(This first person perspective on using yoga therapy to heal a concussion was written in July 2010 while 6-20 days post-concussion. The timing of the concussion was incredibly serendipitous; six days later I was scheduled to attend an 11 day Yoga of the Heart training with Nischala Joy Devi at Kripalu Yoga Center. The program is designed for cardiac and cancer therapy, but it was a remarkable recovery option for concussion. This piece was never shared publicly until recently when it was typed up for a 15 page research report on Yoga for Concussion as part of a 300 hour certification with Inner Peace Yoga Therapy. Thought it was not an official part of the research, it was included as a personal insight into a messed up brain and my continued motivation to study yoga therapy. I still believe the main component of recovery from concussion is patience, but I am hopeful that the standard of care will go beyond rest, limitations and restrictions. As multidisciplinary treatments are more readily understood and used in all areas of medicine, treatment plans that follow the yoga therapy model will continue to be developed for concussion.)
Falling, Flying and Wakeful Napping: Healing My Concussion
Being on a plane on a clear day is so amazing. It is a form of humility to feel so small as a city as big as Chicago shrinks down to something resembling an H scale train set. In years of flying, why haven’t I noticed this before? Comfortably connected, but without boundaries or motives; differences and judgement disappear from this height and my reality is tested.
This connection comes after going through the airport with a mixed sense of awe and fright at the number of people all scurrying along their own path. Winding my way through O’Hare is baby steps. I’m cautiously hesitant and extremely overstimulated. Living in the moment and being fully aware of my immediate surroundings is the only shield of protection, (that and a pair of dark sunglasses to hide my deep black eyes from inquisition). The words “please don’t touch me” repeatedly roll through my brain like an unchosen mantra. Resourceful with my energy, or lack there of, I allow myself to see everything without being there; unable and unwilling to join the party or react.
Oddly enough, an airport has never felt so peaceful. At the same time, I recognize that my brain is trying to chew through its leash and do what it wants. My movements are awkwardly unpredictable, like a blind drunkard. When I attempt to order a smoothie, my mind plays a game of Mad Libs with the sentences. Thank you understanding smoothie maker dude for your patience. I think you know the secret of my shattered brain.
Writing this now from the plane feels therapeutic because I have time to think and correct. This is perfect. My brain needs a challenge, but on my terms. Getting the thoughts from my head to the pencil to the paper takes time. And lots of erasing. When I go back to read the scribble, it is as if someone else wrote it.
It is likely that my desire to move in slow motion and watch the rat race in O’Hare as opposed to joining it is an innate, medical necessity. Six days ago, I was knocked unconscious when a pole of flying metal three inches in diameter hit me in the right temple, sending me to the ER with a concussion. With little memory of what happened, I know the best thing I can do is be present and forgiving of myself. My brain needs a healing, nurturing environment with limited stimulation. What could be more healing than yoga in the Berkshire mountains?
So I am on my way to Kripalu to do an 11 day “Yoga of the Heart” training to learn to teach yoga to heart and cancer patients. The irony is that I am now the one that needs serious recharging. After doctor recommendations, discussions with others who had concussions and reading all the gore the internet has to offer (in between much-needed naps), I have come to accept that it may be awhile before I no longer feel like a sea-sick sailor. At least I know my humor portion of the brain is still there as I seemingly inappropriately laugh out loud in my plane seat like a crazy person after writing the words “sick sailor”; the reality is that I was taken out by a sailboat boom.
Understanding this is a time to listen to and honor my body, I’m optimistic the word salad will settle as my brain finds balance. Mentally, I have made a list of the things I probably should not do: sailing (don’t really want to,) water skiing, any fast movement or contact, anything that raises my blood pressure or makes me sweat, and definitely no yoga inversions. That is a hard bit of reality when you love yoga, have 3 fun kids, live on a lake, the month of August is approaching and your nickname is the Energizer Bunny.
I keep coming back to one thought though: I believe in the healing power of yoga.
When I signed up for this training months ago, the ultimate goal was to empower others who also believe in their own healing power. The other day, frustrated and scared, I found myself doubting that same holistic approach to healing. Then I looked back at what brought me to yoga over 20 years ago – a desire and BELIEF that I could manage my panic attacks through breathing and meditation. After a double vision re-reading of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s “90 Second Rule”, I promise to give myself 90 seconds of circuitry freedom to flush the brain no matter what flies out of my mouth. With courage and searching for the appropriate-emotion-meter in my brain, I am considering an additional purpose for this training. My hit to the head was taking one for the team – only I got hit with the bat instead of the ball. I will approach this as a research participant trying to study the benefits of yoga therapy for Post Concussion Syndrome. More to come…
11 days have come and gone and the Puja graduation took place tonight; amazement and joy. I’m beginning to remember what it is like to be a whole person in mind and body. Appreciating that there is no control group – I would have been hard pressed on this sacred ground to find someone else who wanted to get hit in the head and NOT practice yoga – I have to believe there is no better way to heal from a concussion than a yoga retreat; specifically the peaceful protection of Kripalu under the leadership of Nishala Joy Devi: veggie diet, no TV, radio, cell phones or overstimulation…not even my computer, which I purposely chose to turn off the past 10 days, (mainly because of the instantaneous high power headaches it caused); surrounded by calm, attentive people taken to a surrealistic level – the Cleaver family in yoga pants smelling like a garden variety of essential oils. Everyone smiling, but the kind of smile your feel in your heart. The environmental factor is huge: it is easier to be peaceful and centered when you are surrounded by it. And unlike in the airport, where I suspected people looking at my black eyes thinking “poor lady, someone beat the shit out of her”, there is no judgment or labeling. We are all here to heal from something, and some of the deepest scars are not visible. This setting is a true Avalon for those in need of quiet personal space and unconditional love.
As for the practical instruction I was blessed to received in the name of learning to teach Deep Relaxation Through the Koshas, I cannot say enough about the healing benefits of this mystical state between wakefulness and sleep. Guided Deep Relaxation through the Koshas, specifically when in the hands of someone as masterful and compassionate as Bhaskar Deva, is a blissful holistic opiate. I looked forward to my daily afternoon “naps” (don’t fall asleep or you will miss the good stuff!) like a kindergartener rolling out their mat after milk and cookies. Only in this case, the “nap” kicked ass on the cookies. The commercial “this is your brain and this is your brain on drugs” where they show the egg frying in the pan met its antithesis. With each Deep Relaxation, my brain took a relaxing trip to the island of tranquility. I imaged my brain as a little superwoman being fed the anti-kryptonite/concussion serum during each relaxation session. It was as if I could feel the neurotransmitters throwing a party inside me as the swelling subsided.
On the down side, listening to, processing and writing notes was a gigantic struggle. As I look back now, it’s as if someone else occupied my body and thoughtfully took notes for me. But this, too, was part of the healing. The exhausting part admittedly. Getting the two hemispheres of my brain to team up again and send the appropriate messages to my hand resulted in lots of cross outs, chicken scratch and frustration. (I would love to blame the poor spelling as well, but that is a genetic flaw.) Too exhausted to do anything but sleep in the evening, I would reread my notes in the quiet morning hours in my dorm room proud and amazed at my ability to focus that long. The first few days, it was as if I was reading all new material. What fairy delivered this information while I was sleeping? Gradually, my brain began to recognize bits and pieces of the material from the day before. The language and thought process made friends with my writing hand too. Since this was an intense 100 hour training, taking notes was necessary. And to some degree, the processing of seemingly endless hours of intellectual information may have aided my recovery. If I were to go on-line today, however, and search out yoga for concussion treatment, I would look for a program with less intensity and more nap time – think retreat not training. But the daily dose of deep relaxation is a must!
As far as the yoga asana goes, my practice was stripped down to about 1/4 of its usual strength and vigor. Delightful! One of the things I thought I would miss the most – the challenge of flow, big backbends and inversions – was replaced with grace; an acceptance of what I could not do and embracing what I could. In the yoga philosophy, this translates as being able to recognize my strengths through self-study (svadhyaya) and surrendering limitations to a higher purpose (ishvara pranidhana). Fortunately, Kripalu style yoga lends itself well to a gentle practice. In the big picture, the physical poses were like being offered desert when I was already satisfied from the meal; not necessary, but a pleasant accompaniment. I also learned to “under-do” – to fill my awareness on less, which is a feeling I will carry with me in my practice.
From a practical standpoint, I don’t hold much hope that football players or wrestlers will retreat to Kripalu after a concussion. But trust me when I tell you, it is their loss.
On to the real world. That’s a whole other story. Can you say relapse?