Yoga Brain

BY: ALYSON ROGERS

Before my brain injury, I was convinced yoga wasn’t for me; I was a year-round athlete and long-distance running legs were not yoga legs in my mind.

After my brain injury, I was convinced yoga wasn’t for me; I went to a few classes and struggled to keep up and do the poses.  I usually left with a headache and feeling defeated.  Ten years and 6 concussions later, I practice yoga everyday – both on and off the mat.

In 2017, a bad concussion completely changed my lifestyle. In under a year, I went from an active person who went out for drinks with friends after work, to someone who stays home due to fatigue and symptoms; someone figuring out a new life on medication and alcohol-free.

I’d like to say there was some magical movie moment where I wandered into a yoga studio and found my place, but in reality, I dusted off the yoga mat I never got around to donating and rolled it out onto my living room floor because I had nothing else do to at home.  I remembered poses I had learned in classes and did simple stretches. I was pleasantly surprised at how good I felt afterwards and kept coming back to my mat. I’d found a practice that didn’t hurt my brain, but benefited it.

Fast forward to November 2018. I was searching Myrtle Beach for a yoga mat while I was on vacation because I couldn’t imagine going four days without one. Yoga had become a huge part of my life. I practiced at least 3 times a week, was seeing improvement in my flexibility, recognized how good yoga made my mind feel, developed an interest in spirituality, began exploring meditation, and was reading yoga books, including Yoga Girl by Rachel Brathen and Yoga Mind by Suzan Colón.

The physical and philosophical aspects of yoga did more than make me flexible and centre self-care in my life; it helped with my concussion symptoms and how I feel about having a disability.  After I started practicing yoga, I noticed improvements in my concentration, balance, spatial awareness and other physical symptoms. I also saw improvements in my mood and overall mental wellness. Learning about the philosophical tools of yoga allowed me to have a healthier and honest perspective of my current concussion issues, and having a brain injury in general. I’d found something that was both beneficial for me, and that I could do no matter what symptoms I was experiencing on a given day.

I’ve written about my brain injury for years and decided I would write about the benefits of yoga for brain injury in the hope of helping other survivors, but I didn’t. If I was going to do this, I would have to be honest about the emotional and mental symptoms of brain injury I had experienced; I was ready to write about it but not attach my name and face to it. Stigma lives on and it was staring me in the face; what if someone from my workplace saw it?  Would people think I’m “crazy”?  Would I be taken less seriously?

This is how Yoga Brain came to life on Instagram (@yogabrain).  I created an anonymous account to talk about yoga and brain injury. At first, I didn’t show my face in any photos; if someone I knew saw it, they would know it was me, so it stayed hidden for quite some time.  Slowly, I started to show me face, and 6 months after creating the account, I put my name on it.  The shame and embarrassment I felt about brain injury symptoms I had never talked about faded away, and I was ready to be a face for more than just physical brain injury symptoms.

Since creating Yoga Brain, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of connecting with brain injury survivors, yogis, yoga teachers and organizations all over the world. I was invited to be a guest on the Concussion Talk podcast and have been featured by Can Recover, Beyond Concussion and Fierce Calm. Brain injury can feel like a lonely place, but by putting myself out there, I’ve learned from others and used my experience to support other survivors.  My posts document my yoga journey, brain injury journey, and my new life that includes travelling (something I never thought I’d do after my brain injury).

Yoga Brain and my love for yoga took me on a journey I never expected. I recently finished my 200-hours Yoga Teacher Training Certification…in California.  I’m not sure where this will take me next, but I can’t wait to find out.


Alyson is 26-years-old and acquired her first brain injury ten years ago. She graduated from Ryerson University and is a youth worker at a homeless shelter. In her spare time, Alyson enjoys writing, rollerblading and reading. Follow her on Twitter @arnr33 or on The Mighty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How being buried in an avalanche led to yoga teacher training: Michael Levine

BY: MERI PERRA

Tuesday, March 19, 2013, an adventurous ski getaway in Whistler, B.C. changed the course of Michael Levine’s life forever. A Class 2 avalanche struck while Levine, along with his brother and a friend, were hiking up the back side of the mountain in the backcountry of Whistler Blackcomb. Levine’s friend and brother escaped relatively unscathed, Levine at first did not.

“I was fully buried under four feet of snow,” Levine said.

Beginning the search, both his brother and friend were miraculously able to locate him and first discovered his snowboard boot, Levine’s brother and friend were quick to react and shoveled him out, to find him unconscious and non-breathing.

“They went to clear my airway and found my mouth was full of snow,” Levine said. “They [shook me] and moments later, I began breathing on my own.”

The Whistler Avalanche search and rescue Team helicoptered into the area to rescue Levine, his brother and friend. They were then transported to the Whistler Health Care Centre, where the life-saving rescue made the news.

Diagnosed with a concussion at first, Levine took a flight back to Toronto a mere two days after the accident. He showed up for work that week, as a financial adviser at a downtown Bay Street firm, where his Branch Manager immediately recognized something wasn’t right with his health.

“My eyes were completely blood shot, I had headaches and sensitivity to screens, light and noise,” Levine said.

So began Levine’s journey to recovery. In fairness, Levine says, not many health practitioners treat avalanche survivors in Ontario, and many did not know what to do. He was determined, trying to find the right care until he started treatment at the David L. MacIntosh Sport Medicine Clinic at the University of Toronto. It was at the MacIntosh Clinic where Levine learned he had sustained an anoxic brain injury due to lack of oxygen to the brain, in addition, to his concussion.

“The recovery was extremely challenging for the first two years,” Levine, who says he has not taken any prescription medication or over-the-counter pain medicine since his injury. “I was advised by my doctors to take a leave of absence from work which started out as three months, then turned into six months, and then it ended up being a year and a half.”

Skiing in the backcountry is at your own risk and adventure seeking skiiers are strongly suggested to proceed with caution. Levine, his brother and friend were experienced and equipped adventurers prepared for the day.

Whistler, appeared safe and enticing despite having variable weather patterns that week, and Levine was capable and adaptable to the conditions when the event occurred. Doctors said his health beforehand helped him survive and recover, initially, as well as he did.

Levine had no choice but to adapt to this new way of life. His exercise routine had to change. Elevating his heart rate put too much pressure on his brain. Socializing and working became a much slower pace than he was used to. He limited his workout routine to gentle yoga and the stationary bike. He had to give up weight lifting for over a year. He dealt with short term memory loss, fatigue, lack of energy and continued to experience sensitivity to light and noise.

Levine says the multidisciplinary team at the Toronto Rehabilitation Clinic, where treatment included occupational, physical and speech therapy moved him to the next level of his recovery. Cranial Sacral Therapy, Levine says, got him even closer to the final recovery stage and it became a significant part of his ongoing support to improve his health.

“I knew what I was capable of before the accident,” Levine said. “Now I had to learn to adapt to this new way of life. I had to really listen to my body and if I really don’t have any energy I had to say no to people or events. It was a learning experience.”

Levine says it wasn’t ‘just one thing’ that helped with his recovery. Talk therapy was also an important component to my recovery during the second phase. Not to leave out the fact that food is medicine for Levine and he focused on nutrition and supplements.

Levine says recovery from a brain injury also became a chance to find his true purpose and reevaluate what is important in his life. He took a detour from the financial world for two years and worked as a stylist in the menswear industry. This allowed him time and space to reflect, heal, reorganize and prioritize.

Today Levine is back in the finance office, working full time developing a business with a team. He is mindful of his time management balancing work, social, rest, exercise, and achieving optimal health and well being in today’s fast pace environment. And congratulations to Levine he has just completed the 200 hour yoga teacher training at YogaSpace.

“Yoga has been a part of my life for the last seven years,” Levine said. “It’s a great way for me to give back, and share with others in the community.”

You can catch Levine’s community class at YogaSpace this Sunday, January 28 and on Sunday March 11 at 8:45 a.m. on both days. He’ll also teach at the Attic at Lululemon (318 Queen West) on March 17 at 3 p.m. The cost is $5, and all levels are welcome, Levine says he teaches a strengthening flow class, which is open to beginners and more experienced.

We have a hunch a lot more is coming for this ABI thriver, especially for you yogis out here.

“I’d love to customize a [yoga] sequence for ABI survivors,” Levine said.

Sounds  nama-awesome. 

Yoga Space

148 Ossington Avenue |Toronto, Ontario, Canada | M6J 2Z5


Meri Perra is the Communications Coordinator at BIST. 

Exploring the mind-body connection and ABI

It’s hard to imagine yoga and mindfulness instructor Krista Schilter doing anything half way. A year ago, BIST members had the opportunity to learn about Schilter’s unique approach to meditation as a four-time brain injury survivor. Now she found the time once again  in her busy schedule (among other things, Schilter teaches yoga, mindfulness and skating) to share some meditative wisdom. And it worked:  on a cold, dreary and all-round miserable January night, she made the room feel, better. Like bitter cold Monday nights in January are ok, something we can get through, if we just breathe.

Krista Schilter
Krista Schilter demonstrates alternative nostril breathing

Schilter lead the group through simple breathing excercises which she says have helped calm her persistent headaches and improve her sleeping. She says she uses meditation as a tool to help her be “the best version of herself” possible. She reminded us that though we are rarely mindful of it, breath is the one thing we all have in common as living beings, .

Schilter stressed that meditation is a practise. It’s about where you are at today, in this moment, in this body. She asked the room to make a commitment to practise one breathing exercise in the morning when we first wake up, or at night before we go to sleep. She asked us to think of meditation as something we do every day, a habit like brushing our teeth.

Schilter speaks from experience. She says when she gets “lazy” about her meditation, her headaches come back. She has, at times, felt resentful that these practices need to be a part of her life, that she has to wake up that much earlier every morning to do them. At the same time, she says, the benefits are enormous. It’s about mindfully accepting who the “after-ABI Krista” is, she said.

The first technique Schilter lead us through was alternate nostril breathing, which she says helps to re-wire neurotransmission and balance the hemispheres of the brain. You can find an example of alternate nostril breathing in the video below:

Alternate Nostril Breathing from Center Your Health on Vimeo.

Another breathing exercise Schilter taught was  Satali Pranayam. This practise can cool you when you are over-heated and Schilter says she also practises it whenever she feels a headache coming on, even if she’s out in public. To practise Satali Pranayam:

    • breathe in through your mouth like you’re sucking a straw
    • hold your breath
    • exhale softly through your nose

Schilter says that being mindful is learning how to respond to stress as opposed to reacting to it. “That’s the work,” she told us. “To realize and notice what’s going on at a point in time and to make a decision. … It’s hard work to be mindful and focus on the now.”

It is hard work, but Schilter makes us think anything is possible. And who knows? If Schilter comes back next year, maybe she’ll get us levitating.

If you’d like to contact Krista Schilter for more information on breathing exercises, you can email her at krista@scrambledeggsheadtrauma.com. You can also look at her document on mindfulness and ABI here.

BIST’s next community meeting will be on Monday, February 23 from 6-8 p.m. (topic TBA) at the Northern District Library, 40 Orchard View Blvd, 2nd floor meeting room.