But in November 2010, he fell and had a skull fracture and hematoma, causing a second traumatic brain injury. Confined to a wheelchair, Welch spent one year at Quality Living, an intensive brain and spinal injury rehabilitation center in Omaha, Neb. He used yoga as part of his rehabilitation.
Welch continued his yoga practice at Ahh Yoga when he returned to Springfield. Throughout the area, hospitals, studios and independent practitioners offer therapeutic yoga courses to patients struggling with diverse injuries and illnesses. Yoga students say their practice limits the need for medicine and surgery.
Yoga is the combination of a series of physical postures, often used for both stress relief and exercise, such as building muscle and increasing flexibility. Yoga therapists have special training to adopt poses to target specific health concerns. This therapy is used in conjunction with Western medicine.
Welch attends yoga with personal attendants or his mom. They help him move his body to stretch and strengthen limbs, which is hard for people who have endured brain injuries.
Because of yoga, plus swimming and biking, Welch no longer needs blood pressure, heart and joint-loosening medication.
Welch’s mother, Catherine O’Connor, is speaking about yoga and other forms of therapeutic recreation, such as swimming and volunteer work, in St. Louis this week at the Midwest Symposium on Therapeutic Recreation and Adapted Physical Activity.
Yoga provides emotional benefits for Welch. He finds relaxation, meditation and joy when he accomplishes a new step.
“(With an injury), there are elements of feeling helpless and hopeless — depression,” O’Connor said. “(Yoga) does a lot to help peoples’ mental state.”
Therapeutic yoga as treatment
In Ahh Yoga’s adaptive class, students focus on their entire bodies, starting by stretching the head and neck and moving slowly down to the feet. The course allows participants with disabilities to progress at their own paces. Welch’s mom helps him move his arms and legs, while he also utilizes props.
Another student, John Morrison started yoga to help find balance made difficult by his multiple sclerosis. He’s continued because it helps him have better command of his body.
Teacher Juliet Slack works with the adaptive yoga participants, who sit in chairs, to help them feel comfortable and at ease within their bodies. Slack and another Ahh Yoga teacher, Jessica Ralph, planned to attend the “Adapting Yoga for Disability” conference in Minnetonka, Minn.
“We’re hoping to bring those teachings back here to Springfield,” Slack said. “We need to offer this.”
Carol Dunaway leads therapeutic yoga courses at the Simmons Cancer Institute Side-by-Side Wellness Program and the St. John’s Center for Living. A former nurse, Dunaway is certified by the American Viniyoga Institute and is a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Yoga therapists have special training and help participants target specific problems.
At Simmons, Dunaway teaches free classes to all cancer patients, survivors and caregivers, even if they receive or sought treatment at another hospital.
People dealing with cancer need to relieve stress and combat the disease’s emotional toil, Dunaway said.
“They need that ability to see beyond what’s going on with them,” she explained. “Yoga’s about living your life.”
Springfield’s Ron Kuethe was diagnosed with prostate cancer five-and-a-half-years ago. It’s metastasized twice in his spine.
When the Simmons Cancer Institute started offering yoga courses in fall 2010, Kuethe signed up. Through yoga, he’s helped combat the neuropathy, or nerve damage, in his feet. He’s also improved his balance and found a way to relax. His wife frequently joins him at the classes.
“It goes with you throughout the day, no matter what you’re dealing with,” Keuthe said about the internal peace created in class. “It’s not just the time that you’re here.”
‘I’m in better physical condition’
In fall 2010, The Wardrobe owner Kim Dixon developed severe leg and back pain because of stenosis, which causes the spinal canal to narrow and squeeze the nerves. Dixon wanted to heal without surgery. Already a yogi, she gradually increased her practice to five times per week. She said yoga helped her manage the pain without relying solely on medication.
“One of my physicians told me he wished more of his patients were willing to do the physical work rather than rely on pain killers or surgery,” Dixon said.
In 2006, an orthopedic surgeon told Springfield’s Janice Hibbert she needed surgery or she wouldn’t be able to walk within five years. Hibbert has severe arthritis in her right foot, which caused cartilage damage and bone spurs. Instead of surgery, she turned to yoga.
Through yoga, she’s also relieved high blood pressure. Even with medication, Hibbert’s blood pressure at one point climbed to 180/114. Normal blood pressure is considered to be below 120/80. Though she still takes medication, Hibbert credits her yoga practice with helping her lower her blood pressure to 120/74.
“I’m in better physical condition now at age 52, than I was at 32 — possibly even 22,” she said.
Treating trauma, anxiety
Namaste Yoga Center instructor Kristal Perry-Gutierrez is a counselor who incorporates yoga into her therapy. She also teaches a course at Namaste for victims of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
She received her yoga certification through The Trauma Center at JRI in Boston.
“It’s so valuable because basically what trauma and PTSD does, is it creates a distrust. It creates a distrust of others, it creates a distrust basically of oneself,” Perry-Gutierrez said.
She said people find peace and detach from overwhelming emotions through the classes.
Namaste teachers focus on mental and emotional healing, as well as physical.
“You need to heal mind, body and spirit,” said Justina Schacht, owner of Namaste Yoga Center. “You can’t detach one of those aspects from the others. That’s what yoga is so great at.”
At Memorial Medical Center, Ruta Kulys leads yoga courses for expectant mothers. Kulys, a psychotherapist at Memorial Counseling Associates who uses both her therapy and yoga backgrounds to help patients.
She incorporates Yoga Nidra postures to help calm the sympathetic nervous system and allow for extreme relaxation, she said. The term actually translates to “Yogic Sleep.” Kulys includes this training in an intensive outpatient program for people with severe anxiety and depression.
In her prenatal classes, Kulys helps women stretch and strengthen the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor, which are used during pregnancy. They also alleviate common discomforts of pregnancy, such as lower back pain.
Springfield’s Janel Veile took Kulys’ prenatal course in 2010. The year before, doctors had fused Veile’s spine, inserting medal rods because of a herniated disk.
“I really wanted to make sure that my back was strong and my core (was strong) for childbirth,” she said.
The class helped the second-time mom prepare both physically and mentally for childbirth. Besides helping her get stronger, yoga allowed Veile to relax.
Classes throughout the area
In Jacksonville, a diverse group of yoga practitioners gather Monday evenings at Passavant Hospital with instructor Jeanne Hemphill.
When Hemphill started teaching yoga in 1997, she followed the principles of physical therapists who taught yoga, rather than those of aerobic, fast-paced yoga styles. While the average yoga class may move quickly from the lunge to the plank, Hemphill guides her students through poses that focus on alignment. They spend time listening to their bodies and make sure their hips, knees and feet are in the right places.
This style of yoga is called Iyengar, a form of Hatha Yoga. Hemphill makes sure to focus on each student’s injuries, aches and pains.
“We’re all so different, but I try to create something that is helpful to everyone,” she said.