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I started practicing yoga toward the end of my dad's illness. I was having trouble sleeping at night and concentrating during the day. One morning I was at the gym and I noticed that a yoga class was being taught upstairs, so I decided to check it out. I couldn't believe the difference in the way I felt before class and after class.

As a caregiver, you can get to a point where you're so exhausted, both emotionally and physically, that you don't even have the energy to be angry or cry in frustration. But those feelings are still churning around inside you. Yoga helped me to direct all that energy to a more positive place. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and burned out, I began to feel an awareness of my sadness without the crushing weight that had gone with it. Although the situation didn't change, my ability to deal with it did.

Kirin Mishra is my Yoga Teacher. She has a wonderful gift conveying the benefits of yoga practice and meditation. Kirin was kind enough to talk about the practice of meditation and yoga and provide some examples of exercises to help you deal with stress in both the mind and body. Yoga is a remarkable tool you can use to take care of yourself and I hope you'll take the time to read through these exercises and pick at least one to try.

Kirin Mishra
Kirin Mishra

has been teaching yoga for seven years, she runs the Saraswati River Yoga School in New Hope, Pennsylvania. CD's of Kirin's guided meditations will be available in January at riveryoga@aol.com.

On both sides of my family, my mother and father's side - they both come from long lines of practicing and teaching yogis. The Mishras are well known in India for being both scholars and practitioners of yoga. I actually grew up with all aspects of yoga, except for the asanas. I started formal meditation at twelve, learned the language of yoga Sanskrit at eight, grew up with the philosophy of it, read the texts of it. I started the asana practice myself when I was pregnant with my second daughter. Prior to that I didn't do any of the physical practices, but did the breath work and mantra work, which is very powerful work for focusing the mind and meditation. I did seek out masters that are well known in India, but most of my practice comes from my background and my direct experience.

With my second pregnancy I was very ill, perfectly fine in a medical context, but very ill with morning sickness. It dawned on me that the yogis also do things for the body, as well as the mind and the heart and the breath; so I started practicing then. The difference between my first pregnancy and my second and then ultimately my third was universes apart; it was absolutely amazing And that's how I learned first hand that yoga addresses all aspects of life. Yoga is well known for being about the union of body and mind but that's really the first step to stabilize a being in optimum vitality and enough wellness and vigor so that we can experience what humans intrinsically experience, which is a lot of awe and wonder. This is not to say that life is easy, by any means, but every part of yoga practice addresses every part of life.

Basic Questions about Yoga and Meditation
Yoga Stretches
Breathing Exercise
Guided Meditation Exercise
Guided Relaxation Exercise

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Q. How can practicing meditation and yoga can help to relieve the stress of caregiving?

A. Yoga gives you the actual practical tools for how to be in the largeness of all things, suffering or grace. A caregiver is in that state every moment, we're talking life and death issues. It's amazing because you can have all the greatest philosophies and rhetoric in the world, but what a person who your giving care to needs and wants is your presence.

Yoga gives you the ability to be present without burning out, without feeling depleted or deprived, it lets you tap into infinite resources so that you can truly be present without depleting yourself at all. As a caregiver, burn out can come from creating an identity around who you think you're supposed to be, who you think that person wants you to be and what you think the whole situation needs or demands. What yoga gives you is the ability to gracefully be present.

Q. How does "having presence" help us to feel better?

A. A lot of the problem is that caregivers can feel that they don't have the strength to do it. Caregiving is a huge, overwhelming job and to find the ability to be present when the mind is racing, when there's fear and uncertainty, that's an amazing balancing act. Yoga trains us to respond in each moment with presence, this way you can access whenever you need to, you have it all the time.

You can experience that you really do have an amazing strength. It's very easy to feel tired, we all do. But if we go into these identities when we're tired and afraid, then it's very difficult. When we're holding back, it's like we put up damns holding the energy back. If you can relax and be present than an amazing energy flows through.

There is an order to the universe and there's an order to body and mind and the relationship of that to the universe. You find that you can do what you need to do, not do what you don't need to do and figure out how to prioritize things. Practicing meditation and yoga gives you strength, stamina and presence. But more than anything else, it allows you to know that you don't do it alone, there's some greater force that can work through you.

Q. What does it mean to truly "relax"?

A. Often when we think of taking care of ourselves and relaxing we're really not. People think that talking on the telephone to a friend is relaxing. It may be comforting, but it's not relaxing. Watching TV is not relaxing. They're just ways to distract yourself from being present. Even the effects of taking a bath, which can be momentarily relaxing, at some point wears off.

The best thing to do is to find out how to go into that place that is always stillness and truth and infinite energy. Because it exists in you, you take it with you, you can always access it doesn't wear off.

It's interesting, when people think of relaxation, they think of checking out. They think it means that they don't' have to think about anything. It's a nice time off for the mind when you sleep or when you get into the bathtub, because we have busy minds. But real relaxation, according to the yogis, is when you are so precisely balanced that you're sharp enough to handle anything, even though you're absolutely relaxed. This is what you need when you're giving care. You have to reach beyond your stuff and their stuff and that means you have to be relaxed but not checked out. It means you have to be sharp. You'll find that you can access more things when you're relaxed from meditation, breathing exorcises or yoga; it's really amazing.

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Q. Are there some basic yoga stretches that will help me to get ready for meditation or relaxation exercises?

A. These are some gentle things you can do in the morning the night or really anytime. First of all, if you have any physical or medical considerations - speak to a doctor before doing any yoga stretches. Here are two simple exercises to help you sit or lie down comfortably.

Exercise #1. Mountain Pose and Half Moon One

Stand tall; separate your feet up to hip width apart. Make sure the inside edges of your feet are parallel, so they're not turned out. Close your eyes for a moment. Feel the weight drop down, but feel also the lifting up - the head, the neck, the trunk in a long line. Hips are over the knees and knees over the ankles. Feel like you're just floating here. Stand very tall and majestic. This is Mountain Pose. Feel the breath come in and out. Softly open the eyes.

We're going to do a simple side stretch called Half Moon One. Turn your right palm to face out. Feel an opening from the mid-point of your shoulder through the right shoulder and through the right fingertips. Push down in your feet, inhale, and lift the right arm up. Walk the left hand down the left leg comfortably and the right arm reaches over, as hips sway gently to the right. Then fill it out with the breath, make sure you're not so deep that you can't breath; you must be able to take the breath with you. You can look up, down or straight ahead. With each inhale you can reach a little more, until you find that you are in a place that feels good and you stay there and you breath. Take three to five breathes here. Push down till you fill the inhale, stand up and release the right arm. Before you go to the other side, just observe; you'll feel the right side magnetic, alive.

Make sure you're standing tall, imagine roots through your feet into the ground and simultaneously lift up. Gently move your thigh bones back as you draw your tailbone in. Then feel that you grow up out of your waist, remembering that majestic Mountain Pose. Turn your left palm to face out, feel how the upper arm opens. You feel energy move from the mid-point of your shoulder to your left fingertips. Inhale and bring your left arm up. Exhale and walk the right hand down the right leg. Keep lifting up the left arm and stretching down with the right arm until you have comfortable balance of up and down, breathing in and out. When you take the breath with you, each exhale softens you. After three to five breaths, push down onto your feet and inhale to come up and exhale, releasing the hand.

Exercise #2. Cat and Dog Tilt

We want to stretch gently through the knees and the hips for meditation and relaxation. Come down to the ground on your hands and knees. Press your hands through the ground so they're flat like they're ironed into the ground. Little fingers point forward so they're parallel to each other. Press the weight through the index finger and thumb so that the weight is distributed equally over the inner and outer hand.

Place your knees are underneath your hips. Gently rock side to side, left and right keeping the weight equal in your hands. Make little circles, going one way and then the other. See if you can gently draw your belly in as you do this. This is not sucking in or hardening the stomach, this is drawing the muscles above the pubic bone in and slightly up. Then be still on your hands and your knees.

Take a deep breath in on the exhale drop your tail bone, squeeze your buttocks, and round the middle of your back. Push into the ground through the hands, but pull out of the wrists so the wrists are spacious. Arms are long and your chin goes down to the chest into the hollow in the collarbone. Press the index fingers long, don't let the weight go to the outer hand. On the inhale, send your buttock bones up, spread the buttocks. Then like a ripple that starts at the area of the sitting bones, feel it go through the spine to where the spine moves in, chest comes forward, drop your shoulders back gently. Look up and go back and forth.

Initiate your movement at the area of pubic bone and tailbone. Feel that height, that lift in the cat tilt, really rounding the back like a cat ready to pounce. And in the dog tilt, feel that the shoulders go down, hands press, chest comes forward. Do this very slowly with the breath, if you feel any stiffness or discomfort, slow it down and take the breath though it. If you have any strain or pain, then you should stop. Do this once or twice or up to eight times.

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Q. Can you walk us through a breathing exercise?

A. Nadi Shodana

This is called Nadi Shodana which is an alternate nostril breath, a balancing breath. It has been shown scientifically that this exercise balances the energies of the brain, the electricity of the nervous system, and the movement of respiration. The yogis say it also balances the subtle currents of the body. It is a purification, it helps to cleanse the body so the body can access it's own healing resources. The reason the yogis purify and cleanse is so that the body can remember it's own innate vitality and awe and the amazing almost indomitable strength of the human.

Sit comfortably upright, take a few moments to get comfortable in your seat. Use your right hand (even if you're left handed), and fold down the first two fingers of the right hand. What remains is your right thumb, your right ring finger and your right little finger. Then exhale all the air out and as you exhale feel yourself sit taller. Take a deep breath in through both nostrils and a deep breath out through both nostrils. You're going to alternately close off each nostril and breath in to the nostril you exhaled from.

First you close off your right nostril with your right thumb; this leaves your left nostril open. Inhale deeply into the left nostril, or just gently if deeply feels like too much. Take the breath in through the left nostril, then close the left nostril with your ring finger, the little finger just rests beside it. Open your right nostril - do not hold your breath - and exhale out through your right nostril. Breath all the way in, feel it touch your forehead then you close the right nostril with your right thumb to immediately open your left nostril, remember not to hold your breath. Now exhale out of your left nostril and inhale. Close the left nostril, open the right nostril and exhale.

Inhale to the right, close, exhale to the left. Inhale through your left nostril, close; exhale through your right. Repeat this for a few moments, then release your hand so that you exhale out of your left nostril. You can start out by trying this for a few minutes and work up to doing it for about ten minutes.

Q. How do you know if you're getting the right response?

A. You'll know what feels comfortable; it's almost an unmistakable feeling. If it feels heavy, if you feel pressure, if you feel like it's a strain, then release it. Do not work to strain. These pranayama (sp?) or breathing exercises are very vigorous. This is a different kind of tiring than the fatigue that we're accustomed to, the mental fatigue. This is a relaxation of the nervous system.

If one of your nostrils is blocked, don't' be concerned, breath gently - not forcefully - as gently as you can and continue. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that after doing this, both nostrils are clear.

This is a nice way to prepare before meditation, or to relax after a long day.

This is also a particularly nice thing to do before you go in to sit or be with someone. It balances you and brings you into the present moment. It allows you access that beautiful resource of strength within.

Its' a good transition for meditation because if we've been busy, or if we're been upset, it's hard to set aside the time to meditate. We tell ourselves, "I can't do that, I've got things to do". But this exercise accesses your nervous system and gets you to calm down.

Q. How does it work to calm you down?

A. When you breathe through your left nostril it activates right brain and visa versa; this helps to bring it into a balance. Every exhale gets your para-sympathetic nervous system in action and gets it to calm down, and every inhale arouses the parasympathetic nervous system. By deliberately charging one side of the brain and then the other, we're bringing them into a state of relaxation and union.

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Q. Is it easy to start meditating?

A. Beginning meditation is very difficult for most people. We're not raised in a society to go in, we're raised in a society that says to go out. We simply are not accustomed to the idea of going inside ourselves; it needs patience and gentleness.

Q. Can you walk us through a basic meditation?

A. To start out, wear loose comfortable clothing, get a pillow and a blanket. You can set a soft beep timer (not a loud alarm because that's too jarring) to structure your meditations if you're trying to fit them into a busy schedule

The classic meditation is that you sit tall. You may sit in a chair, but you don't want to lean back because most backs of chairs are not upright. It may feel awkward to sit forward, so put a few pillows between your back and the back of the chair. You may even put a pillow under your feet. You can also do this lying down on the floor, bringing the head and trunk in a long line. If you have the option, it's best to do it upright.

Take a few moments to prepare you seat and make yourself comfortable. (If you're in a work environment, take off your jacket, loosen a tie and a belt, take off your shoes - as much as is appropriate to get more comfortable, you can pull yourself together later.)

Right now, let go and relax. If you're seated upright, the head the neck and the trunk are in one line, but you are at all rigid or stiff like a soldier. You're upright, but there is a simultaneous softness, a relaxation. Think of this position as noble. Soften your belly, soften your throat. If you're wondering how, try telling yourself, "I soften my belly, I soften my throat".

The first few exhales can be through the mouth. This relaxing in the jaw will actually help to tone the pelvic floor, which will allow you, sit upright and be more comfortable.

After that, the breathing should be through the nose. This is natural, effortless and relaxing. Allow your breath to deepen.

Now we're going to go into a classic meditation. I use the word classic deliberately. I do want to impart the sense that you are joining the countless number of great beings from all traditions and all times and all places, in both genders, and that you enter this stream of all beings who have sought more peace, truth, and relaxation. You don't do it alone. It's important to know that no matter how alone you may feel, everything in this universe is intimately tied, like your breath - you're exhale is my inhale and so on.

Feel that breath now. By now you're breathing evenly, naturally through your nose. Notice the breath come in at the nose, follow it all the way down, feel like it connects all the way into the earth. And then feel it as it comes up from the earth, through your hips, your pelvic floor. The whole body is breathed, feel that, feel the exhale leave your body and soften you. Feel that with each exhale you relax more.

With each inhale you elongate, you become more radiant and this is nothing that you have to do this is what happens. Notice the breath coming in breathing you, nurturing you, giving you what you need. And the exhale releasing you, relaxing you, letting go of everything that you don't need.

You don't even have to try there's no forcing, there's no grasping. If you find that your attention has wondered, with absolute gentleness, like you are speaking to your beloved, bring the attention back. The mind is very sensitive it must be nurtured. Bring it back to the breath and notice how the breath changes. It seems so tedious at first, but it's always different, an infinite variety of sensations and temperature, colors, nuances.

Feel yourself being breathed and just as you don't have to grasp with the breath, you do not have to grasp for what you need. If you relax and let go it will come to you. Watch the arising and dissolving of breath, of emotions. They seem so concrete sometimes - thoughts and concepts - but notice how they pass with the breath. It all just moves through you and you observe and feel.

Feel yourself, gently embraced and nurtured in this breath. This breath that just seems so ordinary, maybe even mundane. The whole cosmos is being breathed in and out and as it breathes you in and out.

Feel the mind release its grip. Remember, the mind is not going to stop. The mind's supposed to be sharp, brilliant even, and make lots of thoughts, but you will expand your awareness so much that it seems that the mind slows down and stills. You are the pure awareness watching mind, feeling body and breath. When your attention leaves you, simply bring it back. You're not doing anything wrong if the mind wanders, bring it back, and feel yourself breathe. You may do this a hundred times, that's part of the meditation.

If there is any area in particular that feels stiff or has stiffened, take your breath directly there. For example, if it's in the shoulder, take your breath right there as if it had nostrils. Breathe in and out, as if your shoulder were breathing.

It is inevitable this arising and dissolving. No matter how heavy and solid it feels now as you sit here nobly watching the arising and dissolving, you come to know that it all changes. That there is a changeless place in you that is watching and feeling. This is a place of deep wisdom; this is not an overstatement. Allow yourself to be immersed by this knowledge.

Continue to take your breath to areas that need it in the body and the mind. If there is an area in the mind that feels knotted and stiff around anger, treat it as if it were a shoulder or a knee. Watch it and breathe through it. If you feel like you're getting caught in the emotion or thought rather than watching it, give it name like you're greeting it and let it go.

Take your awareness to these sensations, following the arising and dissolving of breath for as long as you have or as long as you can be comfortable. Don't struggle, because wherever there is a struggle or a conflict the mind increases its activity. Let awareness drop to the heart, where you already know all things.

Allot at least 20-30 for this exercise, when you are done, you silently give thanks. Give thanks to whomever and whatever you would like, for in the silence there is great power you can send a gratification as a blessing to any being. But don't' forget to thank yourself. Deepen your breath and notice how much easier it is to do that now and remember that this place exists in you, you are never without it.

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Q. Can you take us through a guided relaxation?

A. This is called point to point relaxation. Ideally you want to lie down on the floor, a bed or a couch is all right if it's firm and comfortable. You might want to put a pillow under your knees. Lie flat and let your arms and legs come out from your body at about 45-degree angles. Your hands face up, the palms softly cupped. You don't want your fingertips on the ground. Close your eyes.

Relax everything. Begin by relaxing the large, heavy bones of the body, the larger muscles of the body, and the legs. Relax the back, the bones in the arms, the muscles there. Relax your whole body and feel the point of contact of your body to the ground. Tell yourself "I am going to relax for the next ten minutes or so", and let your breath be natural and deep. All the thinking and planning that you need to do will be done afterwards. Your breath deepens in agreement, relax more.

Feel yourself soften and then deliberately take your breath awareness to your feet. As if you could breath in though your feet, breathe in from the feet all the way up to the crown of your head. Exhale from the crown of the head all the way down to your feet. Inhale from the feet to the head, exhale head to feet. Inhale, feet to the head ? Do this ten times.

Now exhale from your head just to your knees, and then inhale from the knees to the head. Exhale head to the knees. Though you're going a shorter distance, keep your breath the same length, duration and depth. Inhale knees to head ? Do this ten times.

Exhale from your head to your fingertips, then inhale from the fingertips to head. Exhale head to fingertips. And like before even though you're not going as long of a distance you keep the breath duration the same, consistency helps to deepen the relaxation. Inhale fingertips to head ? Do this five times.

Exhale from you head to your navel, then inhale from the navel to the head. Exhale head to navel. Inhale navel to head ? Do this five times. Keep the breath deep through the nose, this is important.

Exhale from the head to the heart center, and then inhale from the heart to the head. Exhale head to heart. Inhale navel to head ? Do this five times.

Now exhale from the head to the throat, then inhale throat to head. Exhale head to throat. This is a short distance, but keep the breath equal, long and deep, penetrating through the greatest of obstacles and resistances. You are completely relaxed. Inhale throat to head ? Do this five times.

Now this time again, exhale to the heart. Inhale heart to head, exhale head to heart, and inhale heart to head ? Do this five times.

Then exhale from your head to your navel. Inhale navel to head, exhale head to navel,

Inhale navel to head ? Do this five times.

Exhale head to fingertips. Inhale fingertips to head, exhale head to fingertips, and inhale fingertips to head ? Do this five times.

Exhale head to knees. Inhale knees to head, exhale head to knees; inhale knees to head ? Do this about five times.

Finally, exhale head to the feet. Inhale feet to head, exhale head to feet ? Do this about five times.

Just feel your whole body being breathed. Gently start to move your hands and your feet slowly. Roll to your right side and draw your knees towards your chest. Linger a moment. Put your left hand to the ground and sit up, feel how you feel. You'll find that when you do get up and move around you'll actually have more energy.

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