Yoga and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury: Insights from “The Yoga MD”

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I met Dr. Shailla Vaidya the day before the World Congress on Brain Injury in March 2019. We chatted about our work with concussion and exchanged information. Her business card read “The Yoga MD” – and I had to learn more! I asked Dr. Vaidya to answer some questions for this blog, and she enthusiastically agreed.

First of all, please tell us about yourself.
My name is Shailla Vaidya and I am former Emergency and Family Physician, now with a focused practice in Stress Recovery and Resilience. I also have a degree in Public Health and Health Care management from Harvard. I am also a certified Yoga Therapist. I love to ski, bike, swim, and of course, do yoga. 

What are your experiences with yoga and brain injury/concussion?
I have hit my head many times in my life and sustained a few concussions from bike accidents before helmets, snowboarding and playing hockey as an adult (both with helmets on of course!). I recovered pretty well after most of these incidents. In July of 2018, I had a bad fall on my bike, where my head hit the ground and bounced twice. My helmet saved me, but I sustained a concussion that led to Post Concussion Syndrome – now referred to as persistent concussion symptoms – which has definitely changed my life.  Luckily for me, I understood the benefits of the Eastern Mind-Body practices of Yoga on the brain’s ability to change, and it was my yoga practice, Tai Chi, and compassion based meditation that really helped me recover – both physically and mentally.

What are the potential benefits of yoga for someone who is recovering from concussion?
Slow gentle yoga has many benefits for concussion. First of all, it can help us reset our nervous systems. Sustaining a concussion often happens due to trauma to the body and brain. When we remember that trauma, we can get triggered and feel anxious. We may even start to feel anxiety when our brain gets overwhelmed and tired or unable to process. By becoming mindful of our experience, naming our emotions, we can practice calming techniques to help calm our nervous systems.

Secondly, slow repetitive movement coordinated with our breath, helps foster Neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and heal. After we hit our heads, our brain’s neurons get shaken up and may lose their connection to other neurons, or may even get damaged. Neurons that are damaged beyond repair may be pruned (or removed). But what is fascinating is that neurons adjacent to the injured area can reorganize, and learn the function of the injured area, restore connections and function. Early activity and therapy can really help this process. Factors which foster neuroplasticity include repetition, attention and awareness, emotional arousal, novelty (a new task) and an appropriate level of challenge. These variables are a part of yoga practice. 

As well, Yoga really helped me with the pain I was experiencing and with my migraines. Pain is something that plagues a lot of us with concussion.  When we work through gentle yoga postures we can release muscle tension that often builds up in the neck due to the head injury. Many yoga postures work deep in the body to release neck tension and improve pain. 

Are there any concerns or risks people should be aware of?
When practicing yoga postures, it is important to use the breath as the guide and to make sure you always feel stable and comfortable. It is also important to start with simple poses, so as to not aggravate symptoms. Poses which require fast turning of the head or being in an inverted head down position are not the best early on in concussion recovery. These can be added as you progress in your healing.

Remember, if you are pushing your body into a posture, you may miss the beneficial effects of the practice.

Unfortunately, not all yoga classes are created equal and there is a large variation in teacher skill in adapting yoga for head injuries. That is starting to change now, with more people interested in therapeutic yoga and Love Your Brain Yoga. Still, fast paced “gym” style athletic yoga with lots of movement and inversions is not recommended. You want to find a skilled teacher. If you are unsure, ask the teacher about their training and their comfort level with brain injury, including concussion. Or look for a teacher who notes that they have experience working with brain injury in their bio/profile.

If classes such as these are not available in your area, you may find benefit in the mind-body practice of Tai Chi, which is also meditative in nature. Tai Chi has been shown to improve balance. I did a lot of Tai Chi in my recovery. At first, I could only participate for less than half an hour before I got symptoms. But I kept going, wearing sunglasses and ear plugs! Over time, I was able to stay longer and it was really helpful, especially for my vestibular symptoms. I was also doing gentle restorative yoga with a skilled teacher, and Feldenkrais, which is another Mind-Body practice involving slow repetitive mindful movement.

Most of these practices take place in a group format which is a bonus! I found it really helped with the social isolation that can accompany brain injury. Everyone who knew what I was going through was really supportive, and there were others there who had experienced the same thing or another health issue, so I didn’t feel alone in my experience. It also kept me from getting depressed and getting frustrated with the slow pace of recovery. 

Is yoga beneficial for people living with other acquired brain injuries?
Yes – it can help others with acquired brain injuries and stroke. 

Practicing Yoga and Meditation is like doing weights for our brain.. Slow breath-focused movement and meditation has been shown to help foster neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change), especially when the pattern of movement is new to us.  

Also, meditative practices, including practicing concentration and visualization can help the brain form new connections. Some yoga classes even have chanting which helps with nervous system release and is calming as well. In helping to foster mindfulness, we can become aware of our emotions, and with compassion, learn to soothe ourselves, reducing anxiety and improving depression, which often follows brain injury.

If people are interested in yoga, how can they get started?
A great online resource is Love Your Brain Yoga, This is a researched program that is gentle and accessible to many with concussion. They have a few videos online that you can try for practice. You may even find Love your Brain practitioner near you via their website. I am also offering a program this fall for Concussion recovery which is similar to the Love Brain Program but will also go into some of other medical aspects such as nutrition and helpful supplements. I also offer programs for caregiver strain for those who maybe taking care of loved ones with Acquired Brain Injury. Caregiving can be stressful, and leave little time and energy for self-care. Yet it is so important to take care of the caregiver!

More information can be found at theYogaMD.ca. I also post on health, wellness, yoga and now Concussion on Facebook and Twitter at @theYogaMD, and @ShaillaVaidya, as well as instagram @the.Yoga.MD

Is there anything else you want to share with brain injury survivors?
We are starting to learn so much more about the brain and its ability to recover. We are also learning more about the beneficial effects of Yoga, Tai chi and other Mind Body practices. New technologies are even harnessing these practices and linking them to biofeedback to help retrain the brain. So the future is looking brighter for recovery from brain injury! In the meantime, I hope this gives people hope that the brain can repair itself and recover with time and practice.

My sincere thanks to Dr. Vaidya for sharing her experiences and insights with us.

Interested in more content like this? Check out our January 2019 blog about mindfulness and healing.

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