We have a beautiful garden, rich with flowers (and weeds) from early spring until late fall. Admittedly, it is more exuberant than neatly organized, but it is fragrant and lovely to behold. Although we have a compost pile, throughout of the spring and summer we often liquefy fruit and vegetable remains in a blender, then dig the stuff directly into the soil. We use neither pesticides nor fertilizers. Every year the soil is more friable and more productive.
We also maintain our garden for the insects, especially the bees and butterflies. This year there have been very few of either. It’s heartbreaking. In yesterday’s New York Times there was a thoughtful and troubling editorial by Mark Winston titled, “Our Bees, Ourselves: Bees and Colony Collapse.” Colony collapse is a very serious problem.
What does all this have to do with stroke and music? A lot. Winston writes, “Honeybee collapse has been particularly vexing because there is no one cause, but rather a thousand little cuts.” I am sure this is also true for conditions leading up to stroke. I am not currently concerned with prevention, however. I am focused on recovery.
People often ask me if therapy was helpful, and if I am still involved with it. My answer is, “Yes and yes. Constantly.” But I stopped working with therapists about six months after my stroke. To paraphrase Winston, “Stroke recovery is slow. The process is particularly vexing because there is no single solution, but rather thousands of potential curative approaches and tactics.”
Finding and making productive use of the possibilities has been up to me. I quickly realized that I have the ability to engage in therapy every time I breathe. This is the case not because breathing is particularly therapeutic (though well advised), but because the perceptions, mental attitudes, and physical exercises with which I might engage while breathing are therapeutic.
I will try to provide a useful example from recent morning walks in a nearby woods. I have been becoming increasingly troubled by the way I tend to lean forward while walking, even while standing. This has been the physical characteristic ever since my stroke. It’s also a habit from which I need release. Adhering to the old adage, “chest out, shoulders back, stomach in” is not going to mitigate the problem. Paying close attention to my breathing, and regulating it appropriately does, however.
As a walk, I breathe normally, but take care to breathe low into my diaphragm while being attentive to the way the muscles across my lower stomach and groin release and contract. By focusing on inhalation and allowing muscular release, my center of gravity feels lower and my upper body is freed. This mysterious “downward settling” enables me to hold a more natural and upright posture. Moments later, when focusing on exhalation, I gently pull my hips forward into better alignment over my feet. This also serves to free my upper body. All this is done with the greatest possible level of relaxation.
[Diaphragmatic breathing is often used for stress relief. Singers find the technique essential to generate breath support. Diaphragmatic breathing also requires practice. I suggest first practicing by lying down or sitting/standing still. After my stroke, I breathed only through the chest. My breathing was so shallow I often ran out of breath partway through a sentence.]
As with nearly all of my exercises, I begin this one by working with my left-side deficit, which in this case means, inhaling while pushing off with the left foot. Once I get a feel for the task, I integrate it bi-laterally, side to side, so as to ensure that I work the muscles (and my brain) in a balanced way, I undertake one breath cycle across an odd number of steps (three, five, or seven depending on my pace). For example, in a three-step breath cycle first I inhale while pushing off with my right foot. The next inhalation occurs four steps later while pushing off with my left foot. As you become comfortable with the exercise, you will notice that with steady and even breathing, exhalations are initiated between steps. This is a great example of integrating the rhythm two against three throughout your entire body. If you breath more slowly or walk more quickly, regulate inhalations to every five steps (begin exhalation on step/beat 3.5 to create the ratio two against five.
Winston later states, “Bees also provide some clues to how we may build a more collaborative relationship with the services that ecosystems can provide.” So too with an integrated approach to therapy. Therapy should not be something that only happens in 30 or 60 minute sessions. It should be ongoing, and undertaken in full collaboration with the ecosystem in which we live our creative lives.