The founder of Yoga Vahini, SARASWATHI VASUDEVAN, is interviewed by DR. VERONIQUE NICOLAI, the Director of the Heartfulness Yoga Academy, about the role yoga has to play in self-care for full-time caregivers. Her simple 10-minute breathing practice and checklist of questions for caregivers are a must for everyone.
Q: Welcome everyone to this podcast in the Yoga for Unity series. My guest today is Saraswathi Vasudevan, a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, who has been teaching for 30 years and is running institutes in Chennai and Hyderabad. She’s a student of T.K.V. Desikachar, son of yoga legend, Shri T. Krishnamacharya. Today, Saraswathi addresses caregivers, the people we often forget.
Saraswathi, first, thank you for being here with us today and taking the time.
SV: Thank you for inviting me, Veronique.
Q: So, who is a caregiver? Could you define it for us?
SV: I will focus today on family caregivers, the ones who are often invisible. They take care of people with chronic illnesses, requiring a lot of support, and often are not seen, acknowledged, or appreciated. They have great difficulty acknowledging that they also need to take care of themselves. Their mind and their whole being is fully consumed by taking care of the person who is ill.
There are many medical conditions for which people require continuous support at home, and even when there is medical support, often one family member is fully engaged in care. They are the people I want to reach. They need to become aware of the importance of the role they’re playing, and the need to take care of themselves to better care for others. They need to know how to take care of themselves.
Q: I’m a caregiver, and very often I have the tendency, and even the willingness to forget myself – to give and to serve. You seem to be saying that this is not completely the right thing to do. Can you explain why?
SV: When I meet patients with chronic conditions, I ask their caregivers, “When are you going to start yoga? When are you going to take care of this?”
They usually say, “I don’t have time.”
It is difficult to help caregivers see that they need help. I don’t mean outside help, but learning something for themselves.
So my questions to them are:
- Are you sleeping well? When you wake, do you feel refreshed?
- Do you look forward to the day?
- How are your energy levels through the day?
- Do you get time to just sit down, breathe, and do something to take care of yourself? Do you get a break, even if it is for a couple of hours to go for a short walk or meet some friends? Do you have a social life?
- Do you eat when you’re hungry, and do you eat food that is nourishing? How is your digestion?
- How are you addressing your physical aches and pains?
- How are you addressing your emotional needs?
When they reflect upon these questions, they begin to recognize that there are many areas in their life that they are not paying enough attention to, because all their attention is on the person who needs help.
Q: How will this help me as a caregiver? Will it change the way I behave, the way I help others?
SV: We can start there. If I tell you to take care of yourself so that you can take care of the other person better, in all probability you may do something. If I tell you to do it just for yourself, you may not.
Let’s look at physical health. If a caregiver has to physically support their patient, lift them from the bed, wash them, etc., they need a lot of strength in the arms, shoulders, neck, and head. If they have to stand or bend a lot, they need strength in their lower back. All of us have general aches and pains, and in certain seasons they increase. A caregiver may not be hydrating themselves enough, or may not be eating food that is appropriate for them. They may have pain in the body that needs addressing.
If they take care of themselves, they will have better flexibility and strength, and the energy will flow well in the body. It’s important that they’re able to breathe well. They can then do more and be more energetic, by learning to relax, rest, and sleep well. I wonder how many caregivers sleep deeply, because they are in a constant state of vigilance. A mind that is vigilant all the time doesn’t fully rest or fully sleep. Caregivers often have to learn how to rest and improve their sleep quality.
For all this, yoga can help. It improves energy levels, reduces aches and pains, improves the circulation in the body, positively impacts digestion and elimination, and improves sleep and the quality of rest, even if it is only for ten minutes. The mind also needs to rest, not just the body.
A yoga teacher is like a companion, someone you can talk to, who can give you a practice that is appropriate for you, who can listen to you. Because you are always listening to the sick person. A companion who works with you can be a great gift for a caregiver.
Q: So now it really makes sense! You started talking about the physical, and that speaks to me: having more strength in my back and arms, being able to stand for longer, and having more energy for all the duties. That’s a good way to motivate me to look into this. How do you propose we do that?
SV: I start by offering short practices, a taste of what yoga can offer, starting with breathing.
Sit down for a few minutes, and quietly begin to watch your breath.
Slowly deepen your exhalation. As you exhale, visualize unburdening yourself. Unburden your mind, unburden your senses, your whole body. Allow your whole body to relax as you exhale.
As you inhale, visualize yourself drawing in fresh energy. Place your feet on the floor, so you draw it from the Earth, and the Earth will offer you that energy. That is very refreshing.
Then go to the next step. As you inhale, raise your arms. As you exhale, lower your arms, from the sides or from the front. You’re beginning to exercise your shoulder muscles, arms, spine, and neck, so the breath flows in more deeply, and you’re able to exhale more comfortably.
Maybe you’ll get hooked on it. Do you have ten minutes, twice a day to do this? If the answer is no, then do it once a day for ten minutes.
That’s what my teacher used to do.
When a new student came, he would ask, “How much time do you have, and when can you do your practice? Can you find a ten-minute slot?”
They would say, “Okay, I will give that time to you.”
It was as if they were giving the time to the teacher. They wanted to give that time because the teacher cared so much.
Start there. Invariably, if you experience even a little benefit you will want to do it and you will make time. You have to learn to make time in your mind. You have to make space for yourself in your mind, and that will create time. If you create space, time will be created. And if you create time, space will be created.
Q: It works like that in everybody’s experience: you start with a small practice, a small demand that you can meet, and then you realize that it is very easy. You don’t need anything special to start yoga. As you said, the interaction with the yoga therapist also helps the caregiver. In your experience, how did that evolve with the caregivers you have followed? Can you give us some examples?
You have to make
space for yourself
in your mind,
and that will create time.
If you create space,
time will be created.
And if you create time,
space will be created.
SV: We work with people who come for yoga therapy. In particular, we’ve done a lot of work with children with special needs, so I started with their parents. Initially, I devised a program for parents, mostly mothers, because they are the ones who often take care, but it was very difficult to get them to come to a class because they didn’t have time. So we offered a yoga class for the parents and children together. And we asked for both parents, as most of the time it was one coming.
We practice together, and it’s a lot of fun. The children run around, sometimes not even paying attention, but the parents have fun and they relax. It’s time for them. We have extra teachers to take care of the children, and we tell the parents, “Now it’s your time to practice. Don’t look at your children.”
I work with a forum for special needs support called The Special World. We’ve been working together for ten years now. We also work with the Parivartan Foundation that offers support for people with Parkinson’s. More recently, some of my colleagues have started working with an institution in Mumbai called Caregiver Saathi, which provides resources and support for caregivers. I have been working with these three institutions actively.
Q: What is the transformation you’ve witnessed? You said that parents have fun, they laugh, and of course they have the space to do that. Is there any other impact that you witness, or feedback that you receive?
SV: Many parents now make time to practice yoga regularly, and they see a huge benefit. Some have become yoga teachers, to support their children, and support the community. They’re always eager to do something for their community, and they work with us. I sometimes bring them into my training. They talk about their role as a parent, so that the yoga trainees understand the world of special needs. They’re not only receiving, they’re also contributing to my community of teachers. That’s really wonderful.
Q: So their tendency to give has even more possibility to expand. yoga brings life to who they are as giving persons. yoga allows them to be even better caregivers. Is it something like that in your experience?
SV: I would agree with that, but I would also say that somebody who gives all the time needs to learn to receive, needs to learn to ask for help, needs to learn to talk about where they need help. Their need for support is very important because that part is often completely eclipsed. They don’t see it for themselves. They need to learn that as well.
Just by giving, giving, giving, where are you going? You can’t continue to exhale all the time; you have to inhale to exhale better. I would like us to create a movement that brings more and more people who are giving care to others, empowering the people who require help and support, who are suffering; a movement that can help them to live happy, healthy, peaceful lives. They deserve it. They have to recognize that they deserve it, and they have to seek it and live it.
Q: Thank you, Saraswathi, for this profound interaction.
SV: Thank you, doctor.
Saraswathi is a Yoga teacher, trainer and therapist in the tradition of Sri T. Krishnamacharya. In 2010, she and her husband founded Yoga Vahini. Saraswathi currently serves on the Board of Directors of Yoga Alliance, the largest international Yoga certifying and credentialing body.