Practicing Yoga After a Concussion
About two months ago, I experienced something that I thought happened only to football players: a concussion. While exiting an SUV, I leaned into the car to grab my sneakers from the floor and was hit in the head when a passenger in the third row back seat flung the middle row seat onto my head.
Over the course of the subsequent intensive rest period and recovery, I’ve struggled with the physical, emotional, and mental challenges of this traumatic brain injury, or TBI. (A concussion is considered a mild form of TBI, though many doctors now say that there’s no such thing as a mild concussion.)
There’s also a growing body of research revealing that women’s brains are impacted by trauma differently than men’s, with the possibility that they are more sensitive to injury and in need of unique recovery strategies. The exact reasons for this are still unknown, but scientists do know that women’s brains have a multitude of differences (e.g., chemicals, hormones, structure) that result in different concussion impact and needs. Over the past several months, my life has changed dramatically. And, because my yoga practice is so deeply interwoven into the fabric of my life, that, too, has been transformed.
My intention in this article is to give a voice to people living with the effects of TBI, and to give yoga teachers some insight into what students with TBI could be experiencing. While concussions in specific populations, like NFL players and young people, are getting more attention lately (and rightly so), one doctor I saw recently told me that adult concussions are often undertreated. I hope to be part of a larger conversation that brings concussion recovery for all people into the light, so that we can improve awareness and better support people living with TBI.
Discovering My New Normal
One of my most beloved teachers often says, “If you can breathe, you can practice yoga.” I’ve always taken that message to heart. In March, I was felled by the flu and weak with fever, so asana was not an option for me for a couple of days, but I continued to practice pranayama from bed, a gentle belly breathing to help me heal and restore.
Expecting to be able to rely on my trusty pranayama practice any time asana was out of the question, a few days after my concussion I arrived on my mat and turned first to belly breathing. (I was directed by my doctor to initially avoid any exercise that would elevate my heart rate.)
Stop. Stop. Stop. My brain screamed in the midst of the first breath. Too much. Too much. Too much.
My eyes popped open and I sat on my mat, dumbfounded, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Overstimulation and consequent feelings of overwhelm are an expected part of concussion recovery. A big, full breath is enlivening, activating, and often exhilarating. In almost any other situation, this would have felt amazing, but for my healing brain, it felt like a threat.
OK, I thought, trying my best to go with the flow. I’ll take a break from pranayama. I’ll meditate instead. I closed my eyes once again, preparing to turn inward and sit for a few minutes. But what happened as soon as I closed my eyes was not the typical trickle of thoughts that I experience when I meditate; it was an onslaught. If I could paint a picture of what appeared inside my head in that moment, it would look like a Jackson Pollack painting. My heart started to race and the thoughts became loud and insistent.
What now? I thought.
Anchored by the Yamas and Niyamas
A couple of weeks into my journey of recovery, I arrived on my stand-up paddleboard (although I was sitting rather than standing). In that moment, I was supremely grateful to feel the sun on my skin as my board flowed with the current. I had no expectations of how I might feel for the remainder of that day, having learned that my energy and mood could turn on a dime. I wasted no time on wishing away my injury. Instead, I was content. Santosha, I thought, turning to one of my beloved yamas and niyamas, the ten yogic guidelines for living a happy life. This is it.
I am working on maintaining that same equanimity throughout the brain fog, the fatigue, the migraines, and the sheer frustration that comes from things not being the way I want them to be. Like a beginner attempting crow pose, I have fallen out of santosha many times in the past several weeks, but I recognize that this is an opportunity for one of the deepest practices of my life thus far.
Each moment also brings me a choice: Is this activity worth my energy? I have far less than usual and need to use it to do the eye exercises prescribed by my physical therapist, to work, and to take care of myself. Texts go unanswered. The hair dryer gathers dust. I rely on my family to do most of the cooking and cleaning.
When I push my energetic boundaries, the site of my injury begins to softly throb, a built-in early-warning system. I immediately pull back, rest, and honor my limits. I am conserving my energy. Here is my practice of the yama brahmacharya, which is often defined as conservation of energy: total awareness of the energetic needs of my system. I fall each day from this practice, too, my ego urging me to do more than I should, whispering seductively in my ear. I try again the next day, seeking that sweet spot where I am neither complacent in my recovery nor overly ambitious. This is the most challenging yoga that I have ever practiced.
I am so grateful for the yamas and niyamas, which appear regularly on my path to help guide my way. In the West, it seems that they often live in the shadow of asana. For me, today, they are the limbs supporting me on this sacred tree we call yoga.
I am afraid to go to studio classes, something that’s been an important part of my yoga practice since I first started practicing. What if I have to explain the concussion? I don’t always feel up to telling my story; sometimes it feels good to share, while at other times it causes my anxiety to flare. What if I feel “off” in the middle of the class? What if my palms start to sweat, as they often do these days, before class even gets started? For now, I continue to practice at home, building my stamina gently in an environment that feels safe for me. Some days, I never rise into standing poses. Other days, I hold a strong warrior II. I am learning to come to my mat with zero expectations.
I know that stress is a big part of this equation. When I feel frustrated, my stress increases, and I’m less able to deal with that frustration. It’s a vicious cycle. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that restorative yoga is a powerful antidote to stress; I teach it for a living. But setting myself up on my mat with my beloved big bolster, blankets, and soft music doesn’t feel the way it used to feel. When I’m not immediately able to access that sense of calm and release that I’m used to, my system balks. Tears burn the back of my eyes. It feels easier to just watch a television show that lets me pretend for a half hour that none of this ever happened.
These are hard truths for me to acknowledge. I am a yoga teacher; I am supposed to be able to practice asana, pranayama, and meditation on a daily basis without batting an eye. I feel like a failure most days.
And yet my mat still sits in my yoga space, waiting for me; the thought of throwing it out and giving up has not crossed my mind, not once. My yoga and I will get through this. I don’t know how I’ll feel tomorrow in body, mind, and spirit, but that yoga, in some shape or form, will always be a part of my life is one thing I know for sure.
Trying, working, and striving can’t improve every situation; sometimes all we can do is wait and see where life, and yoga, takes us.
What I’ve come to realize is that I have to let go of the goal of making my yoga practice what it once was. Instead, I am building a new yoga practice that might look completely different. Above all else, I am reminded that there will be times in life when all that is left to do (or not do) is to practice the yama ishvara pranidhana, to surrender to my higher power. Trying, working, and striving can’t improve every situation; sometimes all we can do is wait and see where life, and yoga, takes us.
Each time I visit my concussion specialist, she reminds me that I am healing, slowly but surely. I don’t expect that I’ll ever be quite the same as I was before my accident. But that’s okay, because I’ve decided that I’ll be even better. I’ll see my new limitations as opportunities to become more fully human, to deepen my empathy for the suffering of others, and to appreciate every symptom-free minute as if it could be my last.
To Learn More
We have a lot to learn about concussions and traumatic brain injuries, and concussions in women are gravely in need of more attention and support. If you or someone you love has experienced TBI, check out the following resources:
Pink Concussions (dedicated to women’s concussion recovery and research)
Love Your Brain (includes specialized yoga training for TBI)
Brain Injury Association of America (awareness and advocacy)
Traumatic Head Injury: Causes, Consequences, and Challenge (known as “the red book”)
As a yoga teacher, writer, coach, and higher educator, Karen Costa has dedicated her career to helping others live their best lives.
Her teaching is focused on gentle, restorative, and accessible yoga. She is passionate about helping students from all walks of life, at all levels, to connect with the powerful practice of yoga. In particular, having recovered from the pervasive impact of the disease of stress, Karen feels called to help other women struggling with stress to make positive... Read more>>