I’m thrilled to call Kyla Pearce a new friend because we finally met in person! Kyla is the lead teacher and the creator of LoveYourBrain Yoga. As part of LoveYourBrain (a non-profit organization that aims to improve the quality of life for people affected by traumatic brain injury and build community), the yoga program strives to bring affordable and accessible yoga to TBI survivors and their families. After launching the yoga program in Vermont, with classes and training, LoveYourBrain Yoga is now traveling the nation, city-by-city, to teach yoga teachers how to teach yoga to those who live with the challenges of brain injury. Pittsburgh was their first stop, and it was pretty amazing to see how much good it did for everyone involved. This post is dedicated to LoveYourBrain in the hopes that yoga helps many more families in the aftermath of TBI.
On New Year’s Eve 2009, my brother-in-law Kevin Pearce took a near-fatal fall in a halfpipe while training to make the US Snowboarding team for the Vancouver Olympics. His severe TBI shifted a lot for our family, including one of the most positive outcomes: the LoveYourBrain Foundation, which was founded by Kevin and his brother, and my now husband, Adam.
Kevin’s accident has caused him to struggle with weakness, balance problems, isolation, stress, and the awkward journey of regaining his sense of purpose and optimism. As a yoga and meditation teacher, I have always appreciated the profoundly positive effects of safe and mindful movement; however, it wasn’t until I saw Kevin experience renewed confidence, calmness, and perspective through his post-injury yoga practice, that I fully grasped the true healing power of yoga and meditation. I also watched Adam grapple with compassion fatigue after dedicating a year of his life to be by Kevin’s side during his rehabilitation.
Seeing both the benefit and the need for yoga drove us to create a Yoga Program as a way to "‹enable anyone affected by TBI—from concussion to severe injury—and their caregivers to restore their physical and psychological wellbeing. For Kevin and others in the TBI community, the ability to pause, turn away from the barrage of “should-dos or not-good-enoughs” and turn towards just being, accepting, and connecting with a positive community is so important. After all, yoga is a practice of deep listening and caring. You learn to listen to what your body and mind can and cannot do, and find a caring attitude about whatever manifests. So what if you feel overwhelmed and decide to lay down during the entire class? Resting is an incredibly caring response to stress. So what if you cannot touch your toes? Becoming aware of how far you can reach is empowering, and having the courage to accept your boundaries creates contentment.
“LoveYourBrain Yoga has been the single most positive experience that I’ve had during my recovery,” Sabra, an enthusiastic, ex-pro cyclist told me after her first experience with LYB Yoga in Vermont. “I’ve been through over nine concussions and never found something that I could do to make myself feel better besides waiting it out and weathering the concussion storm.”
We talked, we hugged, we cried, and Sabra reignited my deep sense of purpose to bring yoga and meditation to others affected by TBI. As a doctoral student at Dartmouth, I was able to conduct an eight-week pilot study that evaluated the effectiveness of our yoga program for 31 brain injury survivors. I wanted to provide evidence-based practices that both the TBI community and health professionals could trust. The results demonstrated significant improvements in participants’ impulsivity, ability to manage negative emotions and perception of themselves as compared to the control group. Other research has shown that yoga and meditation improve balance, balance confidence, and strength, psychological wellbeing (Silverthorne et al. 2012), cognitive functioning and mental fatigue (Johansson et al., 2012) for brain injury survivors. Neuroimaging studies have also shown that meditation changes the brain structure and functioning of areas associated with memory, concentration, and emotional regulation (Britta et al. 2011), all of which can be compromised in TBI.
Research aside, I want the LYB Yoga Program to meet individuals where they are so that they can draw upon yoga’s versatility to cultivate resilience and self-direct their own healing process. Having taught several class series and two training sessions, I have seen, felt, and been moved by the positive experiences shared by participants in my classes and across our program. For example, when I asked Sabra to describe why she signed up for the Yoga Program, she explained:
“I signed up for LYB yoga by accident. This happy accident was the beginning of a part of my life that I truly cherish. I was so overjoyed to hear that I could attend six weeks of yoga classes with people that understood my injury. I desperately wanted to feel better and was excited to try this new option. Over my 12-year struggle with concussion, I had yet to be presented with an active recovery option. Most people tell you what you can’t do and LYB told me that I could do something, and it was tailor-made for me and my recovery!
While nursing myself back from concussions, trying new things or even revisiting activities has seemed impossible or painful. The normal arc of a day can cause immense amounts of pain in the form of headaches, nausea, dizziness, whatever symptom of the day my brain decided to trigger. That pain instills a fear of trying new things. So, I was nervous and wondered: how would yoga make me feel better? I reassured myself that a yoga studio was one of the only places in public guaranteed to be quiet, serene, non-judgmental—a really safe space. I thought if the class wasn’t going well, I could just lie on my yoga mat in the middle of the studio and, at least, be around people for an hour. Knowing how accepting yoga is, I unrolled my yoga mat for a try.
After the first class, I physically felt the same. For me, moving for an hour and feeling the same is absolutely huge! I could do this and not feel worse or slide backward in any way! My spirits were lifted! After two classes, feeling the same stretched into a breakthrough. I forgot for an hour that I had a concussion and all the pain and anxiety melted away. Forgetting the injury and the pain is like peeking around the corner at feeling normal, and LYB yoga was the sole reason I turned that corner of my last concussion. I also felt—for the first time in two and a half months—no headaches and completely pain-free. These classes have become the reset button for my body and my pain levels. It's absolutely incredible!”
How to get involved
The LoveYourBrain program currently operates in Vermont and New Hampshire and is expanding to Pittsburgh, Boston, Denver and San Diego by the end of this year. Here is how it works:
- Sign up: People who have experienced a TBI--from a concussion to severe injury--and their caregivers sign up on our website and choose which program location they would like to attend.
- Attend the FUNdamentals 6-week series: This free series has been created exclusively for the TBI community, incorporating modified yoga and meditation practices, class themes to foster resilience and compassion, and facilitated group conversation.
- Access “LYB friendly” classes: These gentle yoga classes are open to the broader community but have been identified as safe for TBI. They are offered to participants at a discounted rate upon completion of the FUNdamentals series. All LYB friendly classes are taught by yoga teachers who have completed our specialized training.
We lead 10.5 hour teacher training workshops to equip yoga teachers with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to tailor their yoga and meditation classes for the TBI community. We also invite a handful of clinicians to join our training to create referral alliances with rehabilitation and outpatient care facilities. Recently, we led a yoga teacher training in Pittsburgh, PA at Bend Yoga with Janna Hockenjos to be able to launch our program in the Pittsburgh yoga community.
We are looking to partner with other compassionate and inclusive yoga studios across the United States to offer our program. Interested studios can sign up here.
To get a sense of our impact, I think Sabra says it best: “LoveYourBrain makes me smile. Just the thought of those three little words. It’s involuntary. I have to smile. I finally get to love my brain during a concussion. It’s possibility, positivity, caring, and feeling more normal.”