Resilience in Practice
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.
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.
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.
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.