I hope this page will serve to inspire and encourage you in your yoga practise and in your life.
1. Yoga and ALS
2. Morning Star
3. Letters on Retreat
4. An interview with Jeannie and Yellow Yogi
Yoga and ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Published in the International Yoga Therapy Magazine
By Jeannie Stevens (February 2008)
This article is intended to inform and support all teachers and therapists working with the life-threatening disease ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a devastating neurodegenerative disease. Those living with the disease become progressively paralyzed due to degeneration of the upper and lower motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Eighty per cent of people with ALS die within two to five years of diagnosis.
It is nearly one year since my ALS client passed away. It seems appropriate that I now write about his courageous story and his relationship with Yoga in the last eight months of his life. When I was first invited by his wife to come and work with her husband, who had recently been diagnosed with ALS, I knew what ALS was but had never had personal experience with the disease, either as a yoga teacher or hospice volunteer. Ironically, I had only joined IYAT the previous year and was just beginning to enter the conversation around “What is Yoga Therapy?” And here I was, invited to work with someone who would not ever “recover” his physical health. Here was a first hand opportunity to explore “What is Yoga Therapy?” and how it could provide assistance in managing this life-threatening illness.
I first met my 57 year old client in early June 2006. He and his wife owned a large dairy farm in the Pacific Northwest. A very charismatic figure, used to getting things done, he was optimistic that he could beat this illness. He was still walking at the time, although with canes, and stairs were becoming difficult and unsafe to maneuver.
The day we met I asked him “Why yoga?” and he told me that his wife and daughters had been recommending yoga to him for a number of years to address his bad back. Now he finally had “the time” as the illness was limiting his involvement in the daily business of the farm. I asked him what he was looking for, and he said that at least initially it was help with his back and his breathing. Diminished breathing capacity is often the actual cause of death in ALS patients as the respiration muscles lose their ability to work. I agreed to see him twice a week. Yoga therapy became part of an integrative approach to dealing with his condition.
The Early Weeks
When I began to research ALS I specifically looked for any references to the illness in the yoga world. I found only one small article about a yoga teacher’s last meeting with a student who was dying of ALS. The only clue about how to proceed was what I found on ALS websites relating to the basic rehabilitation routines to address range-of-motion exercises. My initial approach was to translate yoga into a farmers’ language, i.e. structure and alignment; adaptability and creativity; and a general sense of the interconnectedness of life on the farm. This provided a language bridge for the two of us.
Because my client had a history of lower back problems, in the early weeks we had a general discussion of anatomy and alignment. We soon discovered that using traction before proceeding with our daily routine facilitated a much better result as well as immediate relief of up to 60% of his chronic back pain.
The Daily Routine
Our sessions ranged from 1-2 ½ hours and had a four part focus: relaxation; breath work; physical exercises; and meditation. Each session was built upon and adjusted by the previous session. I made an easy-to-follow chart to encourage practice between sessions.
Each morning, after a general check-in, the client was transferred to the floor using a harness and battery-operated pulley attached to the ceiling. The use of blankets, bolsters and pillows were arranged on the floor prior to the transference for initial support.
In order to facilitate work with the breath, we began with deep relaxation, including guided meditation. ALS is a very debilitating disease, often resulting in stiffness and/or collapse and compression due to muscle deterioration. Starting with relaxation allowed an easing and rebalancing of remaining “good” muscles that were constantly being over-taxed by over-compensation.
Often as result of this relaxation, feelings and concerns arose. This allowed an opening for discussion around the psychological challenges at losing the ability to do the simple things in life and the emerging dependency on his wife, family and friends.
As breathing skills were his first concern we then practiced a number of breathing inquiries and techniques. Again he was very responsive and interested in learning the anatomy and dynamics of breathing. In the early months his breathing improved considerably. As the illness progressed and with the loss of muscle function (abdominal, intercostals, diaphragm) breathing became more challenging and at some times stressful. It was very important each time to assess the “abilities of today.” As his awareness of breath developed, he was able to use breathing both to assist in movement but also as an aid to quieting and calming the mind.
We then moved onto physical movements. As my client was unable to weight-bear when I first met him (he was able to barely do a cat stretch and for the first few weeks only), I began to work with basic range of motion exercises, coupled with simple yoga positions. Props (bolsters, blankets, strap, cushions, eye and sandbags and music) were used to facilitate safety, alignment and comfort. As the leg muscles began to atrophy, the use of a band to hold the legs in alignment became necessary to prevent the leg bones from falling sideways. As my client’s ability to move on his own lessened, massage of each target area became helpful. This seemed to stimulate a memory of the lost connection between brain and movement. The physical movements seemed to stave off increased stiffness and resulting pain often associated with ALS.
Each session ended with another guided relaxation and different meditation techniques were introduced. Meditation became an important “respite” from the trials and tribulations of the disease, allowing a place of refuge and renewal. With the use of the pulley and harness, the client was then returned to his wheel chair in preparation for the day. Mornings were found to be the best time of day for the practice as energy was at a premium.
The Progression of the Illness
Strength and physical movement initially diminished in the feet and legs, leaving the core and upper body fairly strong. With the progression of the illness to the core and breathing muscles the arms and shoulders compensated. This resulted in overstretching and overuse of the shoulders and arms, creating tiredness and soreness in the upper body.
Eventually a slow progression of diminished movement spread to the shoulders, arms and hands. At the end of his life my client still retained the use of his neck (although diminished) and his ability to swallow and to speak.
The Final Weeks
Our relationship ended eight months after our first meeting. Pneumonia claimed him over a 2 ½ week period. Upon being declared palliative in the hospital, my client returned home to his family and his farm to die.
It was an honor and a privilege to be in such intimate contact with the family under very trying circumstances. Not only was I able to have first hand experience of “Yoga Therapy” for my client but the experience itself deepened my understanding of the very depths of Yoga. I bow in honor to Yoga.
Other Notable Considerations
It is of utmost importance to make time to liaise with the family. Each morning before seeing the client I spent time with his wife. In this way I was able to assess how the client was doing and also able to support his wife’s needs as the 24 hour demands of home care took their personal toil. Being a good listener is the key.
It is important to remember that management of ALS can best be accomplished through an integrated team approach. The team includes the family and the health care teams – in this case, Yoga Therapy was used in conjunction with physical therapy, massage, cranial sacral work, Reiki, bio feedback and counseling.
It is also important to take an integrative approach to Yoga, and to incorporate its physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects. Towards the end of my client’s life, I asked “What does the yoga continue to do for you, Dave?” He told me that Yoga gave him an umbrella to understand how all of the individual modalities being used in his care were supporting each other and working towards an integrative approach to his healing.
Because ALS is incurable, it is important to be willing to discuss death and dying if and when the subject appropriately arises. Examples of daily conversation topics with the client include:
· Discussion around death and dying, both generally and personally
· Grieving the loss of “the way things used to be”; grieving the loss of “the things that will be missed in the future”
· Unfinished business
· Strategies to stay grounded and positive
· Exploring the make-up of personal identity (personality aspects); looking at how this information can be used to strategize “coping” skills; how to identify personal strengths in order to be of support to his family
· Learning ways to accept support and to better communicate with close family and friends
Creating an environment of kindness, acceptance and love is essential to communication, be it between the client and therapist, the client and their inner selves, or the client and their families, friends and care workers.
Reflections from his Wife
As Dave’s wife, it was probably harder for me than for anyone else to accept that what I could see with my eyes was actually happening. I still can’t believe it happened. Here was this big, strong, practical “have all the answers” kind of guy unable to walk down the corridor to physio. I guess that was my first real reality check. Then it became impossible for Dave to manage the stairs. He used a stair lift, with a wheelchair at the top of the stairs. We then got lifts and then an outside lift and ramp.
His legs went first. Without meditation and relaxation and breathing and the illusion of being able to move I think he would have gone crazy. We went to a psychologist but I often wondered if he did that more for the girls and I than himself. He would joke and laugh and by doing so he remained “in charge.” I think that was our main objective: to allow David as much control as we could. It was his life.
Because the muscles of his diaphragm became paralyzed it was not possible to stop the lungs from developing pneumonia. It was very hard to watch as he tried so hard to practice his breathing, to communicate with us, to try and be brave. I know that he truly appreciated all that everyone was doing to help him, but especially Jeannie, who taught him some tools that changed his life when he needed it most. He was able to experience true peace of mind when it seemed like an impossible task.
I noticed an increasing sense of calm in Dave which previous to Yoga did not exist. Breathing was the hardest technique to learn, but David would say he “had it.” I think meditation was the most useful tool of all. A farmer his whole life, David had plenty of time to think while spending many hours on a tractor. Through meditation practice he was eventually able to calm his mind completely. I believe he was in this happy place when he slipped away.
One Final Note
Many days I wondered what would happen next and how I could help. It was very important for me to listen intuitively each day, invoking guidance from my spiritual lineage and tradition, and from my own heart. Each time the source of help was endless and never failed to support me in my journey into the unknown world of ALS.
The Four Part Session
· Basic supported relaxation positions; the use of props to create comfort and stability;
· Basic relaxation skills; focusing on and relaxing individual parts of the body and mind;
· The use of imagery; light as healing energy; cultivation of compassion and kindness towards one’s self. Learning to send out positive, supportive energy to his family and farm; and
· Creating a deep connection on a cellular level to support and encourage energy movement in the areas losing their ability to function.
· Discussion of the basic mechanics of breathing;
· Basic supported positions; the use of props to create comfort and stability; as well as
· Abdominal breathing; thoracic breathing; back breathing; Ujjai breath; Viloma; 3-part breathing; basic centering breath; use of a straw to help deepen exhalations.
Initially all movements were done by the client himself, but as the illness progressed, regular basic range-of-motion exercises were done by myself. He continued to enjoy doing all the exercises on the floor with the use of props. On the odd occasion when he was not up to the physical effort, the session was done in either his wheel chair or easy chair.
· Due to a previous chronic low back concern, each session began and ended with traction. From a basic knees bent, feet flat position with a block between the knees, a padded strap is placed behind the knees. A long slow pull to the count of ten with a slow release of ten is repeated up to ten times. The “puller” is seated on a chair and must maintain awareness and safety of their own back.
· As the paralysis became more apparent, the client requested that each traction session be followed by massage in the area of the fontanel and the feet. This seemed to encourage a connection between the body and the brain and enhanced the client’s ability to participate.
· Pelvic Tilting (block between the knees and a material band to keep the knees together)
· Abdominal work, including the use of bandahs
· Shoulder and neck exercises – sitting and lying down
· Knee to chest; leg stretches; foot and ankle exercises
· Supported Badakonasana
· Vaparita Karani using the pulley & therapist to support the legs
· Sideways supported twist. This twist was a favorite as it provided low back relief and encouraged an opening of the rib cage facilitating easier breathing.
· Yoga principals: What is Yoga? What is its role? How does an integrative approach help? Broadening ones view point – koshas; kundalini; bandahs; guna.
All movements were done with a yogic attitude, with attention to awareness and breath.
· Basic meditation instruction
· Contemplation of “types of thoughts” and how the mind works (Yoga Sutras)
· Mindfulness meditation on the breath
· Meditation on the Light; receiving and sending light for healing
· Loving Kindness Meditation
· Strategies for a “really” busy mind:
o Count the length of each breath
o The use of contemplation to hold focus
o The use of mantra (in the form of a positive word)
The writer would be pleased to provide further information on request. Please contact Jeannie Stevens at email@example.com.
 For further information on ALS see http://www.mssm.edu/neurology/neuromuscular/als/what_is_als.shtml
Oh morning star
reminds me of
the vastness of THIS
When I open this way
the Truth of
what I can see
with my eye
“Be yourself”, she says.
Let your pinpoint of Light
reflect a Love
that is so vast
that it can bend down
in such a sweet embrace
that it is able
to carry you Home.
Letters on Retreat
2017 Yasodhara Ashram
August 11, 2017
I bow at your feet in Love and thank you with all my heart for showing me the way to my heart.
I have returned from my trip into my past. After twenty years forward I was to return to a place of one of my deepest heart breaks. Truly turning to face my past, history and behaviour. What I am so happy to report that in meeting my past, my heart has been opened to Love even deeper than before.
My drive to the ashram had some very magical signs along the way. I asked that I may resolve any energy trapped in the past. When I arrived at the ashram I asked myself, am I here to heal or to find forgiveness in my heart, to those I had old stories with. The person I had most difficulty with, was in the early stages of dementia. When I met her eye to eye I saw only love radiating from her smile. She no longer had any past with me, nor did she even have a future and yet out of her eyes shown light and love. Her gift to me was that my past dissolved in the heart of love.
One day at the old prayer room, as I chanted to Swami Radha, the tanka of Tara became Radha became myself in an ever moving mandala. I knew in that moment this great love resided in all. I feel so much lighter and peaceful and there is an openness of heart and mind about me it is hard to put in words.
I bow again at your feet in Love,
August 20, 2017
Today I put away the retreat things that have been filling our duplex. It seemed time and left me feeling lighter. I felt your presence in the cushions, the glasses, the delicate hankies, the reminder of my connection with you and with the open heart. When I look at your picture sitting on our altar, I feel our morning conversations. I can’t quite explain it, but we meet in a way that nourishes me deeply as I hope the sangha’s love nourishes you.
When I was at the ashram a few weeks ago and feeling sometimes a little disconnected, I felt your presence. When I walked into the temple, a few times it was if I could feel your stride in mine. I felt supported and confident in my own Truth. My heart opened when it wanted to close.
How deeply your presence is here with me. I have a student/friend who is dying right now of cancer who dreamt of you the other night. She told me she was in an in between state of awake and sleep and she was thinking who would ever go and sit up with Gangaji and be so exposed. The next she knew she was sitting with you. There was silence for quite some time and then you turned to her and said “Karen, are you dying”. She answered yes. You then asked her if she was afraid? She answered no. And that was that, she was very surprised to have you come in a dream. She had met you last year when you were here, although she told me she had only gone to people watch.
Oh that I could have come to Santa Sabina. I can feel the gathering, but I will be happy to see you in late October. Until then this letter will act as proof, how you reflect to us all, in all the little ways, the Truth of our Being.
I bow in the deepest of gratitude,
2016 Los Gatos Retreat
Dear Gangaji, dear sangha:
As sit here this morning and watch the clouds pass by my window, I reflect on the profundity and gratitude I feel to have been able to sit with our beloved teacher and to be with sangha in the true gift of satsang. One could describe Los Gatos as Love itself. To be in a safe sacred space together, a place that was and is so safe that everything and everyone is welcome, the joys and sorrows, the past and the future, the deer on the hillside, the little cats playing outside the dining hall, the old and the young. A true blessed community.
The silence this time was so deep for me and still accompanies me like a beloved friend, with no conflict at all with the re emergence of my daily life. Love drips from my pours after drinking deeply from this well of Love. In this openness there is room to hold it all.
I want to thank Gangaji for her endless dedication to Truth and for giving her life in service. I want to thank everyone who attended, for being true friends, old and new alike who shared of themselves so preciously, so freely. And thank you to everyone here on the forum that holds this space so diligently year after year. My heart is bursting with Love for you all.
In deep gratitude, Jeannie
"One act of forgiveness can change the course of yours or another’s life."
An Interview with Jeannie Stevens by Yellow Yogi
“…self inquiry and spirituality are the heart of yoga. Without them one gets a Wal-mart version of yoga.”
.Jeannie Stevens has been teaching Yoga since 1975 both Sidney, BC and Whitehorse, Yukon. She was trained in Yoga by the late Swami Sivananda Radha and now sits with Gangaji of Ashland, Oregon. Over the past 40 years she has worked with many different teachers in gaining experience and insight into the long term practice of yoga.
Jeannie’s unique blend of teaching emphasizes the Integral nature of Yoga in a practical, sustainable way. She is well versed in the Yoga Sutras; asana practice; yoga as therapy, chanting, pranayama and meditation. She also works therapeutically with individuals recovering from illness, injury or loss and those wishing to deepen their personal relationship with Yoga. Prior to 2008, Jeannie provided yoga therapy for a client dealing with ALS. Read about her inspiring and touching experience in this article Yoga and ALS from the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Jeannie was a member of Yoga Alliance and the International Association of Yoga Therapists from 2001-2016..
What follows is an written Interview between Jeannie Stevens founder of The Yoga Studio 2001-2016 and Ainsley Magno, founder of Yellow Yogi Victoria.
2011 May 4
AINSLEY MAGNO: What does yoga mean to you?
JEANNIE STEVENS: When I am asked about what is yoga, I always refer the inquirer back to the definition of yoga as related in Patanjali’s yoga sutras. Paraphrasing the first few verses ~ “As the fluxuations of the mind grow quiet, what is revealed is your True Nature.” This statement reveals the deep promise of Yoga that we in this lifetime, in this day and age, can come to the realization and recognition of the Truth inside ourselves and from there, the recognition of it everywhere. Greeting each other in Namaste reminds us each time we bow to see beyond the physical form and to meet in this expanded place of the Heart, a place of love, compassion and true humanity. This is yoga. This is the dawning of mindfulness, that we are both the physical and… THIS “something else” uniting and intertwining in this individual form we call ourselves. This “something else”, this awareness, is the recognition of the deep inner wisdom (the ‘satguru’) within each one of us. When we can access and draw upon this inner wisdom, we can live a life of balance and compassion.
For me yoga has been a roadmap; the eight limbs of yoga have given me practical steps to personal development and higher consciousness. Whether I pursued the journey from a Hatha perspective, or a Jnana Yoga practise, meditation or chanting, in the end they all gradually led me to the same deep place within.
AINSLEY MAGNO: How and why did you decide to start the practice of yoga?
JEANNIE STEVENS: My first introduction to yoga was through my grandmother. Born in the late 1800’s she had an interest in the occult and so I was raised with an open mind towards there being something more than just the physical life. In the sixties, I met a prophetic man who indicated to me that I would eventually find yoga. I took my first yoga class in 1974 at the YMCA in Victoria when my two daughters were 1 and 2 ½ years old. Most of the yoga being taught at that time was a traditional form and Iyengar Yoga was just being introduced to the yoga community. From that very first class, I knew yoga would become a part of my life. I took many classes in that first year and the following year began to teach under the guidance of Elaine Griff. Since then, I have studied with many teachers over the years but my greatest blessing has been in having two women gurus – Swami Sivananda Radha and Gangaji. They have both shown me the road and it is at their feet my path of yoga has unfolded. I bow in gratitude to them both and dedicate this interview to them.
“As the practise progresses, we begin to see its affects in our whole life. We notice the way we are standing; we notice the beauty of a sunrise. It is at this point, for many, yoga becomes a way of life.”
AINSLEY MAGNO: How is your class different from others?
JEANNIE STEVENS: My teaching style has grown and evolved over the years thanks to the many teachers I have studied with. Each workshop has given me a little more to work with and to digest and to incorporate into my personal style of teaching. Swami Radha always encouraged each and every one of us to make our “own experiment” with the practises so that we would gain first hand experience. She cautioned us to never blindly follow any teaching and that we must find out for ourselves. I teach from the perspective that it is the yoga that is the great teacher and if students are willing to sincerely engage and to reflect upon their practises, they too will gain their own insights and wisdom into the teachings of Yoga. They will have first hand experience of the great benefits of yoga.
My training was in the Science of Yoga and the Kundalini System and not primarily from a Hatha perspective. I teach an integral approach of Ashtanga Yoga (Royal Path ~ eight limbs of yoga). Right from the beginning, I introduce practises for understanding our mind through reflection and meditation. It took me a long time to really “get” the importance of the unity of yoga ~ body, mind and spirit. I noticed that some students might be able to do a pose well but had very little understanding or control of their minds. I began to see where the 8 limbs were always intertwined and inseparable. How could you move without breath? How could you balance on your head without mindfulness? What good was standing on your head if your heart was closed?
Sometimes I include ritual, chanting and even prayer when I see the need for students to reunite with their hearts. Chanting has the amazing ability to bypass the mind and to find the heart directly. I also like students to use their minds in understanding the basic make-up of the poses and their own anatomy; to take responsibility for their own safety and development.
I would say that over the years my teaching style has become simplified. As a teacher, it is my intention to create a safe and sacred space for each individual to reconnect with themselves. I encourage growth not so much in a linear way (more proficient) but in a deepening way. When we deepen, we become kinder, more compassionate human beings. What greater gift can we offer for the well-being of our planet?
AINSLEY MAGNO: When I attended your yoga class I especially enjoyed your narrative; how you incorporate self-inquiry and spirituality into your teaching. For those that have never tried your class, can you tell us more about these aspects and their benefits?
JEANNIE STEVENS: These two qualities of self inquiry and spirituality are the heart of yoga. Without them one gets a Wal-Mart version of yoga. My teacher, Swami Radha, encouraged everyone to dig deeper. There is a certain point in yoga where consciousness really begins to open for people and it is at this point we have the opportunity to inquire into the meaning of our life and purpose. As for spirituality, well yoga doesn’t just mean the union of body and mind. Understanding our own spirit and make-up (Who am I?) is the true completion of the union of Yoga. It brings us home, as the Buddhists so beautifully describe it, to the “Jewel Lotus” of the heart.
” ‘Know Thyself and Be Free.’… It is the ultimate instruction in the practice of yoga.”
AINSLEY MAGNO: You describe yourself as someone who makes yoga a way of life. Can you elaborate on this?
JEANNIE STEVENS: We often start out with yoga as an extra curricular practice. As the practice progresses, we begin to see its affects in our whole life. We notice the way we are standing; we notice we are a little bit kinder to someone we’ve had difficulties with; we notice the beauty of a sunrise. It is at this point, for many, yoga becomes a way of life.
AINSLEY MAGNO: For many practitioners, it is natural to ‘hit the wall’ from time to time. By this I mean feel discouraged about their progress, or start questioning the path of yoga and what it means to them. What would be your response to these types of students?
JEANNIE STEVENS: The best advice I can give you is to be kind to yourself and patient. There will always be ups and downs in a lifetime of practice and if you think about the cycles of everything, these dry times are necessary – they are part of the balance. In these times a different approach can help. If you have primarily a hatha practice – try chanting – try a little Jnana Yoga. Community or ‘sangha’ is also very helpful. Just before my teacher died she counseled us to stay together, to support one and other, she knew in the long haul we would need this kind of support to keep going on the path.
“When we deepen, we become kinder, more compassionate human beings. What greater gift can we offer for the well-being of our planet?”
AINSLEY MAGNO: You are also an accomplished yoga therapist. What are some of the teachings you provide your clients that students can incorporate into their own practice?
JEANNIE STEVENS: As defined by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, “Yoga Therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the philosophy and practice of Yoga”. In my role as a yoga therapist, I create an environment for the client to explore whatever their concern whether a bad back or a spiritual crisis. I draw from my yoga experience as well as my life experience but in the end I believe each person knows what is best for them, and I act as a kind of interpreter.
AINSLEY MAGNO: Tell me one quote you live by.
JEANNIE STEVENS: “Know Thyself and Be Free.” I believe this sums up the heart of Swami Radha’s teachings and now my own teachings. It is the ultimate instruction in the practise of yoga.
Drop-in for one of Jeannie’s Hatha Yoga classes at McTavish Academy of Arts, North Saanich, BC.
The Yoga Studio was closed in 2016 and is the new home of Sitka Yoga and Pilates.