A stroke happens when blood flow is interrupted in the brain, either by a clot in an artery or when blood vessels break. Brain cells die when the blood supply is blocked and additional damage to the cells occurs when bleeding seeps into the brain from a vessel break.
Potential causes of stroke include high blood pressure, birth defects, arterial blockage, smoking, external trauma. Given the variety of causes, strokes are not limited to a particular age group or gender. Risk of causes related to lifestyle can be affected by diet, exercise, weight management and smoking habits.
Strokes affect people quite differently depending on a number of factors. One is the intensity of the stroke; another is the area of the brain where the stroke occurs In any case, this internal trauma to the brain results in the reduction or loss of any number of brain functions, from paralysis to speech issues to a breakdown in mental capacities such as memory or the ability to multitask. Recovery therapies aim at regaining and retraining abilities.
Yoga for stroke and exercise programs for stroke recovery are most successful when designed with this same focus of regaining and retraining abilities.
Studies on yoga and stroke exist though many are limited to research on small samplings. (There is a larger sampling study currently being conducted in Australia). Larger sampling test results are still being collected or finalized. These smaller studies do suggest that yoga’s focus on the breath and on strength, balance and flexibility can aid in a patient’s recovery from a stroke.
- Breath: Body awareness can be a challenge for anyone. Strokes oftentimes rewire the brain, disconnecting the mind’s link to where parts of the body are and what they’re doing. Mindful breathing and focused breathing exercises can help a person reconnect.
- Strength: Strength-building in stroke recovery is essential, especially where paralysis was involved. (Mine occurred on the right temporal/parietal lobes, partially paralyzing my left side). Both the affected areas (my left arm and leg) and the unaffected areas benefit from strength-building. This focus helps with retraining. It also helps increase the capacity of the unaffected areas (my right side) needed for compensation. Flowing from Tadasana – Mountain pose – in and out of Horseman’s pose is a good example of an overall strengthener that can also be adapted into seated postures.
- Flexibility: Posture often suffers in a person recovering from a stroke. Seated or standing half moon, lateral bending works well as a starter. This lengthening of the side body opens the intercostals and encourages lateral movement. Extension poses for affected areas are most successful when keeping movement to one plane at a time and when there’s a flow in and out rather than holding for extended periods. This helps reduce spasticity.
- Balance: Balance poses, especially if paralysis was involved, should include props for support. Walking meditation alongside a wall is an example of a focused, supported movement that includes body awareness and balance practice.
Exercise retrains the brain by creating new patterns of message transmission. Treadmill walking is considered a very beneficial exercise for stroke survivors. The addition of an external rhythm, from a metronome or from certain music, can help with regulating an even pace. Water exercise is also considered to be therapeutic. This is due in part because the weightlessness effect of the water means less to balance. Also, the fear of falling is lessened in the water.
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