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Yoga for Brain Injury
For people recovering from traumatic brain injury, concussion, or traumatic brain injury, yoga offers gentle exercises with therapeutic benefits. Many survivors find themselves unable to continue old ways of staying fit. Balance difficulties, loss of motor control, dizziness and neck injuries limit physical activity, further restricting an already restricted lifestyle. Fortunately, a yoga practice can adapt to any illness or injury, lending itself particularly well to recovery from TBI.
Where to start? With the recent popularity of yoga in the West, students can now choose anything from hot yoga to Kundalini to Ashtanga. People with neck or back injuries in addition to head trauma will likely want to start with a teacher trained in Iyengar yoga, which uses props to promote proper alignment effortlessly. Teachers trained in Kripalu also tend to offer calmer and more restorative lessons. Any yoga class that emphasizes flow (not too fast, though) will help retrain sequential processing, a benefit for people who have suffered damage to the left brain or rational side. A vinyasa sequence connects breath and movement, emphasizing step-by-step progression in a set order. Learning and remembering such movements through repetition becomes a form of cognitive therapy.
Before beginning a yoga practice, survivors should speak with their healthcare providers, as well as their intended yoga instructor. Most teachers ask questions about injuries at the start of class, but few people understand the intricacies of TBI on their own. Explain any unusual sensitivities or restrictions you encounter and ask the instructor for recommendations within their own class, or suggestions on where to find more compatible classes. Yoga is meant to support and promote growth, not exhaust the body and nervous system.
For this reason, survivors might initially want to steer clear of Kundalini Yoga or Bikram Yoga, both of which offer intense workouts. Kundalini Yoga aims to awaken dormant energy potential, which seems to be a good thing for TBI survivors. Indeed, it can help tremendously – once the neurons stop misfiring and “shorting out”. However, most survivors measure their stamina inaccurately, easily overstimulating themselves. Kundalini Yoga works powerfully on subtle levels, making energy levels harder to control. Sometimes the quickly awakened kundalini proves too much for a sensitive TBI survivor. Bikram Yoga takes place in a very hot room, moving quickly through poses that encourage the sweating out of toxins. As with Kundalini, followers of Bikram rave about its benefits. For a hypersensitive survivor, however, the Bikram’s excessive heat, body odor, and physicality make it a less safe option. At first, look for lesson titles such as: “Repairer”, “Beginner”, “Iyengar”, “Kripalu” and “Soft”.
Yoga Journal offers many DVDs, in case survivors prefer to learn from the comfort of their own home. Start with short sessions to build your mental and physical stamina. Twenty-minute DVDs give survivors a sense of accomplishment, without the potential fatigue of hour-long or hour-and-a-half-hour in-person classes. Downward Dog Productions with Sarah Bates also offers accessible yoga DVD workouts specifically designed for people with disabilities. Home yoga workouts also eliminate most of the expense of learning yoga, as survivors can invest in a DVD or two to practice with daily, rather than paying for a class each time. On the other hand, a good yoga teacher can customize routines to address survivors’ unique health issues.
In addition to sculpting lean, strong muscles and naturally realigning the spine, yoga offers TBI survivors a chance to reconnect with their bodies in a positive way. Robin Cohn, a brain injury survivor and vice president of the New York State Brain Injury Association, acknowledged the transformative effects of yoga on her own recovery: “I started with a gentle beginner’s yoga class, where I slowly started to get the atrophied muscles moving again. The more I got, the better I started to feel.” Inspired, she began co-teaching yoga classes designed specifically for other survivors. “These students are so overjoyed to have the opportunity to practice yoga and reap the wonderful benefits of asana and pranayam (breathwork). … The happiness, tranquility and peace that yoga brings to them is so rewarding Their smiles just say a lot how happy they are practicing.”
Yoga brings awareness of over 5000 years of connection of human body, mind and spirit. It started as a way to calm the endocrine system and relax the body so that practitioners could sit longer in meditation. These calming, strengthening, and relaxing effects make it an ideal practice for TBI survivors whose systems work on constant overload. Slowing down and refocusing can help anyone manage stress. For TBI survivors, however, yoga offers insight into not just “normal” functioning; yoga also offers the possibility of optimal health and well-being. Many practitioners experience peace and self-acceptance for the first time in their lives, including before injury. Yoga is part of a larger awakening (facilitated by TBI) – helping survivors find and appreciate the hidden benefits of their journey.
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