Last year, yoga teacher Anna Kerry suffered a stroke at the age of just 35. Her yoga practice helped her find her way back to health and now she’s helping others to do the same. Here she tells OM her story in her own words
I qualified as a yoga teacher back in August 2020 in pretty challenging conditions due to the pandemic. Having practiced yoga for nearly a decade, all I wanted to do was share my knowledge and love of yoga with others.
Starting a new yoga venture during a pandemic was not the best of starts for a fledgling yoga teacher. Little did I know things were about to get a lot harder.
Six months into starting to teach yoga, on Friday March 12, 2021 my life changed in an instant. At the age of just 35 I had stroke.
Waking up that morning was just like any other, however within 10 minutes my life changed. Getting into my workout gear, I realised that my left arm felt weird and I thought I had stood up too fast, getting a bit of a head rush. I called out to my husband that I didn’t feel right. What came out of my mouth was slurred; it was a real struggle to speak. I then realised that I couldn’t move my left arm or leg. I began to panic. Luckily my husband recognised the symptoms and called for an ambulance immediately.
That’s when the real panic began to set in. I then knew what was happening and that I was having a stroke. I had no idea that strokes happened to young people and I really thought in that moment I might die. Once the ambulance was on its way, my husband said the one thing he knew would calm me: “Use your yoga breathing.” Being able to draw on my yoga practice during a time of extreme trauma helped to calm me and is something that I am so thankful for.
Within 15 minutes of reaching the hospital (without my husband at my side due to Covid restrictions) I had a CT scan to determine whether the stroke had been caused by a bleed or a clot. The results didn’t show a bleed on the brain. The doctors thought I was experiencing a migraine because I was ‘too young’ to have a stroke. However, an MRI scan several hours later revealed that it had been a blood clot; part of my brain was now damaged permanently beyond repair. Being told I had suffered a stroke was devastating and extremely scary. It was made all the worse that I had to deal with it in hospital on my own.
After only a day in hospital my movement and speech were almost back to normal; my leg and arm were starting to move as before, and I could speak more clearly. I was just left with a weird sensation in my arm. Thankfully, my brain quickly learned to work around the damaged parts. This is one of the reasons why my speech and movement had appeared to return to normal so quickly. Some people aren’t so lucky though. One thing that I was left with was anxiety… anxiety about having another stroke.
Whist being admitted into hospital someone asked me what I did for a living. I mentioned about my day job but also that I teach yoga part-time. One of the doctors also practiced yoga. We got chatting and her advice for my anxiety was to meditate. I tried some meditation whilst in hospital (fortunately I had my own room). It felt okay to do but it wasn’t easy, I had so many thoughts going round in my head.
I had improved so much that after only four days I was discharged from hospital. On returning home, my anxiety only got worse. When you’re in hospital it’s like you’re in a safety bubble and however much I was glad to be home it was also rather daunting. After a few days my strength gradually started to return. Whilst looking online for help I came across a charity called Different Strokes, an amazing organisation that specialises in helping working age or young people that have had a stroke. It has a wealth of knowledge due to being run by stroke survivors. The charity gave me the practical information I needed during my recovery.
However, I knew I needed more than this. I reached out to the incredible group of ladies who were on my yoga teacher training course to see if anyone had advice about yoga and trauma. I knew that a normal yoga practice and meditation wasn’t going to cut it for me, I needed something more. I needed to feel safe.
I eventually spoke to a yoga teacher who had some training in trauma. He told me that meditation and stillness aren’t necessarily the best things if you’ve been through some kind of trauma. He encouraged me to start practicing again. To move slowly and use my yoga practice as a moving meditation and I’ve been doing this ever since. I needed to learn to trust my body again. By doing a yoga practice in this way it gave me the confidence within myself that I craved.
Having time away from work and teaching others gave me the time I needed to focus on myself and my recovery. I dived into research into strokes, trauma and yoga practices that could help. I decided that I wanted to be able to help other people through challenges within their lives. I embarked on more training, to learn about trauma, the nervous system and the effects this can have on your body. During this training I began to understand my own trauma and the effects it had on my body. I was given the tools I needed to truly tune in to my body and its needs.
I now knew I wanted to turn the bad experience of stroke around. As part of my teaching, I have developed a sixweek course, The Body’s Wisdom. I have designed this to help people to feel more comfortable within their body, experience more ease and an inner sense of safety, as well as learning how to listen to what the body needs.
To understand what your body is telling you is a gift. When honed, this can give great insight and understanding into yourself. This is one of the many things I now teach on my course, where I work with people on a 1-2-1 basis. One of the things I’ve found especially helpful is learning how to regulate my nervous system. When you slip into anxiety, your nervous system becomes dysregulated.
Think of your nervous system as being on a scale. Regulated on one end and dysregulated on the other. This has opened my eyes to how I can help myself become more regulated. I ask myself what I need in a time of anxiety; acting on that has helped me to shift the scale towards my nervous system being regulated. It’s so important that you can recognise what your body is telling you. Acknowledging your feelings can help to give you space from them and to know that you are not your feelings.
One of the main concepts I love about yoga philosophy is Atman, our true self beneath the layers. Think of your true self as the sky and your emotions and feelings as the weather. No matter what you are feeling, these feelings will pass, and you can come back to your true self.
Some people have mentioned that throughout this trauma I’ve had a good mindset. I firmly believe that my yoga practice and the many tools it offers have helped me to get through this. Now that I’ve found my way back to my body, I’m slowly learning to love the person that this stroke has left behind.
In the UK, over 100,000 people have a stroke or a mini stroke every year. Most people who have strokes are over 65, but one in four strokes happen in younger people.
That’s nearly 40,000 people a year including several hundred children. For information and support visit Different Strokes: differentstrokes.co.uk