Author’s note: Many people wonder just what yoga therapy is and how it differs from yoga. According to the International Association of Yoga Therapists, “Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.”
Yoga therapy practice is based on the ancient wisdom of yoga, and addresses the life force as well as physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental aspects of human nature. The techniques of yoga therapy include the use of physical positions and movement, proper nourishment, and the development of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual tools to help people achieve wellness. Among other benefits, yoga therapy teaches ways to manage stress, anxiety, depression, and physical pain.
The paragraphs that follow document a real-life situation and demonstrate how yoga therapy helped one family recover from an unusually difficult labor. To protect privacy, names have been changed.
After many hours of unproductive labor, and because the unborn baby was in distress, Susan was compelled to have a caesarian section. Something went wrong, though, and the anesthesia didn’t work, so she felt everything. Imagine, for a moment, abdominal surgery without anesthesia. Birth became a battlefield.
Susan’s mother Andrea, a yoga therapist, was not present at the birth, but arrived soon after. When I talk to Andrea now, she can hardly tell me what happened.
“Those words—‘felt everything’—echo in the depths of my being,” she tells me. “Tom, Susan’s husband, was present for all aspects of this painful, violent delivery. I’m almost glad I was not. I don’t know if I could have stood it. The operation was over when my husband and I got to the hospital. When we saw the new family, we were shocked; Susan and Tom were completely flattened by the experience. Pale, without energy, depressed, and almost corpse-like, they both lay in a darkened room in a state resembling sleep. The baby slept, too.”
Andrea and her husband helped Susan and Tom, soothed them, fed them, gave them whatever they could. Mostly, Tom and Susan needed calm and quiet so they could begin to feel safe and contained in a loving atmosphere.
A few days later, Susan suggested Andrea speak to the doula who had been present for the delivery. Susan herself was unable to talk about it, but she wanted her mother to know what she had been through, and she knew her mother, too, wanted to hear all that had happened. I will spare you the details of what the doula said, as they are blood-curdling.
After the new family was back home, Andrea joined them to help out by cooking, cleaning, comforting, and giving whatever was needed. Susan was physically weak and traumatized. The baby had lost a lot of weight and was affected by the difficult delivery. Nursing was not going well. Susan felt like a failure sometimes, and at other times she felt betrayed by fate. This was not the experience she had imagined. Susan needed emotional support and reassurance.
Many of us are taught to grin and bear it, to ignore pain and proceed with a stiff upper lip. That was what I learned when I was growing up, and it’s a lesson that helps when you’re faced with certain difficulties. It can get you over the hump. But many times it doesn’t help at all. It didn’t help in this situation, which called for unusual levels of support and permission to dissolve emotionally, which can feel a bit like falling into an abyss.
Andrea’s innate motherly love and her experience as a yoga therapist came into play in ways she had never imagined. Susan and baby were tired, needy, and in great discomfort and pain. Andrea took it upon herself to help them achieve greater physical comfort.
How do you make your body comfortable? By supporting it. No body part is left hanging in the air; arms, legs, and head are all cushioned. This is a principle of restorative yoga. The body will relax if it feels safe and held.
Nursing was a big problem. The talented nursing staff and the lactation specialists found better ways to hold the baby, ways that wouldn’t hurt the wound from the C-section, but Andrea could see both the baby and Susan were still physically tense, holding themselves stiff to avoid pain but in fact causing themselves more pain by pushing away from it. This is an old principle—fighting and removing yourself from pain can actually cause more of it. It’s hard to believe it, harder still to relax into it, but it’s usually so. Attending to the whole body’s comfort makes pain somewhat more tolerable. It does seem like a paradox, but it goes with recognition and acceptance of present circumstances, of the now.
Andrea brought blankets and pillows and helped mother and baby find relaxing, restorative yoga positions. The baby had to learn to nurse, and the baby’s mother had to learn how to help the baby and herself, to make the process comfortable.
How do you make your body comfortable? By supporting it. No body part is left hanging in the air; arms, legs, and head are all cushioned. This is a principle of restorative yoga. The body will relax if it feels safe and held. (If you ever have the chance to take restorative yoga classes, try them out. They are of great benefit. Pillowing and cushioning as your body takes certain positions helps you stretch, relax, and let go.) Breath work helps, too.
Susan was not allowed to exercise, and it was too early in her healing for asanas or yoga movements, but she was able to practice calming breaths and yoga nidra, also called “yogic sleep.”
What words were spoken? Mostly words of comfort, words observing the present moment. Other discussions are held for the future. The horrors of the C-section without anesthesia were only occasionally alluded to and never discussed. The trauma was too fresh, and putting the experience into words would have been more traumatizing. It was simply too early.
After great pain and terror, silence gives space to the body and the mind to digest and heal. Andrea and Tom pursued a meditative and calming presence to support Susan and the baby. All will be well with time; development often proceeds incrementally. Susan, Tom, and the new baby are growing and holding together with grace.
The International Association of Yoga Therapists. (n.d.). Contemporary Definitions of Yoga Therapy. Retrieved from http://www.iayt.org/default.asp?page=ContemporaryDefiniti
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