Aligning with Compassion
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.
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.
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.
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.