“Yoga 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.”
Yoking to Change
MINDFULMARCH COMMUNITY STORY SPECIAL | 03.10.19
BY JESSE HUFFMAN
Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not as if I just left all the fear, grief and loss back in the car. Nope. That was the biggest lesson of the day: at first, yoga may give us the space to leave things behind things that don’t serve us, but one of its highest function is transformation and integration. Of yoga’s numerous definitions and translations, one of the primary is “to yoke”— in asana practice, bringing breath, body and mind together. As I found that July day, yoking could also include the darker emotions that we might want to push away.
Inside the front door, I mumbled a hello to Steph Steeves, the Sangha teacher checking us in, and laid out my mat in farthest corner, both for the sake of avoiding the windows and personally hiding out. But as the other Love Your Brain yoga series participants walked in, I could both see and feel that this would be different than any other yoga class I’d attended; venues where everyone had been doing yoga for years, and “ability” was taken for granted. Several of the Love Your Brain series students were laughing and bright. Some were quiet like me. One was sitting in a chair.
As we started the actual movements, I found that I couldn’t comfortably engage in many poses that just a few weeks ago I would have. This is what it’s like to live with a brain injury, and creating a space to be ok with my energy and ability being so transient was new to me. It’s still a work in progress. I laid there for a good part of the first class, crying on and off as I tried to focus on my breathing, the quiet of the room and the presence of the other people.
The tears really came at the end, when we sat in a circle to share. It was just a brief introduction of who we were, and if we wanted, what our injury had been. I choked up. I hadn’t spoken with anyone besides my closest family, friends and health care providers about what I was going through, let alone a circle of strangers. Yet as the group went around, it once again became clear that this was a unique community. Everyone had their story of injury and loss, grueling and hard and sometimes leavened with time and humor.
Throughout the series, my physical condition improved and I was able to do all of the poses the teacher cued us through. That kinetic memory, etched in my body across so many years, came singing to the surface. More than that, I started to feel a “yoking” to something broader than a physical experience.
At first it was connecting with the people I was in the class with. Before my TBI, I jammed my yoga classes into my work as a freelance writer/video producer, which I scheduled around chasing powder, waves and dry weather for mountain biking. In general, I’d show up to yoga having worked all morning, find a calm and clear place by the end of class, and then rush back out the door, already checking emails on my phone. “Community” was not something I associated with yoga, despite practicing with the same teachers and students for years.
Since the end of the Love Your Brain series, I’ve continued to video conference in with Sangha Studio’s Resilience class for people with TBI/brain injury. It’s become a weekly cornerstone of my personal yoga practice, on and off the mat. I’m continually moved and honored to practice with the Sangha group, many of whom were in the LYB series I took. It’s a setting where everyone just shows up as they are; sitting in a chair, having a headache, laying down, whatever. We just do what we can, and we do it together. It’s beautiful. Virtual or not, they are part of my community.
As the heat of summer shifted into the bright colors of fall, “yoking” continued to redefine what had been a largely physical practice. For decades, the combination of focused breathing, alignment and an inspired sequence of poses would let me reach a “flow state,” akin to snowboarding or surfing at their peak moments, when the ego is subordinated to the pure physicality and presence. And I sensed that yoga was different, in that I was “just” on a mat, and when my mind was particularly quieted, I would experience a deep gratitude, or what I can only describe as a radiant reverence.
My body contained this well of being yoked, a well I had feared would run dry without the physical ability to practice asana at the level I had for years. But as TBI’s go, the stamina I had found in July, and that glimmer of my former practice, was lost again as setbacks and symptom flare ups again curtailed physical exertion. Instead of giving up my practice, I adapted to a slower breath, a slower form of movement— and found more and more different states entering my practice than I’d ever encountered before. Old thought patterns, past and present wounds and feelings would pop up. Geysers of grief and loss for the life I was leaving behind. Rushes of gratitude for just being able to be on the mat at all. For this practice, so ancient but so relevant after thousands of years.
There would be no predictor if I would end up crying in despair or if I would be visited by a total calm, stillness and connection that went beyond anything material. With so much time on my hands while I was resting, I started to wonder, how could all these seemingly contradictory states be possible in the same person, in the same practice, on the same mat? Without that burning heat of energy I was so habituated to putting in physically?
Slowly, my questioning softened into acceptance. What I was experiencing was another form of yoking, of integration. Or, from another yogic perspective, of making my way deeper through the Koshas, the five sheaths that we layer upon our most basic and pure being since birth. Whatever the definition, it was life, in its rawest states, playing out through my practice. Yoga was helping me build a container of awareness to notice my shifting emotional and feeling states, and the strength to maintain myself upright in their flow.
During my first few months of working with my therapist and yoga teacher, she kept coming back to the yogic tenant that the most advanced practice is whatever is appropriate for you right now. As I thought about that, I counted myself lucky that on the whole I was never a very aspirational yoga practioner. I never traveled to India seeking enlightenment, or wanted to become an instructor. Then, I realized that I did show up to class each week with the expectation of being able to perform my asana the way I had the week before, the month before, the past 20 years before. A judgement all its own that now I was being called to transform.
Moving from that habitual expectation to a more grounded acceptance was, and still is, a radical change. Bringing that to the mat was the first step toward a new way of looking at the practice, at myself and my TBI. It opened up a way of seeing the duality in everything. Strength and flexibility, suffering and joy; all of that and so much more, contained and connected within in a singular unity. My therapist described this as the shift from being a “yogist” to a “yogi.” I’ve never been one for labels, but this one makes a lot of sense. And really, it was just the beginning.
Since then I’ve had to put it into practice.
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/
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.