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Yoga as a Tool in Recovery from Surgery or Injury

from an article that I wrote for the Baden Outlook

I recently had abdominal surgery that ended up being much more extensive than anticipated. During the first few weeks of pain, swelling and immobility – where I felt totally outside of myself – my yoga practice helped me to connect back to myself and my body. I knew the old me was in there somewhere beneath all of the surgery wrappings and new sensations (or lack thereof) within my body. My yoga practice became my anchor. And although I couldn’t physically take any yoga shapes or poses, a yoga practice is so much more than that.

It began right after surgery with diaphragmatic or belly breathing

Beginning deep breathing right after surgery helps to stave off pneumonia and it is suggested you begin this right away. To practice this breath inhale in slowly through the nose, feeling the ribs and belly expand, and then very slowly let the exhale out without forcing. I always envision just letting the ribs slowly move back into place with the exhale. In yoga, deep belly breathing is at the core of every class. A wonderful side benefit of deep breathing is balancing out the autonomic nervous system. Surgery, illness or injury are stressful events and they become prolonged stress events as we recover. When we are stressed for prolonged periods and producing stress hormones for prolonged periods, those hormones can lead to further inflammation in our body. Slow, deep breathing helps us to find calm to move into rest and restore and out of fight or flight. So just taking 10 deep breaths (or longer if it doesn’t cause pain) can help our body produce the hormones that allow it to find homeostasis or balance in our autonomic nervous system. Initiating our parasympathetic nervous system, our “rest and restore” system, lets our body’s process of restoration and recovery - digestion, sleep and tissue repair - unfold.

Further tools from your yoga practice

A yoga practice consists or quieting the mind, enabling enhanced interoception, proprioception and emotional regulation.

Interoception can be looked at as the body’s awareness of itself from the inside (the processing of internal sensation by the nervous system). Interoceptive awareness allows us to regulate our emotions, to sense when we are at “enough” and to notice what feels good and what doesn’t feel good in terms of movement. We learn to listen to this and honour it.

Proprioception is the body’s awareness of its position in space including orientation, balance and alignment. Close your eyes and touch your nose with your index finger. Without sight, your finger still knows how to find the nose. Proprioception is a constant feedback loop within your nervous system, telling your brain what position you are in and what forces are acting upon your body at any given time. Our balance poses in our yoga practice strengthen our sense of proprioception and help us learn how to distribute weight and find our center in various shapes and transitions of movement. This can help limit falls and, for me, helped me to be able to safely get up and down while navigating pain, lost sensation and protecting what needed to be protected.

Emotional regulation can be a challenge as we deal with the emotional, physical, and psychological aspects of recovery. It comes back to the breathing. Again, taking those 10 deep breaths can be a good reset when we face setbacks, exhaustion and the other challenges of healing.

For me, yoga is always my anchor in healing. Maybe it will be for you as well. But just remember that your medical team (doctor, surgeon, physiotherapists) are the quarterbacks of your recovery. Let them set the plan and guide you. We want to aid healing, not impede it. Before I began introducing anything into my recovery plan, I always ran it past the appropriate person on my team and I highly recommend you do the same. Go team wellness!

If you are also on a journey of healing, I wish you as smooth a path as possible – with very few hills or stairs (especially stairs). Be very well. ~ Shelley

Note: This article is anecdotal and for educational purposes only. Please consult your healthcare provider for personalized medical advice to see if any of these suggestions are right for your experience or your body. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition.

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