Michelle Brusseau was only 16 when she had a massive stroke. A blood vessel tore in her brain and took away her ability to walk, talk and hold up her head.
That was 12 years ago. Today she walks, talks and holds her head high. And for the past six months, she has been doing yoga therapy as part of her rehabilitation.
"It makes you feel good, like, happy, not tired," Brusseau said.
Nearly 800,000 people a year in the United States have a stroke, leaving two-thirds of the survivors with some type of disability, according to the American Stroke Association. About 30 percent of people hospitalized for stroke are younger than 65.
While medical treatments and rehabilitations are effective in helping survivors regain their abilities, some also try alternative therapies such as acupuncture, canine therapy, color therapy or yoga therapy to further improve their symptoms.
Valerie Greene, the founder of Bcenter, a nonprofit organization for stroke survivors and their families, wanted to introduce yoga therapy to her stroke support group.
"Trying to find someone who works with stroke patients, specifically, is challenging," Greene said.
So on a recent afternoon, Brusseau sat in front of a room of stroke survivors and caregivers in Winter Park, Fla., to show them the benefits of yoga therapy. Ella Duke, a yoga therapist, gently helped Brusseau demonstrate movements that help with muscle strength, breathing, balance and even voice.
"When we got together, we discussed our goals," said Duke, owner of an Orlando yoga center. "Those goals included better balance, breathing and walking."
Brusseau, who speaks slowly but clearly, said, "Ella even taught me eye exercises, because I'm concerned that my face might not look the same on both sides."
A few preliminary and pilot studies have shown that yoga therapy can be beneficial for stroke survivors and improve their mental health and quality of life. Although evidence is still emerging about its benefits, studies show that yoga therapy could complement traditional rehabilitation.
'We want to get beyond this'
Yoga therapists go through additional hours of training to learn about anatomy, physiology and various disabilities and conditions. The Yoga Alliance and the International Association of Yoga Therapists have set curricula for becoming a yoga therapist, but the field is still new. So individuals should "do extensive research before choosing a type of yoga and instructor," said Dr. Genevieve Verrastro in an article in the Journal of Family Practice.
Duke, who specializes in child and adult students with special needs or conditions such as stroke, said she has had nearly 1,000 hours of training to become a yoga therapist.
Bcenter's Greene, who suffered a stroke 20 years ago, when she was 31, said exposing survivors and their families to these noninvasive modalities is her mission. The stroke paralyzed her left side and took away her speech and hearing in her right ear.
Her photos don't give away her history.
"I present so well, but as soon as I start talking and walking, people realize that I'm scarred, that I've been through that journey, that I have the war wounds," Greene said. "But we wear the wounds as stripes. We're all heroes. We want to get beyond this."