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The Heart of Healing

Prepare for surgery with mind-body techniques that may help you recover faster.

By Carol Krucoff

My Open Heart
After more than 30 years of practicing yoga and 10 years of teaching, I was well aware that the mind-body connection, when aligned and tapped, can be an extraordinary healing resource. In the six weeks I had to prepare for surgery, I did daily pranayama, deep relaxation, and meditation. My asana practice changed according to my needs—some days it was dynamic and energizing, other days calming and restorative. During meditation, I visualized myself going through the procedure successfully, then celebrating my birthday, happy and surrounded by family and friends. I saw myself completely healed by April, co-directing the spring session of the Therapeutic Yoga for Seniors program at Duke. I prayed often, asking for help and the strength to bear whatever was to come.

I loaded up my iPod with personalized guided meditations and with my favorite Sanskrit chants, including "Om Namah Shivaya," by Wah!, and "Chit Ananda," by Deva Premal. I listened to these during my preoperative cardiac catheterization, while being wheeled into surgery, and in the intensive care unit. Listening to the meditations and becoming absorbed in the chants calmed my fears and helped me find strength in the connection with my unchanging, true Self.

Three months after my surgery I was back to teaching yoga, and today I am grateful to feel better than ever. Now, in my morning meditation, I have added two "moos" to honor my new bovine (cow) heart valve.

Healing Tools

Try these mind-body techniques to help prepare for and recover from surgery.

Focused Breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, in which you breathe deeply into the lungs and expand the diaphragm, "can make a huge difference both in oxygenation and in relieving anxiety," says Teresa Corrigan, RN, a mind-body specialist who teaches presurgical workshops through the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "When people are fearful, their bodies go into a white-knuckle reaction that has a domino effect on the entire system."

Gary Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute, recommends extended-exhalation breathing to help calm jittery nerves. Start where you are; then begin to deepen the length and smooth the flow of your inhalation and exhalation. Even people with little or no training can typically practice inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six.

Dirga Pranayama, called the Three-Part Breath, can also be used to move the body into a state of relaxation and calm. As you inhale, fill first the lower, then the middle, and finally the upper portion of the lungs, so 
that the belly rounds, the rib cage expands out to the sides, and the upper chest broadens and fills. Then, as you exhale, everything softens back down.

Guided Imagery: Guided imagery acts as "a rehearsal that focuses your intentions on the best possible outcome," says psychotherapist Leslie Davenport, the author of Healing and Transformation Through Self-Guided Imagery and a founding member of the Institute for Health and Healing at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. A kind of meditation in which you direct your focus for a specific intention, guided imagery has been found to be a successful tool in influencing outcomes in things like sports competition and surgery. In fact, a study of surgical patients using a guided imagery tape found they lost significantly less blood and stayed in the hospital one full day less than those in the placebo control group. "When we worry, we're doing imagery—but not the kind that supports our health," Davenport explains. "But we can learn to use this same mind-body connection in a positive way that supports our healing and well-being."

Visualize Health: To create your own guided visualization, Davenport recommends writing a script that will lead you through a 20-minute meditation. Record it yourself, backed by relaxing music, or ask someone whose voice you find soothing to do it for you.

Start with an intention for health and healing. With your eyes closed, deepen and lengthen the breath. Inhale and imagine your body filling with light and vitality. Exhale and feel all tension releasing.

Visualize a place where you feel safe and peaceful, taking time to notice every detail: the colors, the scents, the sounds. Then see your closest friends and family members joining you, even pets and spirit guides, blanketing you with their love and support.

From this place of support and comfort, imagine the day of your surgery. See your medical team ready to offer you the best care possible. Ask that your body's intelligence align with this care, and direct healing energy there.

Now visualize the procedure ending in total success. Your body will sense the shift to ease and recovery, already sending nourishment to 
the surgery site as you gradually awaken, knowing that you are well on your way back to health.

Affirmations & Mantras: Affirmations are spoken statements that help you to counter negative thinking and visualize positive outcomes, says author and psychologist Belleruth Naparstek. An example: "More and more I can let go of worry about things I can't control and focus on my own inner peacefulness."

Mantras from the yoga tradition are sacred Sanskrit sounds that are chanted as a vehicle for meditation and prayer. Reciting a mantra—which may be a simple Om or a more complex group of sounds that have a particular meaning to you—helps focus attention by anchoring and calming the mind. "Become absorbed in the meaning and feeling the chant engenders," says Kraftsow.

Awareness: Mindfulness, a practice of cultivating awareness of the present moment without judgment, uses the breath to help train attention and to connect body and mind. It's a useful skill when preparing for surgery 
and during the healing time afterward. "Some people are extremely dissociated from their bodies," says Corrigan. Being mindful can help you tune in to the subtleties of tension or discomfort and also help you identify ease.

Carol Krucoff, E-RYT, is a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine and the author of Healing Yoga for Neck & Shoulder Pain.

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October 2010

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