Yoga as a Catalyst after Brain Injury

Yoga as a Catalyst after Brain Injury

Something big just happened. A dream came true. On Wednesday, April 29th I will begin teaching a regular yoga class at a brain injury rehab facility. In fact, by the time this blog is up, I’ll have taught this class twice.

I used to think that in order for a yoga practice to be taken seriously in the brain injury community that I would have to get up on a podium and show the proof in numbers and display the research on PowerPoint slides. That was about three years ago when I was politely knocking on doors where I saw opportunities by sending polite and enthusiastic emails. I’ve learned that that’s just not my style. I’m more of a let-me-tell-you-how-cool-this-is over a glass of wine kind of influencer. I’ll share my stories of how yoga can move and shift your body around on a mat and how that will teach you to move and shift your perspective around in life.

In the last three years, I’ve seen yoga bring about so many positive changes—everything from encouraging individuals to live happier lives to helping individuals to understand and accept their injuries. No one can take back a brain injury. There is no Band-Aid and no dollop of Neosporin to heal the cut and make everything whole and healthy again. Instead, we are asked to acclimate to something new and unfamiliar, and many times it’s something new and unfamiliar that we would never wish for in a million years. Yet, the more we try to look backward and wish for what was, the harder it becomes to move forward and away from the incident or accident that caused all the grief in the first place. Yoga is not a cure, but it’s a catalyst.

Tom had a walker, and he was frighteningly unstable when he didn’t use it. For Tom, practicing yoga looked like a long shot, but he joined the TBI yoga class anyway. For the first few classes, Tom was accompanied by a physical therapist who assisted his every arm move and leg lift. No one wanted Tom to fall. In due time, Tom was allowed a little more independence. The PT accompanying his practice was less hands-on, and, not surprisingly, this gave him more of an opportunity to wobble, to lose his balance, or to fall. During a class, I asked the students to “stand in Tadasana.” That’s Mountain Pose, which is like saying “just stand still.” Tom tipped forward, lost his balance, and just before face-planting, he caught himself. He lifted himself back up and laughed. Tom began to reconnect to the freedom—and the consequences—of being in charge of his own body.

When Louise started her weekly yoga practice, she squeezed her toes together and gripped he mat for dear life. She didn’t want to lose her balance. Her accident had been hard on her vision and her balance, so she spent her life looking down to make sure her feet would not fail her. After a few classes, Louise discovered the power of her toes. “Pick up your toes and spread them wide,” I would say. Louise had been squeezing her toes so tight that her feet were cramping. Everything she did, she faced down, until the class where she discovered that she could use her toes to support her feet. Spread them wide, and look up ahead of you. “Your body goes where your gaze goes.” Today she tells me how great it is to use her toes and walk around and look around—and have fewer headaches.

John had a chip on his shoulder. There really wasn’t anything wrong with him. He was fine, doing well. But no one believed him. They only wanted him to see things their way. Maybe if he tried this yoga stuff, the people in his life would stop explaining to him all the ways his brain injury made him different. It took a few months for John to tell me,“Yoga makes me move slow.” Huh? I had wanted to motivate this man not further slow him down. He went on to explain that paying attention to his body was exercising his brain in a way that nothing else was. He had to think about stepping forward or back. He had to think about standing tall. He had to think before he acted, which meant he was learning to act a little slower.

Cole thought yoga was a workout for women who wanted to wear tight pants. He saw little point to sitting still and breathing. It would probably be boring and girly, so why was there a yoga class for veterans? Wasn’t this sissy stuff? Whatever. His wife wanted to go, so he decided to try it out with her. Girly or not, Cole kept coming back to yoga class. Some days, he came without his wife. He told me that on days he practiced yoga, he was able to sleep better—to sleep without being medicated. “Do you think it is the yoga?” he asked me. “Yes, I think so.” That answer was easy.

I couldn’t touch my toes. Not even close, and I was getting a little flabby from late nights and long days. I missed my past and wasn’t sure if I’d ever figure out how to love my father with his brain injury. I was all right though. Life was pretty unfair, but I was ready for how hard it was going to be. I was totally fine. A year later, and it didn’t matter that I could touch my toes. I was learning to love and accept myself, this self that could touch her toes now, but couldn’t open her hips enough for all these poses named after birds. This self whose hands slipped all over in Downward Facing Dog. This self that realized that loving herself as she is was the ticket to loving her father just as he is.

These stories show me that it is high time to take this yoga stuff seriously. I teach it, and I speak about it because I want people to see how it can become an influential part of a brain injury treatment modality—an influential part of healing. Today, there are some numbers and there is some research. Thanks to Love Your Brain, there is a big organization that believes in what I do. Yoga isn’t medicine or a magic potion or a Band-Aid, but it can heal by bringing you forward rather than backward. I didn’t pick this life with brain injury, but I’m going to keep moving on.

Meanwhile, here in Pittsburgh, Tom and Louise look forward to yoga class on Wednesdays. Cole has discovered there is a way to feel calm after combat, so he owns a yoga mat now. John liked yoga so much that he repeatedly asked his daughter to write a book to teach others what she taught him. And I am watching a dream come true.

Comments (5)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

Is any yoga class beneficial for a tbi survivor, or does it need to be a tbi specific class?

Yoga has been a blessing in my search to find peace as a caregiver. It is restorative. I am hoping in time my husband, a tbi survivor, will find similar rewards with yoga practice.

I did a teacher training before my TBI. A friend supported me to start teaching, it is one of the best therapies for me and wonderful healing to do. Nobody knows I have tbi but it's the one class a week I teach and I teach from the heart. Love it so much and my own practice really helped me to show that there's no difference from you and I. Thank you for sharing this passion <3

A neurologist recommended that I resume a regular yoga practice including taking a class.  My balance, my cognition and my overall memory has greatly improved.  We are all more than the sum of our parts.

A couple of months back my partner's son, who had experienced a brain trauma last year after years of drug abuse started joining us for a weekly restorative yoga class. I have practiced yoga for years on and off and was becoming bored of it's relegation to workout status in many classes as opposed to full body, mind and soul balancing experience. The teachers at our center understand the full spectrum of what yoga offers and now my partner's son does also. It is one of the few things in his life that he looks forward to and his ability to function is slowly improving. The meditative aspect of yoga should be much more present in modern practice!