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The Healing Power of Yoga After a Stroke

Decades after a paralyzing stroke, yoga restores Gale-Ann Maier's strength and stability.

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Gale-Ann Maier began practicing yoga after a stroke and found restoration in her strength and stability.

I could never have guessed the wonderful impact yoga would have as I nervously entered my first Kripalu yoga class in September of 2011. As a middle age, overweight woman with limited left arm function as the result of a stroke 26 years prior, I was hoping to just complete the class. Who knew the next 90 minutes of the basic Kripalu class would be the beginning of an incredible, inspirational journey that continues to unfold each day.

From the first Mountain Pose when our teacher Nancy said, “Can you feel the prana?” until the final Savasana, it was as though energy had been awakened in me. I could feel the prana, and it was amazing.

My journey to this moment has been 35 years in the making, filled with some of the happiest and saddest moment of my life.

In 1978, at the age of 18, my life had played out how I’d always expected: happily married with my 8-month old son, Nathan, to love and cherish. My plans were interrupted suddenly when a cerebral hemorrhage in my right brain left me partially paralyzed in my left body. I was diagnosed with a large inoperable arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in my brain. It was akin to having a time bomb in my brain that could go off at any time, and I was given a life expectancy of 35 years. Fear and anxiety took over my life.

See alsoDoes Yoga Cause Stroke?

I was afraid to be alone with my son, worried I wouldn’t be able to respond to his needs in time. I got easily exhausted and had to rely on my husband and family members to make it through each day. Doctors told me that having more children was not in my best interest, which was just one more blow to my dreams.

Through the next ten years I made remarkable strides toward recovering my left side, even being able to use my left hand for writing, eating, and driving (yes, I’m left-handed). I was considered by doctors to be neurologically intact but still living the very real threat of another hemorrhage.

When I learned of a new radiation treatment for AVMs I jumped at the opportunity. It was risky, but I was willing to do almost anything to see my son reach adulthood. The treatment was ultimately successful and the AVM in my brain was closed off. I felt I could now have my life back.

My excitement waned quickly when I again started losing function in my left body. I soon learned that while having the AVM closed off, I had suffered a stroke. I no longer ran the risk of a brain hemorrhage, but I was left again feeling only half-functional.

Without the AVM in my brain, doctors gave me the great news that I could have another child. In 1993, after years of trying, my second son, Mackenzie, was born. The years that followed were busy, filled with hundreds of one-handed diaper changes. While life was hectic, I was simply happy to be alive and seeing my children grow. I did what I had to do to get by: rely on my right side.

My catalyst to yoga came when in 2007 I tripped and broke my one good, right ankle. Unable to use crutches or bare weight, it was a long six weeks of bed rest and awkward transfers to a wheelchair.

It was another upset, another letdown, another setback. I had relied on my right side for all these years, expecting it to hold me. With the ankle injury, I soon realized just how much I was asking of my right side. I needed to take a serious look at my mobility and ways to improve it. Two surgeries on my ankle later I started deep-water aerobics and began practicing restorative yoga. A beautiful sense of calm settled in my heart.

See alsoYoga for Stroke Survivors

For two years, I practiced restorative once a week. While I was aware of other types of yoga, I thought that restorative was the only kind someone with my limitations could do. With encouragement from my yogi sister-in-law, I finally stepped into my first Kripalu class.

Nancy had a lovely way of guiding the class through poses, offering modifications in a way that did not make me feel excluded or singled out. I have since been able to physically achieve poses I would have never thought possible. Working with balancing and weight-bearing postures, I’ve gained stability and strength where before there was little, and I continue to gain more function on my left side.

Yoga has brought me here, and I truly believe without it, I would not be making the progress I am. Will I ever have full function of my left side? Probably no. But I’ll never say “never,” and I choose to continue to grow, stretch, and see what the universe has in store.

I now set intentions not only during my practice but at the beginning of each day. I am present and aware like never before. I feel blessed after each class and look forward to continuing this beautiful journey. I still practice a restorative class once a week (it was the spark that ignited the flame) and have added two Kripalu classes a week.

Since beginning yoga, I am changing my relationship with food and facing fears. I bought a kayak, have gone snowshoeing for the first time, and, yes, even wear yoga pants in public. I am now more mindful in all aspects of my life, I am stronger physically, my shape is changing, and where I once saw limits, I now see possibilities. Yoga has inspired me to look at my body and left side with fresh eyes. The body, mind, spirit connection has been for me, remarkable. There is a new light that is burning within, and I love it.

See alsoYoga Helps Stroke Patients

About our writer
Gale-Ann Maier lives in British Columbia, Canada. She is thankful to her husband and two children who always encouraged her to keep going.