Once upon a time, I didn’t have a regular practice. Then a door opened and I walked into a steamy, sweat-soaked studio nearly every single day during my two years of graduate school at NYU. The writer in me was craving anything but writing, and I thought yoga was physical. And it was.
There were abs and arms to tone, weight to lose, hips to stretch. But there was more. All the bending and moving and concentrating on my body was unearthing years of buried emotions. Two years into it, and my practice was calming me, healing me. I found myself craving yoga in place of food or drink, instead of closure and explanation. Yoga had become my medicine.
Was I that sick? No, not really. I was lost and a little sad, hating a job I was supposed to love, and stuck with the frustration of life events gone wrong.
When I was 14, my father suffered a traumatic brain injury. One fluke car accident and I was left with a whole new life trajectory full of challenge, sadness, anger, growth and acceptance. No one could have seen any of it coming.
For my father, his personality took the biggest blow, and his biggest deficit continues to be a severe loss of executive function. To look at him he’s fine, but everything in his life requires a prompt, a list, a plea. My mom, my family, our friends and I are continuously reminding him to be more patient, more compassionate, more aware, less compulsive, less demanding, less angry.
We’re forever wading through the muck of challenges that come with his not being able to drive, work, balance a bank account. And sometimes, we just really miss “the old John.” That is just how it is with brain injury—unfair.
It took years of patience and practice, but yoga began to help me let go of some of the unfairness. It wasn’t until I could twist and fold and breathe in my own space that I was able to understand, accept, and move forward with a myriad of feelings that revolved around an inexplicable incident. I could stop being angry and stop asking Why me? Why him? Why us? all the time.
In 2011, I quit my job to become a yoga teacher and to write my first book. It was the Year of Me. In July of 2011, 15 Julys after my dad’s accident, I started to teach him yoga. We did simple stuff, super basic, which is what I promised my mother and his therapists—the parties that I had to convince that yoga would be “good for him” and “safe.”
Trauma splits you in two. Mind and body separate. My dad’s mind and body were no longer in sync. His identity was lodged somewhere decades back, thinking he was still the man living in an agile brain and body, employed, playing racquet ball with his buddies and waterskiing with this kid. Even his occupational therapies, talk therapies, pneumonic reminders, journaling and his twice-daily cocktail of big drugs had not successfully allowed him to acknowledge and accept his present—albeit brain injured—self. I had an inkling that yoga would. Yoga is the great connector, the union of mind and body.
And it did. Basic asana was like WD-40 for his body—and his brain. By autumn, we saw changes—a renewed sense of purpose, a little more impulse control, discipline and compassion toward others. My dad had growing acceptance of his mental and physical challenges and had began to embrace a more positive, less antagonistic, attitude about brain injury. Yoga had opened more doors—for my father, for me.
Today, I’m a vinyasa teacher. I teach my father and all kinds and levels and ages of other students, at studios, at gyms, at my Pittsburgh apartment. I also teach those who live with brain injury, which never fails to remind me how in awe of this yoga practice I am. I see this practice open doors for people. I see a 20-something veteran, struggling with a TBI from an IED, begin to sleep without benzodiazepines. I see a man with a frontal lobe injury stand tall, close his eyes and not face plant like he used to. I see a woman stop chasing her breath.
I see all the time that living with trauma, brain injury, PTSD, extreme sadness, unexpected circumstances, and anything we don’t plan on is tiresome and tricky, but I also see what you yoga can do. I see that this trajectory of mine must be right on course.