MindfulMarch

Chapter 3: Resilience in Practice

Chapter 3:

Resilience in Practice

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MINDFULMARCH COMMUNITY STORY SPECIAL | 03.17.19

BY JESSE HUFFMAN

How did I put this newly evolving understanding of yoga into practice? Let’s start with the bigger picture. Everyone comes to yoga for something different, but a sense of physical and emotional balance seems to be a central and widely-shared goal. Yoga offers this— building strength and flexibility, focus and softness, presence and openness. Developing balance is important for full-abled people. Add in a TBI, and it can seem like you’re on the mat striving for balance, all day long.

Yoga offers TBI survivors both a place of refuge to practice assessing and respecting where they are in the moment, and a safe harbor to grow, both physically and mentally.
LoveYourBrain

Brain function impacts so much, from the cognitive to the physical and the emotional. TBI survivors show up to yoga with a diverse range of challenges. I know I am preaching to the choir, but we’re talking everything from memory, focus and mental fatigue; physical dizziness, seizures, vision, auditory and speech impairments; on to emotional regulation, and more. Working through these challenges in everyday life can create a lot of stress and social isolation. Yoga offers TBI survivors both a place of refuge to practice assessing and respecting where they are in the moment, and a safe harbor to grow, both physically and mentally.

For myself, finding balance on and off the mat has waxed and waned in parallel with my own set of physical and cognitive challenges. I had 20 years of yoga going for me when I started down my TBI path. But I also had to overcome 20 years of expecting myself to practice yoga at a certain level, and a whole lifetime of expecting my body and brain to perform on demand. Setback after setback, this lesson was one I was learning the hard way. It was the hardest but most direct teaching about what it meant to live my practice.

During the spring and summer of 2018 I had found some momentum with my yoga practice and physical endurance. I took two short hikes up a local mountain, was getting daily walks in, and was out on my stand up paddle board often. I could manage all of the 50-minute Love Your Brain yoga videos available online, and was conferencing in weekly with the Sangha group. Then I began to go off of a medication that my doctors, and I, were pretty sure wasn’t really helping the chronic post concussive migraines.

My symptoms began to creep back, but I was convinced if I could just manage to get off the medication, then I’d get on track again. Right as I was about to finish the arduous 3-month taper, the worst of my nausea came crashing back like a disabling wave— almost as bad as the beginning of 2018 when I was bed ridden. It became clear I couldn’t take care of shopping and cooking for myself. Let alone keeping up the house in Plainfield, Vermont I’d built with my now-estranged spouse, and had been succesfully living alone in for months. Despondent and desperate, I moved back in with my parents in Montpelier, and went back on the medication I had wanted so badly to be rid of.

At first, I couldn’t imagine maintaining my yoga practice. In Plainfield, I had been practicing in the airy and spacious walk-out basement, a large row of windows filtering in daylight through an array of plants. In Montpelier, I wedged my mat into my parent’s tiny TV room, a towering bookcase on one one side, and a care-worn couch and chair on the other. I was physically hampered by my relapsing symptoms, only able to manage restorative and seated poses for most of October. My hands would knock into the shelves as I lifted them for Ohm arms, and outside the shut door, floorboards would creak as my parents, both retired, wandered around the house.  

The contrast in my practice spaces mirrored what was going on inside my head. My yoga practice, my health, my stability, my independence; all of it was seemingly crumbling. The physical space itself was jammed with VHS tapes and magazines, my own memorabilia from decades of snowboarding— another core activity, one that I would never get to do again due to the risk of falling and triggering another concussion.

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Even as the worst of the resurgent nausea started to mellow, I wasn’t capable of the physical effort I had sustained over the summer. Still, I returned to the mat each day, witnessing all the thoughts and emotions welling up through this unplanned step backwards. Meanwhile, I was still engaged in property settlement mediation with my spouse. Toward the end of November, there came a moment when we reached a tentative agreement where I’d keep the Plainfield house. That amazing, small dwelling set on 7 acres of beautiful land, which in the summer months, when my symptoms were easier, had seemed so critical to my peace of mind and my recovery.

Yet this also fell away. Given how up and down my symptoms had been so far in 2018, there was no way to be sure that I could manage owning a house, physically or financially— whether it was shoveling the driveway or making enough money to pay the mortgage. It wasn’t a pretty moment, but it was a massive shift in my perspective. Despite that cluttered TV room in Montpelier, my daily yoga practice helped me be real about my situation. The gentle movements, restorative poses and focused breathing offered the space to be honest with myself about this truth that was equally devastating and liberating.

My TBI diagnosis had come after multiple mild concussions, none of which involved a major accident. None of my falls had resulted in a drop of blood being spilled. I was acutely aware of the “TBI” symptoms I was experiencing, and fully engaged in managing them, medically and behaviorally. But for months, I had resisted the label of “brain injury.” Letting the house go was a turning point where I started to accept that I had a TBI, and that it would truly affect how I lived my life going forward. Hopefully not in the extent it has the past year and half, but it was going to be part of me.

There’s no sugar coating the sheer insanity that the past year and half has put me through. I know you have your own version, and from the stories I’ve heard, it’s probably even crazier than mine. There have been so many ups and downs, so many loses, it can be all too easy to wander off and get lost in the darkness. The remedy, it’s turning out, is somewhat like snowboarding in the trees— where you need to focus on your line, not the obstacles you’re weaving through. It’s an environment and activity where your attention needs to become both acute and broadly flexible at the same time.

LoveYourBrain
There have been so many ups and downs, so many loses, it can be all too easy to wander off and get lost in the darkness. The remedy, it’s turning out, is somewhat like snowboarding in the trees— where you need to focus on your line, not the obstacles you’re weaving through.

Through yoga and meditation, I’ve begun to build this stability of awareness in my everyday life. I’m slowly cultivating a discernment that lets me appreciate the times I’m not feeling nauseas, even on my worst days, helping me see beyond the moment I’m in— whether I’m feeling great, or feeling at my worst. I’m learning to integrate both “negative” feelings, alongside beautiful moments of shining inspiration, love, connection and synchronicity that appear, when we allow ourselves to be open to them.

Being able to feel the definitions of this broader, more expansive and balanced state of mind is something that I previously would have only associated with an intense asana sequence, or maybe a particularly epic moment riding on a board in the mountains or in the ocean. Pose after pose, moment after moment, I’m starting to see that beneath it all, there’s solid ground— a path where I can step, one foot after the other, forward to meet the new me, and a new future as a person with a TBI.

Living my practice meant being truly honest, and compassionate, about the limits of my TBI. Next, I had to learn how to live that truth in relationship with other people. That of course is another story, which you can read here next week.

Chapter 4: Aligning with Compassion

Chapter 4:

Aligning with Compassion

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MINDFULMARCH COMMUNITY STORY SPECIAL | 03.25.19

BY JESSE HUFFMAN

This isn’t the first time I’ve written publicly about a major injury. The first was after breaking my back during my first season as a professional snowboarder. The crash had been documented on film and photo, and during my recovery, which went quicker than this TBI has, my mom encouraged me to write an article about it. The story and photos ran in Transworld Snowboarding, and the crash appeared in that year’s Mack Dawg movie, which at the time were the internet of snowboarding (yes millennials, this was 1997!). From then on, a lot of people associated me with that injury, and even years later I would get asked, “how’s your back?” As a much younger person whose identity revolved around snowboarding, having my pro career boiled down to that accident stung, bad.

 Yet my own awareness of the injury faded as I recovered, returned to pro snowboarding and started building a yoga practice. I was bitter over the time I’d lost recovering, but I didn’t imagine myself as a person with a “T12-L11 spinal fusion”— for most of my twenties and early thirties, I didn’t even think about it.

One moment of contrast to that lack of awareness was during a yoga class I attended in California, where the Ayengar-trained teacher’s role was making sure everyone got into poses “correctly.” When I couldn’t manage a certain pose, my reaction to the teacher’s strict response, and the rest of the classes’ perfection, was jamming myself into a position I couldn’t maintain. It hurt, and after the class I broke down about it to my then girlfriend, who didn’t even know about my spinal fusion herself. “Why didn’t you just tell the teacher about that?” she asked. The truth was, up to that point, I hadn’t thought I needed to explain it to anyone, so I just didn’t.   

From then on, a lot of people associated me with that injury, and even years later I would get asked, “how’s your back?” As a much younger person whose identity revolved around snowboarding, having my pro career boiled down to that accident stung, bad.
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This time, going public about my TBI is an intentional step toward loosening my grip on what I can’t control, and owning my vulnerability. Was I nervous to share these stories? Believe it. But just like that day last July at Sangha Studio in Burlington, I knew from experience, from intuition, that there was no way forward but through. Living my practice has meant finding my own alignment; with my brain, my symptoms, and now my relationships.

It’s becoming clearer that the bulk of my yoga experience taught me this from the beginning. I was blessed to learn from compassionate teachers who cued physical alignment for each individual, and I got to practice with students of various abilities, body types and aspirations. Because of my spinal fusion and my stocky, athletic build, I needed modifications and props to get into poses. This clued into something that informs my practice today, both on and off the mat— it isn’t what your version of the pose looks like, it’s how it feels in your body. When I put those tools to use, when I let go of my ego’s desire to mimic the teacher and other students, I truly felt radiant in my own expression. I’m not thinking about how it looks from the outside. It just feels good to me.

For years that remained the same. Then in the years leading up to my latest two concussions and TBI diagnosis I experienced more yoga injuries— from pushing into poses my back wasn’t capable of, or I wasn’t warmed up for. Due to aging and my spinal injury, I was already in the process of re-learning my yoga asana practice when my brain became the main limiting factor.

The analogy between alignment in physical asana and alignment in our everyday lives gets fuzzy, since a TBI can be so up and down symptomatically. And even hazier still, because, unlike a studio yoga practice, the comparisons to our teachers and fellow students aren’t limited to that hour and half class. They go on throughout our lives, and in our heads, when we compare our TBI-selves to our “past” lives. When I first came to yoga, I had no other “version” of the practice to grieve not being able to perform. Before my TBI I had nearly 40 years of uninterrupted, high-level mental and physical function that has now come to stuttering halt. Releasing that comparison has become one of my main challenges to acceptance.

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Yet the power of my personal-alignment-centered yoga practice remains an inspiration, teacher and guide for me, more now than I ever realized before. Living this practice means expanding my definition of alignment farther than I’ve ever had to. On the mat of life, how can I move in a way that shows maximum respect and compassion for my brain and body, as it is that day, that hour, that moment? What tools and supports do I need to express myself fully, as I am, now— gaining maximum benefit and growth from my journey— without comparing what my life looks like currently to everyone else’s around me?

I’m not sure yet how, or when to communicate with other people about my disability, especially when I’m not feeling hampered by my symptoms. Do I just go with it, and for a moment, for a conversation, pretend that I’m “normal”? Just writing these stories has pushed my understanding of my capabilities, forced a reckoning with what I thought I could and should do, versus my new limits. What would have taken me two or three days of concentrated effort before my TBI has now distended over a month, leaving me feeling not so hot symptomatically, either.

So, while I have some ideas about these questions, I’m starting to accept I’ll never have all the answers. I’m starting to sit into the reality that relating to other people, to the “outside world,” begins with how I relate to myself and my injury. My goal is to feel better of course, while also being compassionately aware that I do have a TBI, that I do have limits that I need to work within. It turns out that this lesson of co-existing vulnerability and strength is exactly what yoga has been teaching me this whole time. And knowing that there are other individuals on the same journey of discovery has created a place where I can return and feel centered, again and again.

I finally made it back to the Sangha Resilience class this February, six months after I had taken their summer 2018 LYB series. It was a clear and windless VT day, where on the sunny side of the street spring hung in the air like a question mark or unfinished sentence. This time my dad just dropped me off at the studio, and drove away on his own agenda.

Inside, the tall industrial ceilings were disorienting compared to the tiny room I practiced in at home. As I took off my winter boots, in came people I had only seen on a screen. I said hello and smiled, but I was nervous and overwhelmed. The space, so big, so public. It ended up being a full class, one mat placed right up next to the other.

As Britt Shatuck welcomed us to find a comfortable seat, I was struck by just how much bigger it all felt in person, in public, out from the safe but stifling confines of my parents’ house. We worked gently from seated to all fours, and I found my eyes closed— I can still do many poses except standing with my eyes shut. I used to go a whole class like that. Instead, I opened my eyes and looked around at my fellow practitioners, taking in the space, the moment. There were people I’d met during the July LYB series, some I’d only glimpsed in video conference, and some I hadn’t seen ever before. Some were in chairs, some were adapting in their own ways. All of us just moving, breathing, a community of people with a “disability” practicing, together. This was yoga after a brain injury. And it wasn’t just OK. It was beautiful.

LoveYourBrain
All of us just moving, breathing, a community of people with a “disability” practicing, together. This was yoga after a brain injury. And it wasn’t just OK. It was beautiful.

Everyone is going to get something different out of yoga. For me, yoga, mindfulness and meditation have been there for me throughout this new chapter in my life, helping me find what I hope is a rhythm to this new and still foreign song.

If you’ve read all of these stories, thanks for listening to my account of this process. I hope you find something useful here for your own journey. There are too many people too thank, but since this is all about yoga, before I pass the mic I want to thank all the teachers that give us their guidance and wisdom, and all my fellow LYB yogis for showing up each Wednesday to practice. Namaste.