Prayer Pose

By Joe Vanek Stroke News   |   21st Mar 2023

Yoga Studio: CONVENTO DE MERTOLA – ALENTEJO – PORTUGAL. 2015

Stroke survivor Joe Vanek shares how yoga is his saviour following a stroke.

At the conclusion of my yoga class, my teacher invites me to adopt the prayer pose. Here is yet another example of how I must come to terms with the drastic changes in my life, bequeathed by a stroke. Gone are the days when I naively imagined that I ruled my body. Almost four years later, I have learned – the hard way – that now, my body rules me.

Rolling over onto my right side – with some effort – I laboriously raise the trunk of my body by pushing up with my forearms, and then swivel my legs around to ease myself into a seated position.

Once achieved, legs are crossed at mid-calf, I straighten my back as best I can, lift my arms, and with palms and fingers pressed together, close my eyes; I am now ready for the meditation prayer or Metta. But, during the prayer, a minor miracle – of sorts – occurs, because I am able to sustain this pose for the prayer’s duration, and not topple over onto my weakened left side. This is an unexpected and surprising anomaly – given the precarious nature of my balance at unguarded moments – and my ability to hold this pose gives me the impetus to improve my stability further.

The Metta prayer, which encourages the flow of positive thoughts and energies, is receptive to infinite variations. Its form, a recitation of key phrases, embraces compassion, kindness and love: firstly directed to oneself, then to those closest to you – some long gone, others ever-present – and finally, to all other human beings on planet earth. Each time I put my hands together, it unfailingly evokes an especially vivid memory of the last time I saw my mother Sheila. My teacher’s prayer encompasses three key aspirations.

“May I be Happy – May I be Healthy – May I be free from Suffering”

But, whilst these are laudable aspirations, there are others, which I feel are a more accurate reflection of my post-stroke life, and a rewrite – which brings the prayer closer to home – would consist of the following.

“May I be Content – May I be able – May I be free from Anxiety”

Returning to my teacher’s Metta prayer, the word happy – Happy Birthday –Happy New Year – Happy Ever After – is a word that promises future delights, whereas simply being content, derives mainly from the realms of past lives, lived well –  one hopes – and in later years, maybe attaining a modicum of wisdom? Being content is further achieved by acknowledging the things you are no longer able to do, and simply letting go; it is the end of striving. The stroke of course, has been instrumental in accelerating this awareness, and with my health compromised, being able to cope with the mental and physical fallout, is now the major focus of my days.

For many people, in the aftermath of a stroke, basic abilities such as memory, reasoning, speech and movement, are often destroyed beyond repair. Fortunately, my cognitive skills and speech were spared during the onslaught, and during my hospital rehabilitation, I was able to restore my basic mobility to manageable levels. Although continued good health is still a major priority for me, as the future months – and I hope years – stack up, above all other things, I value being able to cope with whatever life throws at me.

"I value being able to cope with whatever life throws at me."

Joe Vanek

A stroke often unleashes disruptive forces in the brain that alters perception; coping with the drastic changes in how the world is viewed through this new prism, can be a major source of disorientation and unease.

On the subject of which, my average day is now overwhelmed by a barrage of anxieties.

Inspired by a W H Auden poem, the eminent American composer Leonard Bernstein, borrowed Auden’s title for his second symphony, The Age of Anxiety – it is a sombre and harrowing work.

Many people discover that following a stroke, anxiety has been hard-wired into their psyche, and for Me, it descends – uninvited – like a smothering cloud, obscuring all rational thought and responses to often the most trifling of matters; sombre and harrowing, sums up this affliction succinctly. My current age of anxiety is an unwelcome travelling companion on the bleak roads of endurance, and one of the many stroke side effects, from which I long to be free.

Freedom from the many daily pressures related to an individual’s work, health, or personal life, is where the practice of yoga can be both a revelation and a saviour. It was certainly a saviour for me during the interminable house arrest that I endured for more than two years of the covid pandemic.

Derived from the Sanskrit word to unite, yoga fundamentally encourages a union between the mind, body, and spirit; this trinity combining to redirect the human beings natural focus on consciousness of self to a higher plane of awareness – an awareness of just existing in the moment, free and unhindered by thoughts of past, present, or future. Ideally, it nurtures the abilities to concentrate solely on breath, a sequence of poses involving balance, and to render the head-drained of all thought and emotion – as an empty vessel.

"Endeavouring to reduce my own head to an empty vessel has been a lifetime’s struggle, and now, since my stroke, the struggle is even greater."

Joe Vanek

Endeavouring to reduce my own head to an empty vessel has been a lifetime’s struggle, and now, since my stroke, the struggle is even greater. Eighteen years ago, I recall spending a few days at Dzogchen Beara – the Buddhist Meditation Centre in West Cork. The shrine room, with its vast west facing windows, looked out onto a predominantly opalescent ocean and sky, and in this meditation space, serenity, and focus felt assured. Yet hard as I tried, my spiritual epiphany remained elusive.

Throughout my working life, my head has been awash with thoughts and images that refused to be suppressed – this state being conditioned by the intense nature of the design work I have been engaged in; sadly, since the stroke, nothing has changed – it might even be worse?

My teeming head – newly minted with added anxieties – leads to days of excessive restlessness, occasional sleepless nights, and repetitive, energy-sapping self-doubt: How will I get through this day? or more alarmingly – Will I get through this day? This is why a yoga class is beneficial; it achieves the seemingly impossible task of clearing my head, of all extraneous thoughts.

Yet despite this achievement, the class is not without its challenges, and at the start, manoeuvring my body into alignment on the mat is one of them. I rarely – if ever – manage to find the centre and so my ever-patient teacher comes to the rescue. Having slowly guided me into position, she lifts my arms and legs, and, gently pulling them, they are placed at the mat’s perimeter; my limbs now feel as if they are the spokes of a gigantic wheel, or that I am a three- dimensional replica of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man – albeit fully clothed!

So far so good. Generally, classes start with controlled breathing and then segue into physical exercises involving the stretching, curving, and bending of arms, hands, and legs. These I generally manage well, and the onus of the next part of the class is on the improvement of balance. As a fundamental attribute of the human race – and animal kingdom – balance, and the loss of it, is one of the most common of all stroke bequests.

"In the early weeks following my stroke, I found my inability to stand – let alone walk – profoundly distressing, and the most common adage of health professionals, is ‘First find your balance’ before undertaking any movement."

Joe Vanek

In the early weeks following my stroke, I found my inability to stand – let alone walk – profoundly distressing, and the most common adage of health professionals, is ‘First find your balance’ before undertaking any movement.  Of course, it makes total sense, though this advice is hard to reconcile with a body that has never had to consider how it gets from A to B.

The names of the yoga balance poses are many, and often aptly descriptive. My class builds up to a sequence of four: two versions of the Cat, followed by the Warrior and the Tree of Life.

At its simplest, the Cat requires the participant to take up a position supported on the hands and knees and then gently flex the spine so that it is sunken and then arched – resulting in a swooping rhythm. The second Cat is more complex, alternate knees and hands support the body, whilst the other arm is extended forwards and the other leg back.

The Warrior, is a semi-kneeling position with both arms raised above the head, and The Tree of Life requires a single-leg stand with one arm raised vertically above it, and the other arm extended horizontally. All these I am able to do and hold for often fifteen to twenty seconds; this is a source of constant amazement, to myself and my teacher.

At the class’s conclusion, I sink gratefully onto the green leaf-strewn mat and imagine myself reclining in a forest clearing. A ten-minute period of relaxation, reflection, and breathing follows, during which my teacher intones an anatomical gazetteer of the body which I do my best to follow; eventually, I drift off into sleep. Then it is time for the Metta prayer, and as I get into position, in the moments before I press my palm and fingers together and close my eyes, I remind myself of three things. During the past hour, I have been content, I have been able, and I have been free from anxiety.

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