Where Yoga Meets Brain Injury: A Practice to Calm Anxiety

Where Yoga Meets Brain Injury: A Practice to Calm Anxiety

Where Yoga Meets Brain Injury.

Yes, there is a place where the two meet. There is a way that time spent on your yoga mat can positively affect the brain injury that takes a permanent place in your life.

Thank goodness I found yoga. Yoga has, and will always be, the pathway to the light that can shine on grief, frustration, and fear—on brain injury. Join me on the journey. Ask me the questions as they come up. Let me show you the practice as we go.

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“It feels like a risen threshold of anxiety to me, as if… ever since my husband’s accident, I get anxious about more things, more intensely, and more often. I feel less secure in the world.”

An accident happens. A brain injury rocks your world, and not in a good way. It literally rocks, cracks, or crumbles the very foundation of where you stand in your life. And when it doesn’t feel like you can stand and feel safe on the earth and in your life, fears arise. What ifs invade. What if I get hurt, what will happen to my husband? What if I can’t handle this? What if it happens again? What if I will always be in fear? What if this is how I’m meant to live? What if my daughter wants to race bikes? Fear rises like a tide, and soon enough, a tidal wave of anxiety.

Anxiety lives in the mind and manifests in the body. Meaning that we think anxiety into being. We worry. We fret. We overplan. Anxiety begins as something cognitive. We ask questions one thousand times and play out imagined scenarios like a worn out VCR tape. We ruminate on the happenings of the future, and we focus on what isn’t even our reality. To reverse that way of thinking through more thinking is like switching the direction of the Earth’s rotation. You can’t. You’ll exhaust yourself trying. And then you are anxious and tired. So rather than trying to erase the what ifs and quit thinking about the worst case scenario or any future scenario, you can get down into your body: your physical, tactile, and real body. You can’t think that body of yours into being, because it’s right here with you—all the time.

Anxiety thrives on uncertainty. To know where you are and how you move in space at this given moment is to live in the present, and to do so is to connect to your world and become certain of your surroundings. In the present moment, you can create and witness certainty.  Moving the physical body and bringing awareness to where you are in space and how you connect to the Earth is the route to healing an over-active, easily worried, anxious brain. There are some yoga teachers that would argue for mediation here, and I won’t dispute that, but sometimes we have to go through the body to get to the brain.

Let’s try it. You don’t need a whole yoga class to practice yoga to relieve anxiety. All you need is you.

Take a moment to stand still. We fly through life. We sit down when we are tired. We sleep, watch TV, eat, and engage with others when we need to recharge. But when we stand, purposefully still, we connect a little deeper. We grow certain of our surroundings. (You can do this inside or outside in nature, with shoes on or on your bare feet.)

  • Find a quiet place with some space. Put your hands on your hips, look down at your feet, and align your feet so that they are parallel to each other. You can stand with space between them or two feet side by side. Gently press down into your hands on your hips and notice how that presses your feet into the ground. Then look up (you’ve probably been looking down at your feet). Look straight ahead, at something that is not moving. As you look up, lift up, stand tall, and reach up through the top of your head up.
  • You might find that taking your time just to stand is unnerving. It might make you feel uneasy. My mom, an extremely mentally and physically capable woman, had a mild freak out when I asked her to stand still. She swayed, she got a little dizzy, and she got mad at me for suggesting something that made her feel so “terrible.” That is normal. When you feel like you have no foundation—or you feel like you are holding everyone else up—you struggle to find your own certain footing. The struggle is real, but it’s safe and within your control.
  • Now you breathe. Take deep breathes in through your nose and out through your nose. I like to count slowly up to 3 or 5. Take about five of these deep breaths. Now close your eyes. Not always so comfortable is it? I practice yoga all the time, and there are still days when I stand still and close my eyes and want to freak out. So, listen to your body. Are you freaking out or falling over? You are safe. And if you do not feel safe with your eyes closed, then come back to that soft gaze on something out in front of you. Create your own certainty.

Oftentimes we feel anxiety in the chest. It’s hard to breathe, to catch your breath, or to take a deep one. Whether you’re standing still in Mountain Pose (above) or laying down before you go to sleep, you can try this breathing exercise to bring calm to your breath and fill up the space around your heart.

Place your left hand on top of your sternum (where your rib cage meets at the top) and your right hand directly on top of your left. Feel the weight of the hands on your chest. Notice your breath as is. Then, begin to breathe a little slower—you can try that 3-5 count breath. See if you can send your breath – that air you fill up your body with—into the space underneath your hands. This might be hard at first. Yoga is a practice. Even if you can’t feel it, you can imagine what it might feel like to fill up the space of your heart, to breathe right to the space underneath your hands.

If you feel like you have to battle those unknown fears and bouts of anxiety, try these two very simple exercises. Maybe you stand still for just two minutes and breathe before you begin your day or before you go to bed. Maybe you breathe into your chest in traffic or when the worries surface.

Yoga is not a quick fix, but it is a tool for your toolbox of life. You might need a hammer to fix what’s broken or to hang a beautiful new piece of art. Just like tools, the need for yoga certainly does not mean that you are broken. And it doesn’t mean that the inevitably challenging times won’t arise, but you will have a little more foundation for when they do. And you will calm the what ifs.

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