When Pamela Stokes Eggleston became her war-wounded husband’s primary caregiver, she gave her practice away. That wasn’t good for either of them.
PHOTOs: Christopher Dougherty
It had been three days since I’d heard from my husband, Charles, a United States Army reservist serving in Iraq, when I got the call. A tight, unpleasant sensation intensified in my stomach as I picked up the phone. Charles was on the line. Speaking slowly with a shaky voice, he told me he’d been struck by an improvised explosive device during a night mission and had barely survived. He was in a hospital in Germany and was being prepared for transfer to Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington, DC. Sixteen years later, after a three-and-a-half-year stay at Walter Reed and more than 60 surgeries, he’s still here. I’m still here, too. But today, I’m someone different. I’m his caregiver.
In some ways, nothing could have prepared me to take on the role of caring for a wounded warrior. And yet, the experience of looking after my mother years prior has helped me face the challenges that come with the territory. My mother was in her early 50s when she developed sarcoidosis and subsequent lung issues. I was 25 when she died.
During the years spent tending to her—and, later, Charles—I’ve often resided in the disease and injury along with them, all the while pretending that our lives could be normal and perfect again one day. But there is no “normal” life, I learned. There’s just life.
Caregiving for a loved one is not a job we apply for; it’s thrust upon us when someone close—a partner, parent, or child—needs help. This disruptive and sometimes immediate lifestyle change can be overwhelming and isolating, leaving us exhausted, anxious, depressed, and unable to provide the kind care we so desperately want to give.
But research shows that yoga and meditation have the potential to alleviate some of that burden. A 2013 study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that caregivers of family members with Alzheimer’s reported 51 percent less anxiety and depression after completing an eight-week yoga and meditation program (25 minutes of asana, 25 minutes of pranayama, and 13 minutes of compassionate meditation, three times a week) and had slightly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. Conversely, the control group experienced close to a 10 percent increase in anxiety and depression in that same time.
These findings come as no surprise to those who already have a regular practice, but knowing that something helps isn’t enough; learning to prioritize our routine is what’s crucial.
That might sound like a no-brainer, but whether trauma strikes in a flash or creeps up on you over time, survival mode kicks in, leaving most everything outside of that objective to fall by the wayside. I practiced yoga before Charles got injured, but I gave up my own self-care activities to focus on his post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other wounds of war.
That wasn’t healthy for either of us. As my burnout escalated from a simmer, I realized I was slowly dying from stress—something I knew how to mitigate, even if I’d forgotten somewhere along the way. So with the support of close friends and amazing yoga teachers, I returned to my mat. Doing so helped me navigate the situation with Charles more effectively while reconciling me to my first caregiving journey with my mother. Finding my flow down-regulated my central nervous system and empowered me to explore additional forms of self-care. By focusing on myself and surrendering to awareness, I found more compassion for myself. As a result, I was able to create the space necessary to be a more present and loving caregiver.
This sequence for self care is one I often do myself. It begins with breathwork to help re-establish a sense of agency over your emotions by cooling down your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for fight or flight), increasing your parasympathetic response (rest and digestion), and supporting the flow of prana (life force). It moves you through a few gentle poses so you can reconnect with your inner self, and it winds down with a meditation to encourage empathy and social connection. A restful yoga nidra (yogic sleep) will close your session. Let’s begin.
SEQUENCE For Self-Care
Use this sequence for self care. as a way to care for yourself and process emotions, thoughts, and sensations. But most importantly, allow the visceral feelings to surface—cry if you need to, laugh if you want to—so you can develop the resilience to stay present for your loved one without losing yourself. Allow yourself to feel and move through whatever comes up, even if it’s unpleasant, as this is a critical step in creating and cultivating self-care.
1. Mindful Breathing
Sit comfortably in a chair with your back gently pressed against the support. Rest your palms softly on your thighs and begin to feel your feet on the floor. Allow your attention to draw inward toward your breath and its natural pattern. Notice the pace of your inhalations and exhalations. Witness the pauses in between each breath. Visualize your contact to the earth beneath your feet, surrendering to the grounding. Observe the way that you are breathing—shallow, short, full, or deep—without changing it. Simply place your attention on this natural breath.
2. Dirgha Pranayama (3-Part Breath)
Place one hand on your belly and the other over your heart. Focus on breathing into your chest. Feel it as you inhale. As you exhale, imagine sending loving energy to your heart space through the prana of your breath. Continue for 7 full cycles. Then, focus on sending your breath to your abdomen for 7 cycles.
3. Parivrtta Sukhasana (Seated Twist)
Move gently from the chair to stand on your mat. Slowly bend your knees and bring your hands to the mat as you come into Tabletop. Sit back on your heels, take both hands to the right side of your hip for support, and swing your legs out to straighten them. Cross your legs to come into Sukhasana (Easy Pose). On an inhalation, lift your arms through center, all the way up by your ears. On the exhalation, slowly twist to the left, bringing your right hand to your left knee and your left arm behind your back so that your left hand is close to your sacrum. Stay here for three breaths. Untwist on an inhalation, lifting your arms to center. On an exhalation, twist to the right and bring your left hand to your right knee and your right arm behind you in the same fashion. Repeat for 7 rounds.
4. Parsva Sukhasana (Side-Bending Easy Pose)
Sit tall with soft shoulders. Inhale to bring your arms forward and up to frame your ears. Exhale to place your left hand down next to your left hip. Inhale to lengthen through your torso by extending upward through the crown of your head and downward through your sacrum and glutes to ground and root. Feel a connection to the earth. On an exhalation, hinge over to the left as you breathe into the right side of your torso. Hold for 3–5 breaths. Inhale back up, arms overhead. Exhale, and bring your arms down. Inhale, and bring your arms forward and up. Exhale, and bring your right hand down. Inhale, and lift and lengthen. Exhale, and hinge over to the right, breathing into your left side. Hold for 3–5 breaths. Inhale, and bring your arms forward and up. Exhale, and bring your arms down.
5. Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
Extend your legs straight out in front of you. Sit up tall, elongating your torso. Reach upward from the crown of your head and root downward through your glutes. Inhale to connect to the earth; exhale to lift your arms up. Inhale to lengthen your torso a little more, and exhale to fold one-third of the way toward your thighs, leading with your chest and keeping your back long. Inhale, and lift up to lengthen. Exhale, and fold two-thirds of the way toward your thighs. Inhale back up to the original seated position, and exhale to fold all the way down over your legs, allowing your hands to land on your shins, feet, or the floor. Hold for 3–5 breaths.
6. Utthita Marjaryasana (Balancing Cat Pose)
Come to Tabletop with your knees directly under your hips, wrists below your shoulders. Inhale to connect to the earth, then exhale to lift and extend your left leg and right arm so that they are parallel to the ground. Hold for 5 breaths. On an exhalation, release, returning to Tabletop. Repeat on the other side.
7. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Begin in Tabletop. Move your wrists forward on your mat about 6 inches. Spread your fingers wide and press firmly through your palms. On an exhalation, tuck your toes and lift your knees off the floor. Reach your hips up toward the ceiling, then begin to straighten your legs without locking your knees. Keep lengthening and extending through your whole body. Press the floor away from you as you continue to lift through your hips, stretching your spine. Press down equally through your heels and palms. Relax your head as you gaze toward your belly button. To release, exhale and gently come back to your hands and knees.
Center your breath on any positive sensations or emotions you may be experiencing and allow your thoughts to slow. Place your knees about mat-width apart, if comfortable, while your big toes touch. (If you have tight hips, keep your knees closer together.) Rest your hips on your heels. On an inhalation, sit up tall and lengthen your spine. On an exhalation, fold forward, draping your torso between your thighs. Allow your forehead to connect with the earth. Keep your arms long and extended, palms facing down. Lengthen from your hips to your armpits, and then extend even farther through your fingertips. Relax your elbows. Let your upper back, shoulders, and lower back soften. Release your arms and neck. Close your eyes to gaze inward. Hold for a few deep breaths.
Begin by resting on your back. Roll up a blanket, and place it beneath your neck to support your cervical spine. Keep your torso and head parallel to the floor. To create the most relaxation and calm, keep your arms resting along the sides of your body. This safe and comfortable position is a form of constructive rest that helps to relieve back, pelvic, and leg fatigue and tension. Stay for 5–10 minutes, being mindful to soften your body, releasing tightness or tension in your glutes, shoulder blades, neck, or face.
10. metta (loving-kindness) meditation
Sit in a chair or in Sukhasana (Easy Pose) on a cushion on the floor. Try to connect with your own heartfelt intentions for happiness, health, and peace. You don’t need to create stories of what will make you happy. Instead, connect with the natural desires you have. Cultivate an intention to open your heart to your own well-being by silently offering yourself the mantra: May I be happy, healthy, well, and at peace. Allow time for silence. Now bring to mind a good friend and direct the intention to them. Repeat for a neutral person and then again for someone you find difficult. End each mantra repetition with a moment of silence. Finally, imagine the entire world and all of the people in it. With a healing presence in mind, offer these words: May we be happy, healthy, well, and at peace. Give yourself 5–15 minutes for the meditation.
11. yoga nidra (Yogic Sleep)
Yoga nidra is a powerful practice that promotes complete mental, physical, and emotional relaxation while maintaining awareness. It is both grounding and calming. The mental chatter quiets, and present-moment awareness is ignited. Yoga nidra can also be used to help cultivate sound sleep for those with insomnia.
Turn off all lights and electronics. Return to Savasana. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Begin to feel your chest rise and fall. On an inhalation, feel your belly rising, then your ribs expanding, and finally your chest lifting, coming to the top of the breath below your throat. On the exhalation, feel the breath leaving your chest as your ribs fall and your belly contracts. Continue with this breath, feeling all 3 parts of it, and think to yourself belly, ribs, chest . . . chest, ribs, belly. Repeat this breath 3 times. After the third inhalation, hold your breath for two counts, then let it go in a wave from your chest and belly. Continue with this flowing breath, rolling in and up, then counting to 2, and rushing out like a tide. Focus only on the breath. Finish a final cycle of this breath, and after the complete exhalation, return to natural breathing. Feel calmness, ease, and steadiness.
Concentrate on your body, noticing your complete stillness. Softly close your eyes. Pause. Bring awareness from the crown of your head all the way to your toes, and mentally repeat the mantra Om. You’re in complete stillness, yet completely aware of your whole body. Repeat Om. Continue observing, taking your time. At this moment you can create a sankalpa (affirmation). It should be a short, positive statement in easy language. It could be, I am awake and relaxed. Choose something that comes to you naturally at this present moment. Repeat it 3 times with full awareness, feeling, and emphasis. Let this sankalpa inform your yoga nidra practice and bring about transformation, calmness, and healing.
Now, become aware of your breath again. Notice as it moves in and out of your nostrils. With total present-moment awareness, focus on the in and out as you begin counting back from 27 all the way to 1. If you lose count, just begin again from 27. When you get down to 1, release the count of the breath. Some things will now be offered. Try to visualize them, developing a picture in your mind using sensation, emotion, imagination, and awareness. Start by picturing a burning candle, a red rose, a thunderstorm, a full moon, a dense forest, breaking waves on a beach, a sunset. Return to your sankalpa. Repeat it 3 times.
Now bring your attention back into the room and to your breath. Allow sensation to wash over you. Notice the top of your head and your toes. Mentally repeat Om 3 times. Be aware of the earth supporting you, just as it does every day. Slowly begin to move in nourishing ways: Stretch your fingers, toes, hands, and feet. When you are ready, open your eyes.
Teacher Pamela Stokes Eggleston, C-IAYT, E-RYT-500, YACEP, is the founder of Yoga2Sleep and cofounder of Retreat to Spirit. She is a yoga therapist with certifications in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and trauma-informed yoga. Learn more at yoga2sleep.com. Model Jessica Herring is an alignment-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer in Denver, Colorado. Learn more at theonebeautifulyou.com.
3 Easy Resets
Try these practices with your loved one.
- Extended Exhales Invite your companion to pay attention to their inhalations and exhalations, witnessing which is longer. Inhale for a count of 2 and exhale for a count of 4. Do this together 3 times.
- Personal Mantra: Affirmations may help decrease stress. Try repeating the words I am whole. I am enough. Speak together or on your own.
- Chin Mudra (Gesture of Consciousness): Anyone who can move their fingers can try this calming gesture. Touch the tips of your index fingers to the tips of your thumbs. Extend the other 3 fingers. Turn your palms down. Focus on the mudra to quiet the mind.