Caitlin Marco, 200 Vinyasa, teaches yoga classes to TBI survivors in IL

Why do you teach yoga?

I never intended on becoming a yoga instructor until I began teaching my mom, a TBI survivor, in my parents’ living room. My mom experienced a severe, open-head injury, which caused seizures, depression, blindness, and muscle atrophy. I drew on what I had studied about yoga and felt in my personal practice to build a yoga sequence for my mom. It was amazing to see how far she was progressing. It wasn’t just the physical aspect, but mental and emotional growth, too. Witnessing her progress confirmed for me that I needed to teach yoga to people with traumatic brain injury. There is a healing power yoga taps into on a physical, mental, and emotional level that my mom was never exposed to in all of the years she was treated for her injuries. I signed up for teacher training because I knew the only way to help others find their path to healing is to share our experience through teaching.

Why do you think it is important to teach yoga to those who have had a brain injury?

For me, yoga is about self-discovery and finding compassion. When you have something happen to you that changes who you are, like a brain injury, there are ripple effects that spread beyond the physical trauma. Those changes can manifest in your cognitive ability, the way you speak, how you move, how you feel, and how you react. Whatever it was that gave you your identity can be altered in a moment, but that change will stay with you indefinitely. With yoga, being able to find yourself through whatever changes occurred is the deepest healing that doctors may not be able to provide. Being able to find compassion for yourself by letting go of the idea of what made you you is a tremendous achievement. It helps you discover new possibilities that you might not have found before.

What do you think are the most important teaching qualities and approaches to incorporate when teaching those who have had a brain injury? 

I think some of the most important qualities in a teacher is having patience, compassion, humility, and a desire to learn. As a teacher, I’m only really teaching my own experience. Being able to learn from my students’ and my peers’ experiences have helped me be a better teacher because I’m able to expand my knowledge. To do that I had to be open to feedback and I want to have a good understanding of my students’ narrative. When I’m teaching those who have a brain injury, I always keep in mind that every brain is different and every injury is different. One flow or meditation may work great for one student, but it might not have the same affect on another and that’s ok. I know that in order for me to do the best I can, I can’t assume I know what’s good for every student. I will keep the structure of the class similar as well as the yoga flow so we begin to build memory patterns through repetition. I begin with asking what the pace of the class should be so I know how to guide the flow and what I should be observing. We take a time in the beginning with some breathing exercises and intention setting, then move through to the vinyasa flow. I’ve recently introduced a yoga journal for my students to write down things they want to create and things they want to release during each session so that they can look at their intentions as we move through the practice. I also keep a journal for each of my students to jot down the techniques that I used, the modifications, and their reactions and feedback. This helps me keep a record on how they are progressing and helps keep me accountable. 

What are the biggest rewards you have experienced from teaching those who have had a brain injury?

For me, the biggest rewards have been witnessing my students overcome things they thought they could never overcome. Whether it’s finding an arm balance after being afraid of falling, being able to keep a routine without forgetting or overcoming anxiety, I see their progress every time they get on their mat. Personally, I love seeing their progress before they even know it’s happening and being there to celebrate that.

What are the biggest challenges you have experienced from teaching those who have had a brain injury?

I think one of the more challenging hurdles is finding a way to pivot the fear that can come out of this practice. As a teacher, there is a line that I play with to push my students to their edge in a safe way. I want them to be safe and comfortable, but I also want them to explore new possibilities. That doesn’t necessarily mean they need to go deeper into a posture, although sometimes that assist is just what they need to find the confidence, but to challenge them to be mindful of their thoughts and emotions. Challenging someone with a brain injury to face what they might not want to explore can be a tricky dynamic. I think there is a lack of sensitivity for people with brain injuries because they don’t have a physical injury so it’s hard to tell what’s going on. As a teacher, you can’t see what the problem is or where it’s coming from, but it will come out in their reactions. I keep a journal of everything that works and doesn’t work well because I need to be mindful of the areas that are harder to work through. I’m better able to set the class up for success if I know what to look for.