If you happen to be in my parents’ house these days, you are likely to find two open-faced books. In the parlor (yes, we have a room fancy enough to be called ‘the parlor’) on top of the fancy couch is Move Feel Think: Yoga for Brain Injury, PTSD & Other Forms of Trauma. Beside it is my dad’s loosely rolled yoga mat, which gets unrolled four times a week so that he can work his way through the 20 yoga poses. On a good day, he’ll do all 20. Upstairs in my bedroom, A Morning Cup of Yoga lies on top of the quilt on my bed. My mom doesn’t use a mat. She does the ‘exercises’ for about 20 minutes before she goes to bed each night. And if you ask them, they will both tell you, “The yoga helps,” and in so many words, “Janna’s onto something…”
My dad practices to build back his strength and to work on his balance after last year’s months of chemo and cancer. But in the big, bigger brain injury picture, he practices yoga to increase his impulse control, his compassion, and his executive function, and to strengthen the connection between his brain and his body. On a bad day, he’ll believe his brain isn’t injured, and we’re all making it up.
My mom practices to open up her hands and feet, lengthen her spine, stave off arthritis, relieve tension, and remind herself that her strength comes pretty easy. She’s spent a lifetime doing yard work and taking care of horses—she can carry very heavy things. But she really practices yoga because doing something for yourself, by yourself, even if it’s only for 20 minutes, is the best thing a caregiver can do. The hardest part of yoga is showing up, and I’m glad that they both are these days.
Everything I know, everything I’ve overcome, everything I’ve faced has roots in this practice of yoga, and in this year of exponentially not-so-great things, I keep replaying a scene in my head over and over again. I’m in the living room of our old house at the lake. It’s bone-chillingly cold and very snowy out. Inside my mom is cooking chicken and rice soup, and I’m lying on my belly in the living room by the heater reading my first yoga book. My dad is out in the cold chopping wood because he’s still his agile and strong self. The three of us don’t even know what brain injury is like yet, because it’s not yet the summer of 1996.
How or why yoga and brain injury came into my life the same year, I will never know, but it’s safe to say that these are two aspects of my life that have shaped me into who I am today. Until I found yoga – like really found it, in my twenties, when I was living in New York City – I didn’t have any intention or clue about how to accept my dad’s accident. That being the car accident that gifted him with the rest of his life plus a severely damaged left frontal lobe. That car accident changed everything. It changed our life, my faith, my fears, my parents, myself, my hopes, our future. Oh my God, I hated that accident with the fire of a thousand suns – for years.
Do I still hate it? I suppose my answer is, “Of course. I mean how could I not?” How can you not hate something that breaks your heart, that takes your mom’s favorite person away, that takes your dad’s life as he knew it away? I’d be crazy not to hate something like that, right? Maybe in my fifties, I’ll reach indifference, but I’m not there yet. I’m, like… half-way there. I’ve accepted that it happened, and I continually forgive its ongoing aftermath, and my yoga practice is the only reason I have even gotten this far. (Lurking among the sentences of this blog is a bigger, much, much bigger and deeper and grander topic called dharma, but we’ll save that for another blog.) I can confidently say that without a yoga practice, I’d be lost or doing drugs or absent from my parents’ life or married to the wrong person. Without yoga, I would have let go of hope or a future. Without yoga, I would have stayed sad and angry forever.
I’m not talking the yoga of wildly printed stretchy pants and flexy-bendy spines, nor the yoga of community and connection with big classes and big groups. I’m talking about the kind of yoga that is personal, the kind that transcends all the rest. This is feeling your body and getting to know your life through your breath. I do not believe you will find anything more true than this practice. It’s the most effective way to love hard and to learn how to react well to what you might always have to hate.
I have twenty-one years of a past full of my dad’s brain injury that I can look back on, pull stories from, and ponder. However, I’m at the point where I want to look forward, to move forward. I want to share the second most influential thing in my life with people who might be living a life that is a bit similar – and if not to mine, then to my mom who is the most intuitive and generous caregiver I know, or to my dad, who defies logic and is resilient beyond measure. Here on this blog each month, I want to share yoga. Of all the tools in the box of living with brain injury, I want yoga to be one of them. Yoga may seem intimidating. It’s complicated and studied and mimicked and ancient. But it doesn’t have to be all of that, not all at once or for everyone. It simply has to be what you need.
And for that reason – if you’ve read this far – I want to ask what it is you need? Go ahead, answer in the comments. I surely can guess each month or pick a pose or topic, but I truly want to share what will help at least one person through this practice. For me, I needed to learn how to move past my anger.
So, what do you need?