How Yoga Helped Me Come to Terms With My Brain Injury
In December 2018, Suzan Colón put a callout on social media for a 30-Day Yoga Challenge. This challenge wasn’t like others where we post pictures of poses every day. This was a challenge to form an online Sangha — a group of like-minded people, usually walking the same spiritual path — and go through the yoga tools in her book “Yoga Mind” together. I had started reading the book and connected with Colón on Instagram through my Yoga and Brain Injury account. She commented on one of my posts one day asking if I was in — of course I was in!
Colón had been asked by people world how to do the program as a group; she announced it and then figured it out in her “flew by the seat of [her] proverbial yoga pants” style. She described the social media posts of participants as “creative, beautiful and heartfelt.” I would describe her online Sangha as an amazing accomplishment that reached and connected people all over the world.
Fast forward to January 31; I had finished the #YogaMindJanuary2019 Challenge, learned about yoga tools, e-met some amazing people and discovered a lot about my 10-year-old brain injury. The last part I did not expect.
In “Yoga Mind,” Colón takes her readers through 30 principles based on the eight limbs of yoga, and goes beyond the Western notion of yoga only being a physical practice (Asana). Each chapter gently guides readers to look at their lives and take their yoga practice off the mat. She guides readers by telling her own story of practicing yoga with her friend Franceso, who was paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury.
I had always associated yoga with physical postures (Asana). When I bought Colón’s book, I had a basic understanding that doing the physical practice of yoga had mental, emotional and spiritual benefits, but was unaware of how we can practice yoga in every moment of our lives and in every breath we take. I was also unaware of how I was walking around in the world after my fifth and sixth concussions — unhappy and unhealthy.
After 10 years in the world of brain injury, I thought I had a positive outlook on my post-injury life. Through learning about Ahimsa (non-harming), I realized I only held this positive outlook on relatively symptom-free days. On symptom-full days, I was resentful, frustrated and felt a lot of shame. I was also hurting myself by not taking the time I needed for my brain to heal. I’ve never taken the full amount of time off work I needed after a concussion and continued to work through my worst health moments. I may be a little stubborn. I thought I was being strong when I was actually causing harm to myself.
In learning about Saucha (cleanliness: purity but not perfectionism), I was able to acknowledge what was serving me in life and what wasn’t. Satya (compassionate honesty) helped me uncover anxiety and feelings I had about the workplace where I sustained the majority of my head injuries. By learning about these tools, I was able to walk away when the time came to quit my job.
I acquired my brain injury at age 16; this is what I’ve known my entire adult life and I’ve never taken the time to truly feel the losses but also the victories. I’m not afraid of my brain injury because I’ve done this for a long time.
Titiksha — the capacity for enduring difficulties and the strength that comes from knowing you can endure — allowed me to look at what I have and continue to overcome.
Tapas — viewing painful experiences as opportunities to learn and grow — allowed me to look at my strength in a more meaningful way that honored what each concussion has taught me in life.
I had the opportunity and honor to speak to Colón about her book. When asked which chapter she would recommend to a person with a disability she said:
“Day 9, Maitri (kindness), where Francesco and I discuss what Swami Satchidananda said about how we are ‘not the body, not the mind.’ We live in a culture where there’s tremendous identification with a physical structure that is in change every day, and a mind that can be influenced by all the information coming at it. We need to remember there is something deeper than that, the true self. We are not this ever-changing body or this ever-changing mind. This was tremendously helpful to Francesco, and the news comes wrapped in a message of kindness. I think that’s the most important starting point: kindness, compassion, love. From these we can derive great strength that can help us deal with the day-to-day stuff of being differently abled. It’s challenging, and it’s doable when we exercise the power of love.”
The final day of the Yoga Mind program is Sraddha, which means faith. Colón describes a beautiful surfboard analogy for life that tied all the self-study and feelings about my brain injury from the past 30 days together. Her analogy was that life is like surfing; we all fall off our boards but that’s why they have tethers. The tethers are our hope and faith that we will be OK.
This book put a lot of feelings about my disability that I had masked with optimism in front of my face, demanding to be addressed. “Yoga Mind” opened my eyes to them and provided me with the tools to address them with humility and honesty. Brain injury is a full time job in many ways and I’m grateful to have 30 new tools to use every day.
Reading “Yoga Mind” and looking at my life with a disability hasn’t made me any less optimistic, but my optimism is now based in honesty. Everything isn’t OK; I have brain injury symptoms daily, multiple concussions that have not healed and I’m afraid what another will do. Everything isn’t OK, but I’m OK because I have faith and optimism in myself, my brain and I’m able to exercise the power of love.