Beauty and the Brain: Five ways a Daily Yoga Practice Has Helped to Heal Brain Injury
One year ago at thirty-five years old, I suffered a Post-Partum Stroke. An Acute Subarachnoid Hemorrhage; otherwise known as a brain bleed. I lost my vision, left side function, and the ability to enjoy being alert and present with my brand new baby daughter. The months following my stroke I was hit with the aftershocks of PTSD, Anxiety, Post-Partum Depression, and general fear and loathing throughout my body. I sought healing out through the traditional channels of therapy, support groups, regular doctor visits and the like; and I attribute the beginning of my journey toward healing to those first steps. The real change and deep healing occurred when I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try alternatives on for a change. So I started with Yoga. I was weak and fractured physically and mentally the day I stepped onto the mat for the first time. I could barely make it through the class; and I became aware of just how far I had fallen away from my own body. But something kept bringing me back...and within a few weeks I had established a daily practice. No matter what the day held, I made it a priority to show up on the mat and face all those events and issues that had at one time paralyzed me.
Lisa Bertke, the owner and operator of Prana Yoga where I was attending classes noticed my dedication. I told her of my journey through brain injury and the struggles I encountered in the aftermath, and she encouraged me to continue my practice; assuring me that yoga could indeed heal and transform my life. Curious to know exactly how a yoga practice could change my brain and body I asked her to sit down and allow me to interview her. She granted me her time and here are five ways that yoga can change the brain, body, and soul.
1. Asana (the poses)
I wanted to know how these poses and movements had anything to do with the mind. What did the physical activity have to do with balancing the mental activity? Through my practice and through speaking with her I came to learn that these poses are the beginning of the journey. Moving the body and breath through poses brings the focus inward. B.K.S. Iyengar says that the poses are inherent concerning mental stability. Stretching and breathing from the center of the body outward toward the extremities moves prana (life force) to all the parts of the body. Calming the nervous system and bringing life and energy to the body on a cellular level. We cannot have a balanced mind without a balanced body. So the asanas are the starting point on a journey inward. I always thought that clarity started with me and extended outward into the world; my theory was turned around as I practiced the poses. Clarity starts with the physical body, and goes inward toward the inner sheaths of our body; and if properly focused can bring us through the sheaths to our true self.
The pain and struggle of the Asanas are nothing to be afraid of, neither should they be dismissed. Physical pain can become a teacher. When I wobble and topple and stretch to my edge I am bringing awareness into places that at one point were previously ignored. There is good pain and bad pain. Bad pain of course should be addressed and then corrected as to prevent injury. But the pain of pushing deeper into a pose, stretching with breath a bit deeper, sweat dripping and legs shaking to establish strength should be welcomed. That pain has helped to dissolve my anxiety and pacify my mind. It has built mental fortitude in a once shaky and disturbed mind. The pain has brought me deeper inside this broken body and been a healing balm for the corners of my consciousness.
3. Pranayama (Breath Work)
I was the poster child for panic attacks. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard "just breathe" throughout my life and how many times I have disregarded that advice. How in the world does breathing do anything for me when I am spiraling down into the depths of fear and anxiety? I used to consider breathing as a distraction from fear; now I realize that breath is the very essence of courage. Through breath work I have lowered my blood pressure, built lung capacity, and balanced the left and right side brain. A little bit of breath work every day has prevented me from having a panic attack in the past four months. And when I feel one coming on, I go straight to the tool box to pull out Pranayama to bring me through my fear.
Again I was skeptical. Stop my thoughts? Sit without thinking? My mind is an anxiety autobahn, there was no way to still it, or so I thought. My first few attempts at meditation were just that. Thoughts swirling through my brain and the more I tried to stop them the more the spiraled deeper. Then through my practice and interviewing my teachers I learned that it is not about stopping thoughts; rather allowing them to pass through without grabbing onto them and riding them as they go on their crazy bull ride. To sit, see them, and allow them to do their dance, breathe, and move through back to calm and clarity of mind. I began to think of thoughts as ripples on the surface of a clear lake, eventually they subside as they flow out from the center. Calming and stilling my mind has probably been the most crucial tool in healing my brain. Meditation has allowed my brain to take a break, calmed the vessels and allowed positive grooves to take shape where there once were negative patterns. The wonderful thing about the brain is that it is always changing; and we can change our minds. We can let those old negative paths of patterns grow over and begin to set foot on a more positive trail; and the more we walk the trail of positivity, calm, joy, and quiet the clearer path becomes.
My practice of yoga has encouraged me to give back. All that I have reaped, I want to share with others. Yoga has allowed me to be more compassionate towards myself and those in and outside of my life. Humble practice of serving others is an ancillary benefit of learning compassion and can transform the brain as well. We can get outside of our ego where fear and panic reside, and allow our good natured selves to shine; even if it goes unnoticed. The subtle gifts we can share with ourselves and others have eternal benefits.
My journey from a broken bleeding brain to learning the mind of a yogi has been thrilling. Rebuilding my body and mind from scratch has restored my sense of wonder and innocence. I cannot wait to see what other lessons lie around the bend as I go deeper into my practice. If there is one thing I could share to those who are going through trauma recovery it is the practice of yoga. As a trauma survivor I was looking to change from the outside in; and that was a difficult path. Yoga has taught me to journey inward, make adjustments, and watch the healing echo and expand in all directions.