Beginner’s Mind, Beginner’s Brain
MINDFULMARCH COMMUNITY STORY SPECIAL | 02.28.19
BY JESSE HUFFMAN
Over the past two-plus decades, yoga has been the single most important wellness practice throughout my adult life. I began yoga in 1997 to rehab from a spinal fusion caused by a snowboard accident, and it helped me stay in shape as a professional snowboarder. It kept me grounded when I left the west coast behind to pursue college and writing in New York City. It cultivated the flexibility and mental space I needed when I moved back to Vermont to take up a desk job, start a family, build a house, survive cancer and ultimately endure the dissolution of my marriage.
“It cultivated the flexibility and mental space I needed when I moved back to Vermont to take up a desk job, start a family, build a house, survive cancer and ultimately endure the dissolution of my marriage”.
I’d like to think I didn’t take yoga for granted, but at the same time, I never stopped to understand, or ask, how this ancient practice worked. All I knew, all I needed to know, was that if I went to a yoga class each week my body would feel a whole lot better, and my mind would too. I didn’t question it. I never imagined not being able to do it. And not once did I associate the practice with fear, or even anxiety.
Yet there I found myself, on the first day of a July 2018 Love Your Brain yoga series, shutdown by grief and fear. I sat in the passenger seat of my dad’s car— I couldn’t and still can’t manage to drive more than 20 minutes myself without getting perilously nauseous— in front of Sangha Studio in Burlington, quavering on the edge of tears. I wanted nothing more than to turn the car around and drive back to my parent’s home, 45 minutes south in Montpelier.
It was a steamy summer day, just over a year after my second concussion in 2017. After a history of over 12 “mild” impacts, none of which I had seen a doctor for since they had seemed to cause me any lasting effects, these last two were the end of what my brain could bear. I already been out of work for 8 months when the post-concussive nightmare brought new and debilitating symptoms, first with tinnitus, then nausea caused by what my doctors dubbed a “chronic vestibular post traumatic migraine,” along with the general “TBI” diagnosis.
After everything I had already been through in 2017, the first months of 2018 found me back in bed with the curtains drawn tight. This time around, any stimulation, even thinking or meditating, spurring on wracking nausea that claimed my body morning to night. Fears of every stripe marched their way forward during that time, one of them never being able to practice yoga again. I could barely bend over to put my socks on, let alone do the yoga flow that had been with me— that it turned out I had indeed taken for granted— for the past 20 years.
“As I sank into the support of the props and mat, grief poured out of my body through a practice that had become a home for me so many years ago— a home that I had feared to my core I’d be locked out of.”
I got lucky with finding a doctor that was both knowledgeable and accessible, and by March I was on medications that took the nausea down enough to start moving more. Just as lucky, I found a therapist who was also a yoga teacher. Our first few sessions involved simple restorative poses. As I sank into the support of the props and mat, grief poured out of my body through a practice that had become a home for me so many years ago— a home that I had feared to my core I’d be locked out of. My therapist clued me into the first of many broader yogic teachings, perhaps the deepest of all: that you don’t have to even perform the “asana,” or physical poses to be a “yogi.”
Buoyed by this notion, and by progress with my physical therapy and new medications, I started to rebuild an asana practice at home, slowly, carefully, gently. With the bold intention of responding to where I was at that moment, not what the practice felt like a year before. And gradually, I felt some of the magic come back, moments of flow where I could just be, beyond the constraint of thought or emotion. When I had signed up for the Love Your Brain Yoga series, I was feeling fairly stable. But then a setback (I was new to these) threw my confidence out the window.
Sitting in front of the yoga studio that early July day, I felt it all imploding on me. After finally being able to practice a little, my symptoms were flared up to the point I wasn’t even sure I could do any yoga at all. Even more significant, I discovered in that moment, I was resisting labeling myself as a person with a “brain injury.”
Beginners mind is a mediation term for approaching each time you sit down as if it were the first time ever, with no expectations, no judgements. It can be applied to a great many things in life besides mediation. Now I was facing a beginner’s brain, and body, also.
Looking back, it’s easier to understand the tension my mind was grappling with. Could I bridge the gulf between how I used to understand myself as a yoga practitioner, and this undefined and still changing version that I had to adapt to? Let alone accept the label of having a brain injury? So much of me wanted to stay put in the car. But a deeper voice knew that the only way forward was to confront the despair, loss and grief I was experiencing.
Whether I found or faked the courage to walk through Sangha’s front door doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I went inside— the first step on a journey that’s transformed my yoga practice, sense of identity, and how I look at world in general.
Want to know what I’ve discovered? Check here next week for the next chapter.
Jesse Huffman is a freelance writer and video producer based in Vermont.
@manhuff | http://www.jessehuffman.com/
Special thanks to Shem Roose for the amazing photos!
@shemispheres | https://www.shemroose.com/