's a personal journey—geared towards repairing and maintaining the natural connections between a person's brain, body, and breath.
People participating in a yoga voyage will find their experiences to be as uniquely different as they are. A yoga teacher will recognize this, and should be able to formulate a practice that fits properly with your individual yoga path.
A caregiver's time-out
For the over-burdened caregiver, yoga has the potential to bestow a greater sense of physical and mental balance.
Taking the time to do a regular yoga routine will allow a caregiver—whose personal well-being is so often put on hold because of their duties to their elderly loved ones—some time to let go and focus on themselves.
Lomax, who has taught classes to stressed-out caregivers, says that, in general, people are not always conscious of the massive amount of tension they hold in their body. This tension can manifest in tight muscles, overworked joints, and shallow breathing.
A caregiver can use yoga to take a step back from their harried life and recognize their own needs. Devoting time to focusing on their breath and body alignment, may allow a caregiver to experience freedom from some of the physical and mental strain of their obligations.
It's reasonable to expect that emotions like anger and cynicism may get in the way of your practice sometimes. There may be days where you will want to chuck your yoga mat at the next person who says, "Om," in front of you. These feelings are all understandable and acceptable elements of the yoga journey.
According to Lomax, notifying your teacher of your mood on a less-than-perfect day can be helpful. An adept yoga instructor will appreciate your emotions and tailor the practice in a way that helps you handle them.
Reconciling East and West
Even though it's a practice that predates most forms of formal medicine, relatively little scientific research has been done regarding the effects of yoga on the human body and mind.
Time-strapped caregivers might balk at giving up precious minutes to something not backed by substantial scientific proof.
Lomax recognizes the challenge facing the skeptical caregiver, "We're in the West—we want to see some documented evidence."
At a recent visit to the Duke Integrative Medicine Center, where she learned about the latest research regarding the effects of yoga on everything from heart health to arthritis, she feels even more confident in the benefits of the discipline.
Caregivers who devote some time and energy to practicing yoga correctly can reap some potentially life-changing physical and mental rewards. Research has shown that yoga can, among other things, help:
- Reduce stress and help depression
- Improve sleep quality
- Enhance respiratory function
A flexible, flexibility practice
Traditional yoga classes generally require a mat and an assortment of tools, such as chairs, blankets, blocks (foam or wooden). Yoga studios will usually have equipment that you can use, but it may not be possible for a caregiver to consistently get to a studio several times a week.
Lomax doesn't think that this should be a barrier for someone who wants to begin practicing yoga. In keeping with the theme of flexibility, she says that you can pretty much do a yoga practice of some sort anywhere and at any time.
While she stresses the importance of learning the right alignments for each pose (asana) from a trusted teacher first, Lomax says that once you get the basic movements down, even a ten minute solo practice at home can be valuable.
And, you don't even have to take the time to design the practice yourself—an instructor may be willing to give you tips on important poses, and there are even websites that allow you to stream a variety of different yoga and meditation classes that you can do on you own. On one site, Yogaglo.com, classes range in duration from five, to 120 minutes and have such titles as "De-stress Delight," "Big Ideas & Backbends," and yes, even "Headstand Flow."
Realistically, yoga is not likely to bring perfect peace to the life of a caregiver.
According to Lomax, "Yoga is not a panacea, as such, but, it is. Yoga will, can, does help everybody become more balanced and aware of where we are." For an over-burdened caregiver, that balance and awareness may make all the difference.
Yoga won't make doctor's bills go away, it won't change the fact that much of your life revolves around caring for someone who is not likely to get any better, and it won't make an ungrateful elder any sweeter.
But, it just might smooth out the ups and downs of your journey.
And just think, compared with the daily rigors of being a caregiver, learning how to stand on your head should be a breeze.