When you’re hurt or ill, all you want is a feeling of comfort and warmth from others. But when isolation and stigmatization caused by a trauma or accident replace that, some feel there is nowhere to go.
However, studies and literature have shown that yoga and meditation can provide an outlet for healing and recovery and help those recovering take back what their brain injury once took from them.
Yoga is known for its physical benefits, such as an increased flexibility, weight loss and increased muscle tone. But yoga, which also integrates meditation and mindfulness, can also benefit one’s mental state, including attention, memory, stress level and balance — all things that can be affected by traumatic brain injury (TBI) or other mental ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What is traumatic brain injury?
TBI is an invisible disease and can be referred to as the silent epidemic. Those suffering from TBI may appear physically OK but often feel misunderstood because they are battling myriad mental and emotional symptoms no one else can see.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes a TBI as a “disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or penetrating head injury.” Not all hits to the head cause TBI, but the severity can range from mild, such as a concussion, to severe, which can cause irreparable damage. Symptoms can include headaches and a loss of coordination or balance to chronic pain, anxiety and denial.
Dr. Caroline Hollnagel, neuropsychologist at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, said yoga and meditation can help supplement primary care therapies — physical, occupational and speech — patients have to undergo, but should not replace them.
In addition, Hollnagel said there needs to be more research on the benefits, but findings are promising so far. Meditation techniques used in yoga can help with mental fatigue and improve self-regulation and parts of the brain attached to attention and arousal. This can help patients pay attention in their core therapies or increase their desire to participate in them.
Yoga helps build your core and back and helps improve posture, which are things patients work on in occupational therapy, Hollnagel said. Yoga can also help patients with higher fall risk, including those with brain injuries, because it can improve your balance.
TBI and LoveYourBrain Yoga
According to studies compiled by the LoveYourBrain Foundation, between 3.2 million and 5.3 million Americans are living with a traumatic brain injury.
The LoveYourBrain Foundation was founded by former professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce and his brother, Adam, of Vermont. During a practice in 2010, just before the Vancouver Winter Olympics, Kevin suffered a traumatic brain injury that ended his career. His experience and journey to recovery were documented in the HBO documentary “The Crash Reel.”
Yoga and meditation have been instrumental in aiding Kevin’s recovery, and the foundation brings awareness and means of support to those who suffer from TBI and their caregivers.
The foundation’s website offers multiple tools for those in recovery such as daily meditations, yoga videos and education on TBI. LoveYourBrain also offers LoveYourBrain Yoga which is a free, six-week program that is offered in studios in 30 states, including Lila East End Yoga in Portland, the first and only program in Maine. LoveYourBrain offers trainings for yoga teachers, health professionals and caregivers to learn the tools and skills to make classes more accessible for those with brain injuries.
“Our program is really designed to meet where they are,” Kim Baker, director of implementation at the LoveYourBrain Foundation, said.
Baker said the classes have been adapted so they may be more accessible to those suffering brain injuries and are designed to foster community and resilience. A way they do that is adapt specific poses, offer movements that will help support memory development and combat negative thoughts associated with their injury.
According to Baker, the classes have a set structure and include time for breathing, meditation, gentle yoga that has been adapted and 20 minutes of group discussions to help foster community among attendees
The LoveYourBrain Yoga at Lila East End Yoga will hold it first six-week series for brain injury survivors and their caregivers in July.
Yoga and PTSD recovery
Yoga can also aid those with PTSD who suffer from changes in their nervous system functioning, sleep difficulties, intrusive thoughts and severe emotional pain, including veterans.
The Veterans Yoga Project is a nonprofit organization that aims to improve the wellbeing of veterans with PTSD through free yoga classes, retreats and trainings.
Kasia Moffett is a yoga instructor at Om Land Yoga’s Bangor location and teaches classes weekly on behalf of the Veterans Yoga Project. She took the organization’s Mindfulness Resilience Program, which in order to teach included an overview of military history, scientific information, languaging and the effects of service, especially PTSD, and other psychological injuries vets can suffer.
“It makes yoga more accessible to them. They have high standards to themselves. It’s off putting if they don’t know what to do,” Moffett said. “It provides a space where veterans can feel more comfortable to know the basics.”
Hollnagel, who used to work with first responders with PTSD in San Francisco, says meditation helps to activate a sense of calm and relaxation as PTSD is an anxiety disorder. Those who suffer from PTSD need deep breathing, which brings relaxation, and stretching — things yoga can provide.
The feedback Moffett has received from her students include having more resilience, improved sleeping patterns and improved body awareness for those with TBI.
“Mindfulness practice is paying attention to your breath. Yoga helps enable that by the nature of it,” Moffett said. “You have to be present to the practice. That’s all you have to do.”
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This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s May 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.