Pillar of Strength

Yoga Journal|May - June 2020

Pillar of Strength
When yoga therapist Pamela Stokes Eggleston became her husband’s primary caregiver, her whole life turned upside down. To find calm within the daily chaos, she returned to her practice. Here, she shares her story and the sequence that gave her the strength and resilience to keep going.
It had been three days since I’d heard from my husband, Charles, a United States Army reservist serving in Iraq, when I got the call. A tight, unpleasant sensation intensified in my stomach as I picked up the phone. Charles was on the line. Speaking slowly with a shaky voice, he told me he’d been struck by an improvised explosive device during a night mission and had barely survived. He was in a hospital in Germany and was being prepared for transfer to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. Sixteen years later, after a three-and-a-half-year stay at Walter Reed and more than 60 surgeries, he’s still here. I’m still here, too. But today, I’m someone different. I’m his caregiver.

In some ways, nothing could have prepared me to take on the role of caring for a wounded warrior. And yet, the experience of looking after my mother years prior has helped me face the challenges that come with the territory. My mother was in her early 50s when she developed sarcoidosis and subsequent lung issues. I was 25 when she died.

During the years spent tending to her—and, later, Charles—I’ve often resided in the disease and injury along with them, all the while pretending that our lives could be normal and perfect again one day. But there is no “normal” life, I learned. There’s just life.

Caregiving for a loved one is not a job we apply for; it’s thrust upon us when someone close—a partner, parent, or child—needs help. This disruptive and sometimes immediate lifestyle change can be overwhelming and isolating, leaving us exhausted, anxious, depressed, and unable to provide the kind care we so desperately want to give.

But research shows that yoga and meditation have the potential to alleviate some of that burden. A 2013 study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that caregivers of family members with Alzheimer’s reported 51 percent less anxiety and depression after completing an eight-week yoga and meditation program (25 minutes of asana, 25 minutes of pranayama, and 13 minutes of compassionate meditation, three times a week) and had slightly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. Conversely, the control group experienced close to a 10 percent increase in anxiety and depression in that same time.

These findings come as no surprise to those who already have a regular practice, but knowing that something helps isn’t enough; learning to prioritize our routine is what’s crucial.

That might sound like a no-brainer, but whether trauma strikes in a flash or creeps up on you over time, survival mode kicks in, leaving most everything outside of that objective to fall by the wayside. I practiced yoga before Charles got injured, but I gave up my own self-care activities to focus on his posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other wounds of war.

That wasn’t healthy for either of us. As my burnout escalated from a simmer, I realized I was slowly dying from stress—something I knew how to mitigate, even if I’d forgotten somewhere along the way. So with the support of close friends and amazing yoga teachers, I returned to my mat. Doing so helped me navigate the situation with Charles more effectively while reconciling me to my first caregiving journey with my mother. Finding my flow down-regulated my central nervous system and empowered me to explore additional forms of self-care. By focusing on myself and surrendering to awareness, I found more compassion for myself. As a result, I was able to create the space necessary to be a more present and loving caregiver.

This practice is one I often do myself. It begins with breath work to help re-establish a sense of agency over your emotions by cooling down your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for fight or flight), increasing your parasympathetic response (rest and digestion), and supporting the flow of prana (life force). It moves you through a few gentle poses so you can reconnect with your inner self, and it winds down with a meditation to encourage empathy and social connection. A restful yoga nidra (yogic sleep) will close your session. Let’s begin.

SEQUENCE FOR SELF-CARE

Use this practice as a way to care for yourself and process emotions, thoughts, and sensations. But most importantly, allow the visceral feelings to surface—cry if you need to, laugh if you want to—so you can develop the resilience to stay present for your loved one without losing yourself. Allow yourself to feel and move through whatever comes up, even if it’s unpleasant, as this is a critical step in creating and cultivating self-care.

1. MINDFUL BREATHING

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May - June 2020