For people recovering from traumatic brain injury (TBI), concussion or head trauma, yoga offers gentle exercise with therapeutic benefits. Many survivors find themselves unable to pursue former ways of staying in shape. Balance difficulties, loss of motor control, vertigo, and neck injuries limit physical activity, further restricting an already curtailed lifestyle. Fortunately, a yoga practice can adapt itself to any illness or injury, lending itself particularly well to TBI recovery.
Where to start? With yoga’s recent popularity 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 probably want to begin with a teacher trained in Iyengar yoga, which uses props to support proper alignment without strain. Kripalu trained teachers also tend to offer calmer, restorative classes. Any yoga class that emphasizes flow (not too fast, though) will help retrain sequential processing-an advantage for people who suffered damage to their left-brain or rational side. A vinyasa sequence links 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 talk with their treatment providers, as well as their intended yoga instructor. Most teachers ask about injuries in the beginning of class, but few people understand the intricacies of TBI on their own. Explain any unusual sensitivities or restrictions you experience and ask the instructor for recommendations within his or her own class, or for suggestions on where to find more compatible classes. Yoga is supposed to support and nurture growth, not exhaust the body and nervous system.
For this reason, survivors might initially want to stay away from Kundalini Yoga or Bikram Yoga, both of which offer intense workouts. Kundalini Yoga aims to awaken dormant energy potential, which sounds like a good thing for TBI survivors. Indeed, it can help tremendously–once neurons have stopped misfiring and “short-circuiting.” Most survivors inaccurately gage their stamina, though, easily over-stimulating themselves. Kundalini Yoga works powerfully on subtle levels, making energy levels more difficult to monitor. Sometimes the rapidly awakened kundalini proves too much for a sensitive TBI survivor. Bikram Yoga takes place in a very hot room, moving rapidly through poses that encourage the sweating of toxins. As with Kundalini, adherents of Bikram rave about its benefits. For a hypersensitive survivor, though, the excessive heat, body odor, and physicality of Bikram make it a less safe option. In the beginning, look instead for class titles like: “Restorative,” “Beginner,” “Iyengar,” “Kripalu” and “Gentle.”
Yoga Journal offers many DVD’s, in case survivors prefer to learn in the comfort of their homes. Start with short sessions to build up mental and physical stamina. Twenty minute DVD’s allow survivors a sense of accomplishment, without the potential fatigue caused by hour or hour and a half long in-person classes. Downward Dog Productions with Sarah Bates also offers accessible yoga DVD workouts designed especially for people with disabilities. At-home yoga workouts take most of the expense out of learning yoga, too, since survivors can invest in one or two DVD’s to practice every day, rather than paying for class each time. On the other hand, a good yoga teacher can personalize routines to support survivors’ own unique health challenges.
Besides 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 TBI survivor and Vice President of the New York State Brain Injury Association, recognized the transformative effects of yoga in her own recovery: “I began with a beginner’s gentle yoga class, where I slowly started to get atrophied muscles moving once again. The more I went, the better I began to feel.” Inspired, she began co-teaching yoga classes designed especially for other survivors. “These students are so thrilled to have the opportunity to be practicing yoga and reaping the wonderful benefits of asana and pranayam (breathing). … The happiness, tranquility and peace that yoga brings to them is so rewarding! Their smiles just say so much about how happy they are to be practicing.”
Yoga brings awareness from 5000+ years of connecting human body, mind and spirit. It began as a means of calming the endocrine system and relaxing 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 run on constant overload. Slowing down and bringing oneself to center can help anyone deal with stress. For TBI survivors, though, yoga offers a glimpse of not just “normal” functioning; yoga also brings the chance for optimal health and well-being. Many practitioners experience peace and self-acceptance for the first time in their lives, including pre-injury. Yoga becomes part of a greater awakening (facilitated by TBI)-helping survivors to find and appreciate the hidden blessings of their journey.