Why do you teach yoga?
I teach yoga for a multitude of reasons. I teach yoga because it’s fun. I teach yoga because it helps us move and breathe in ways we don't normally get to during a normal day. I teach yoga because I enjoy encouraging others to learn more about themselves, about the way their body moves, the way they address emotions, and how they can discover what motivates and inspires them.
But the main reason I teach is because yoga is healing. This practice will be whatever you need it to be for you—you, an individual. In my personal practice, time on the mat has helped me deal with loss and find acceptance for a life that did not go as planned. Through that healing I have experienced an understanding bigger than I could imagine and a compassion that I would not have otherwise had without my practice. Yoga is good stuff. I want to share it with others.
Why do you think it is important to teach yoga to those who have had a brain injury?
Each brain injury is different. Not to mention, there are a myriad of variables that add on to the individuality of each injury—support systems, access to treatment and rehabilitation, personal motivation, financial status, age, family dynamics…and the list goes on. Each yoga practice is personal and caters to the needs of the individual. There is no blanket treatment for those who live with brain injury, and there is no blanket yoga practice that will benefit every person in the same way. However, the universality of yoga is that it keeps you present and fosters acceptance for that which we cannot control. To move and breathe and bend on a mat brings a greater awareness of the body in space. Connecting breath to movement connects mind to body, and herein lies the reason I believe it is most beneficial for people who live with brain injury.
As a result of undergoing trauma (brain injury, in our case) the mind-body connection is often weakened or severed. An individual may experience a sense of displacement, a loss of awareness, and a lack of purpose—along with various other intellectual deficits. Even the most basic yoga poses engage the subtle body, or the energetic body, and this is where we start to build awareness around our purpose, creation, motivation, reaction and intuition. The subtle body helps us connect our body to our mind, to tune us into the actions we take and the decisions we make. A yoga practice is literally a ‘practice’ of establishing, or re-establishing that connection.
What do you think are the most important teaching qualities and approaches to incorporate when teaching those who have had a brain injury?
I can think of many qualities—compassionate, patient, thick-skinned, gentle and a person who has a sense of humor—but the following two stand out the most. The teacher must know how to hold a space: There is so much more to yoga teaching than standing at the front of a room and cuing a class to move in unison. The teacher must be able to harness energy—the energy of the day, the weather, the environment, and most importantly all that energy that students bring into the room. When working with students who live with brain injury there can be a lot going on. One person might be feeling sluggish, while another might be overstimulated and a third totally sitting at peace. A good teacher will be able to teach a class that addresses each, yet unifies all three.
The teacher must be adaptable: Every day living with brain injury is different. There are good days and bad days. Teachers who teach and sequence in a more spontaneous fashion will be more at home teaching those who live with brain injury. In my experience, it is a very reactionary class, so you have to know how to cue, sequence, and adjust on the fly. For example, I had a class where a few students were doing just fine in Bridge Pose. However one man was telling me a story, while another student got up and left, and a third got very nauseated and had to run to the bathroom. There is simply a lot going on that you might not experience in a regular yoga class and you have be ready to teach through that.
What are the biggest rewards you have experienced from teaching those who have had a brain injury?
Oh wow. I don’t even know where to begin, so I will start with my father who is my first yoga student with a brain injury. I have watched him grow an enthusiasm for something and we had not seen any enthusiasm in him in years. I have watched him reconnect to his very compassionate and kind self as he grew more aware of his injury and less angry at the rest of us for seeing him as a different person. And I have seen his practice show him who he is today and get to know that man, which gives all of us less of that sense of ‘then and now’ or ‘before and after the accident.’
And in the past years, I have seen so many different ways yoga has enhanced the quality of life for other people who live with brain injury. The reward is hearing how much they love yoga and listening to each share the many ways that practicing has helped them in their own words. One man sleeps through the night—“without benzos.” Another man can close his eyes “without face-planting.” A woman feels “a buzz of calmness” when she practices. Another student feels “the greatest relief he’s had in fifteen years.” And when I teach these people, I feel that in some way I am helping heal, accept, love and find the good.
What are the biggest challenges you have experienced from teaching those who have had a brain injury?
It can be exhausting. That whole thing of holding space and being adaptable is not the easiest thing in the world to manage, especially when four students are going in four different directions, but you only have one yoga class and only half an hour of it left.
There are constant interruptions. People leave class. There are lots of bathroom breaks and many more verbal questions than a typical studio class. However I welcome it all because this is what comes with people who have to live with challenges and deficits every day. Sometimes it makes me really sad. In my personal life, there are days when it can be a battle not to just hate—Hate with a capital H—brain injury and how it makes life challenging for everyone involved. And sometimes I feel like me teaching those who live with it (and their caregivers and families and friends) is simply not enough to be the giant fix we all might dream of some days. But then I remember that really nothing in life gets a giant fix and that yoga—to me—is as good as it gets. Then I think of how grateful I am to be a person who can share this with other families like my own and help them in ways that I can.