How Yoga can be Therapeutic for Brain Injury

Brain injuries typically fall into one of two categories: Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) is caused by traumatic and non-traumatic events that injure the brain after a person is born. It can be caused by trauma, accident, assault or penetration of the brain by a foreign object. Other causes include surgery, stroke, brain tumor, infection, drug/alcohol abuse, or lack of oxygen. A TBI, on the other hand, is caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain. The severity of a TBI may range from “mild” (i.e., a brief change in mental status or consciousness) to “severe” (i.e., an extended period of unconsciousness or memory loss after the injury). Most TBIs that occur each year are mild, commonly called concussions. TBI is the number one killer and cause of disability in Canadians under the age of 40.

Every person’s experience with brain injury is different. As a result there is no ‘prescribed’ yoga routine for brain injury recovery. Every time we come to the yoga mat we start with a blank slate and have to connect to ourselves and do what feels right in the moment.

People with neck or back injuries in addition to head trauma probably want to begin with a teacher trained in Iyengar or restorative yoga, which uses props to support proper alignment without strain. Any yoga class that emphasizes flow (not too fast, though) will help retrain sequential processing-an advantage for people who suffered damage to their left-brain or rational side. A Vinyasa sequence links breath and movement, emphasizing step-by-step progression in a set order. Learning and remembering such movements through repetition becomes a form of cognitive therapy.

Before beginning a yoga practice it is important to consult with your physiotherapist or doctor to ensure that you are medically stable. A trained yoga teacher will be able to guide you in your practice to help to build proper technique and choose appropriate exercises, such as the following:

Breathing exercises

Breathing exercises are an effective tool for activating the parasympathetic system to bring balance to the nervous system. This can help to decrease responses to pain, allow for increased emotional control including agitation and moodiness, allowing for a person to be able to cope with more stimuli, increasing attention.

Movement:

Besides sculpting lean, strong muscles and naturally realigning the spine, yoga offers TBI survivors a chance to reconnect with their bodies in a positive way.

Mindfulness Exercises:

Mindfulness meditation appears to have a strong relaxing and stress reduction quality, which is tremendously beneficial for overall recovery from brain injury. Meditation, has been shown to help counteract the stress response and the effects of cortisol.