Yoga and Stroke

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

One of the most devastating of medical conditions is the cerebro-vascular accident or stroke, a horrendous condition which affects a fairly large number of elderly people to some degree or other. Strokes change lives suddenly and usually without warning. Like a thunderbolt, a blood vessel in the brain bursts, say from high blood pressure, or perhaps it is blocked by a blood clot, and a section of the brain is destroyed. One moment we are functioning as 'whole' people and the next we may have lost conscious use of our vision, speech, limbs, bladder, bowels, or whatever part is affected.

The stroke victim may not understand what has happened, his powers of comprehension having been destroyed. He then lives out the remainder of his life as a vegetable, a burden to himself, his family and society. The unfortunate stroke victim who retains his powers of comprehension may recover partial use of his body (not to be confused with the victim of a transient ischemic attack who regains most, if not all, of his faculties). He has two choices, to fight back, or to simply surrender to his new and crippled state, managing the best he can.

Of course, a certain amount of acceptance is necessary, as is a certain amount of denial, if hope is to remain. Who can say what powers of recovery are lying within the marvel that is the human body? Science does not know this, and medicine offers no cures for stroke victims other than to help rehabilitate them to the best of their capacity. Even preventive medical measures are limited and rarely successful.

If a stroke victim recovers sufficiently he may resume a semi-normal life; otherwise he will probably be sent to a nursing home. Fifty per cent of victims of moderate to severe stroke recover sufficiently to function with a clear sensorium, able to care for their basic needs and to get around. But, is this good enough, and indeed is this all that a stroke victim can hope for?

A case history

Nalanda is a stroke victim from Newcastle, Australia. She has taken up the challenge and used yoga as a means to try to overcome the effects of her cerebro-vascular accident. Partially paralyzed down one side of her body, this stroke victim also lost her conscious recognition of the affected part of her body. She actually did not know that the left side of her body existed, feeling that the right side of her body was her 'whole' body. From the yogi's point of view this is analogous to the situation of most people today who think that they are a physical body and nothing more, being unconscious of the higher and greater part of their being.

Nalanda's stroke occurred over five years ago, in 1976. She spent ten weeks in hospital and found that on her return home she had great difficulty coping with her new handicap, dragging her left side around as though it were a dead weight. Twelve months after her stroke, still with no recovery of body image on her left side (she could not even turn to see the left side of her body) and living in a right sided world, she commenced yoga practices under the guidance of Satyananda Ashrams in Australia.

Initially a program of deep relaxation and simple asanas was commenced. After three days she noticed immediate improvement, especially from the deep relaxation. This allowed her to gain left sided body perception. However, this image was like one reflected from a mirror. Using asanas such as pawanmuktasana, shakti bandhas and gentle pranayama she has now regained real feeling in her left little toe and left buttock.

When Nalanda is deeply relaxed she can turn her head to the left and then feel parts of her body otherwise relegated to subconscious control. Her improvement after five years is even more exceptional when we remember that medical science states that further recovery cannot be expected after six months. Yet Nalanda continues to improve and feels that yoga is at the basis of this. At the present time she is writing a book about her experiences, to be published soon, and is teaching other stroke victims yogic methods to help them overcome their disabilities.

Nalanda's story is remarkable and should inspire other stroke victims and doctors to investigate yoga's role in the follow up of acute strokes as well as in long term management. Perhaps such a study will help us to develop insight into the causes of strokes and thereby prevent them.