I have been thinking about Francesca quite a bit lately. Francesca (not her real name) was a private student for about two years. I saw her twice a week for about an hour each session. I was part of a comprehensive health care team brought together to help her manage and recover from physical injuries and PTSD caused by a car accident. In addition to my sessions with Francesca, I was involved in many phone conversations and team meetings about her progress.
When we first met, Francesca was in a great deal of physical and emotional pain, had mobility issues and was essentially housebound. My role was to encourage her to explore and enhance the range of motion in both healthy and injured joints, encourage stability when walking and standing and offer stress relief through breathing meditations. Before any of this could happen we had to establish simple trust between us.
The first couple of times I met with Francesca, her psychologist was present. This arrangement was made so that there was someone present that Francesca was comfortable with as we got to know one another. Initially the assumption was that the psychologist would observe the first six to eight yoga sessions. In the end, she only needed to be present at two. This was a testament to Francesca’s openness of mind and willingness to try new approaches even while living with such a high degree of discomfort.
Because the approach to yoga I teach is so interwoven with the breath cycle, it seemed logical to establish an awareness of the breath right from the beginning of our lessons.
My hope was that by helping Francesca develop basic skills to intentionally call upon a restorative breath pattern she would have a tool at her disposal for calming herself and over time, through gentle diligent practice, guide her nervous system toward a more balanced and resilient state.
The problem was that she had become so unfamiliar with full, relaxed breathing that nothing seemed to give her autonomous and sustained access to it. I could talk her toward the experience and she could maintain it if I offered ongoing imagery, visualizations or other cues. However, when left in silence, her breathing would revert to rapid and shallow. She recognized the difference between the breathing patterns but could not sustain the natural self soothing breath.
A solution came from a very simple source. During one of our early sessions, Francseca fell asleep following a guided meditation. I thought I would give her a few minutes of much needed rest and began glancing around the room. There were many family photos, one of which was of a smiling baby.
When Francseca woke I asked about the photo. This was her grandson, now 18 months old. Did she ever babysit for him? Yes, of course. Did she ever put him down for a nap or to bed at night? Yes, frequently. Did she ever sit and watch him sleep? Her body relaxed even further as she smiled broadly and talked about how peaceful and beautiful he was when he slept. We had our solution.
I asked Francesca to observe her grandson’s torso, particularly his belly while he lay sleeping. Notice the movements in his body, imagine that you are mirroring those movements. You were a baby once, sleeping and breathing as peacefully as your grandchild.
The image and memory of her sleeping grandson became Francesca’s route to an intentional relaxed breathing pattern in her own body. Over time she was able to access her relaxation response through many different avenues and during stressful and triggering situations such as car rides and interviews with insurers. She was able to maintain breath awareness while practising gentle yoga and walking meditation that led her toward greater stability on her feet and the confidence to take walks around her own home and eventually longer walks outside. One small connection unlocked many possibilities.
Each of us has the ability to rebalance ourselves and shed the burden of stress and anxiety. The key may be physical or based in any number of intellectual gateways. Memory and imagery are powerful, as is the knowledge that we are all capable of participating intentionally and actively in our journey toward balance and health.
by Tama Soble