I have never written a blog before, but the invitation to do so is a timely one as I ‘grow up’ and find my way with social media on my freelance ‘adventure’. Since I took early retirement from my role supporting people with Creutzfeld Jacob Disease (CJD) and their families in the NHS, my goal has been to develop all the different aspects of my work and life that I am passionate about, and link them in a coherent ‘whole’.
Working with a person’s experience of cognitive impairment, living with the risk of an inherited dementia, my family, travel, yoga …. and my travelling companion Personal Construct Psychology (PCP) are the key things I knew I wanted to be part of this new phase of my life. I worried about keeping focused without the structure of a job to go to in order to keep focused, so with the luxury of now being able to make my own timetable, I went to an early morning yoga class three times a week.
I started to elaborate my sense that yoga could bring relief for my clients living with cognitive impairment. I undertook yoga therapy training for people working with children with special needs with Jo Manuel at the Special Yoga Centre, and started to engage one of my elderly clients in a gentle yoga practice. It is striking how she can remember movements and postures from the previous week, whilst she is unable to remember what has been said just five minutes beforehand. This in itself is a major opportunity for validation in people with cognitive impairment, the critical essence of person-centred interventions, however yoga has a great deal to offer people with brain injury on many levels: rehabilitation, health and well being, managing cognitive impairment and emotional consequences of brain injury.
A year of weekly yoga therapy with a woman who was bed bound following three strokes and diagnosis of dementia, with neurogenic pain and deemed unsuitable for rehabilitation, is now moving herself around her bed, up to sitting, transferring without the use of a hoist. She is also now able to discuss the nature of her difficulties and articulate the changes she experiences in her body. The role of yoga in rehabilitation, promoting and maintaining mobility, breaking down the goals into small and manageable steps for people with neurological challenges and cognitive impairment has huge potential, not least because of its focus on awareness.
Peter Blackaby (2014) explains how it is feeling movement that brings about learning (sensory motor cortex), and not ‘telling’ our muscles to move (motor cortex). He quotes a study where monkeys have had the motor cortex for a skilled movement removed from their brain and yet can still make that same skilled movement. Another part of the brain takes over. However, when the sensory motor cortex is removed for that same skilled movement, the movement can no longer be made at all. Critically it is the noticing involved in the practice of yoga that brings about change in body and mind.
Yoga is well known for the links between mind & body, and yoga practice is in fact a physical and tangible route to achieving a state of meditation, which has evidence based health benefits in generating the opposite of the stress response in the body. There is increasing evidence for change in circulatory, emotional and mental health, in addition to changes at a cellular level in people who are recovering from cancer. From a psychotherapeutic perspective, yoga is also a way of working with the aspects of ourselves that are not easily put into words, and may never even be articulated. In this way yoga brings therapeutic intervention within reach of people with severe communication disorders.
I have been elaborating this idea from the perspective of PCP. Our theories about the world around us exist at all levels of awareness, and while psychotherapy might advocate that its role is to help people articulate their construing at lower levels of awareness, I personally wonder whether that is always necessary for change and wellbeing? In PCP we see words as merely what we use to convey our discriminations and conclusions about the world around us, and there will always be much of our construing that remains inaccessible… that part of our construing which is non-verbal, intuitive, or was developed before spoken language. Yoga enables us to experiment and elaborate ourselves at that nonverbal level and so is it surprising that the practice of yoga brings about changes in our thinking and our emotions?
There are many different forms of yoga, and increasing research evidence for the health benefits of yoga in general, and for yogic breathing techniques and mindfulness in particular. For me, I am interested in what all yoga has in common rather than a specific approach, and its contribution in the process of achieving and practising mindfulness, with a view to developing yoga as a therapeutic intervention with people with dementia and other forms of brain injury.
I am currently taking referrals for one to one work and I go into residential and day care facilities. l now look forward to teaching the first 25 hour yoga training for people living or working with people with dementia and other forms of brain injury in March 2015 at Special Yoga in London. It’s a course for family members interested in exploring ways to engage with their relatives with brain injury, for health professionals interested in the application of yoga with people with brain injury, and for yoga teachers and practitioners wanting to understand more about the experience of cognitive impairment, whether this is stable and resolving, or progressive and/or fluctuating. The flyer can be found at http://specialyoga.org.uk/teacher_training/yoga_dementia/ or you can contact me directly.