While people have been practicing and benefiting from yoga for centuries, the science investigating its effects is just beginning to catch up.
In fact, the first randomized controlled trial on a yoga intervention wasn’t published until 1975, and the first study on yoga for traumatic brain injury (TBI)—my area of focus—was conducted just recently in 2012.
I’m a postdoctoral research fellow at Dartmouth and Senior Director of the LoveYourBrain Yoga program at the LoveYourBrain Foundation. LoveYourBrain is a nonprofit devoted to improving the lives of people affected by TBI through programs that create community and foster resilience. I am passionate about legitimizing yoga as a viable form of therapy. As yoga service organizations, yoga teachers, and yoga therapists continue to grow in their knowledge and specializations, I believe there is a need for more resources and scientific collaborations to help teachers and therapists formally evaluate their protocols. This will make it possible for their offerings to play a larger role in conventional medicine.
In my own work with the TBI community, I have been addressing this larger goal of integration by balancing the delivery of meaningful yoga programming with research into its effectiveness for the TBI community. Below I share more about the work my colleagues and I have been doing with LoveYourBrain Yoga. I also share the story of the genesis of LoveYourBrain Foundation (which includes my personal connection to its cause) and how we’ve grown exponentially as an organization precisely by validating yoga in the eyes of the medical community.
Whether you realize it or not, you likely know someone who has suffered a TBI. Every year in the United States alone, about 3 million people experience a TBI, which often leads to debilitating physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms in both the short and long term. I have personally witnessed these impacts in my own family, which is why I feel so passionate about working with this community.
This past New Year’s Eve marked the tenth anniversary when my brother-in-law, former professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce, suffered a serious TBI while training for the Olympics. Luckily for us, Kevin was able to draw on his innate determination, the support of our family, and excellent acute care to help him progress through the scariest stages of his injury.
Though devastating at the time, Kevin’s accident has since created a ripple effect of positive change for the TBI community. That event was the impetus for the founding of the LoveYourBrain Foundation, which Kevin and his brother, Adam (who is my husband), created in an effort to address the stigma and isolation that those with TBI often experience because others fail to understand the impacts of this type of injury.
Because of some of the symptoms—such as sensitivity to light and noise, painful headaches, cognitive fatigue, and anxiety—people affected by TBI often have difficulty in social settings, and thus experience extreme isolation. Moreover, because the effects of this injury are often invisible, their family, friends, and colleagues sometimes write off their symptoms as “laziness” or incorrectly believe that they’re fabricating them. So, people struggling with TBI often don’t receive the understanding and compassionate care they deserve.
Kevin and Adam knew from the outset that the programs they wanted to create had to support the whole person—physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially, spiritually—and to address the variety of symptoms that can occur with TBI. Kevin was also personally benefiting from a newfound yoga practice following his injury, which facilitated a renewed capability in both his body and mind. Adam could see visible changes in Kevin’s level of concentration, balance, and self-empowerment. Adam was also exploring Vipassana meditation as a pathway for developing more mindfulness and compassion in his caregiving role. Serendipitously, I was completing my 200-hour yoga training in Dharamsala, India, and felt deeply inspired by the potential of yoga to support healing.
After speaking with them about both their ambitions for the LoveYourBrain Foundation, their personal journeys with yoga and meditation, and what I was learning in India, the answer seemed to fall in our laps. We would create a yoga program that brings the TBI community together and supports TBI survivors as well as their caregivers in developing greater self-care, resilience, and understanding of traumatic brain injuries.
By merging our passions and talents, we created our flagship program, LoveYourBrain Yoga—a free six-week yoga and meditation program based on the science of resilience.
We focused specifically on resilience because of the fact that TBI is a chronic condition. We felt that framing the experience around resilience rather than recovery was much more empowering and true. Recovery indicates a return to original functioning, whereas resilience implies the ability to adapt to and/or overcome adversity. So, as I developed the program’s curriculum, I based each of its six themes on qualities that research has shown to be associated with resilience: role models, mental flexibility, realistic optimism, facing fear, social support, and meaning and purpose.
Working alongside an amazing team, I’ve had the incredible honor of expanding and evaluating this program for the past five years. We’ve forged partnerships with 60 yoga studios and 18 healthcare facilities to deliver the program to over 3,000 individuals with TBI and their caregivers across the United States and Canada.
One of the main reasons we’ve been able to expand LoveYourBrain Yoga so quickly goes back to my original point: medical validation. We’ve been able to use our research to help educate medical professionals about the potential benefits of yoga. When they discover what the research evidence says, they’re more likely to refer their patients and their patients’ families to our program.
Our most recent study—the largest ever published on the effects of yoga for TBI—found that LoveYour Brain Yoga has many powerful benefits for the TBI community.
In this study, 1,563 individuals (including people with TBI and their caregivers), participated in a six-week LoveYourBrain Yoga program at some point during a two-year period. Our results found that 705 people with TBI experienced significant improvements in quality of life, resilience, positive effect and well-being, and cognition. Caregivers also reported improvements in their physical and psychological health. This research builds on the positive results of a qualitative evaluation of LoveYourBrain Yoga, which found improvements in participants’ strength, balance, flexibility, attention control, sense of belonging, community connection, and ability to move forward with their lives.
Here’s an example of what one LoveYourBrain Yoga program participant shared about their experience: “I am currently experiencing extreme PTSD, anxiety, and depression, but this class is one of the only things I had that centered me and kept me going. Now that we have made it through six weeks, I can say this program provided me with the support, reassurance, confidence, and mindset that I need right now, and for the rest of my life! I appreciate every person who took this class alongside me, and genuinely feel more bonded to them than I do some of my friends. And that's because they just get it! Thank you for providing this amazing opportunity to learn, grow, and heal.”
In order to learn more about adapting yoga for people with TBI, we also collaborated on a study with the network of certified LoveYourBrain Yoga teachers. In this study (soon to be published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy), 85 yoga teachers described the following best practices for this community:
• Creating an environment with low light, noise, and sensory stimulation
• Offering specific modifications to mitigate movement or problematic positions of the head and neck (e.g., limit/avoid forward folds and pressure on head in supine positions)
• Focusing cues more on interoception (sense of the internal state of the body) and proprioception (awareness of the position and movement of the body) instead of alignment
• Demonstrating poses and movement patterns, and using mirroring and landmarks instead of ‘“right” and “left” directions
• Using slow, simple, and repeated instruction
• Managing challenging behaviors through redirection techniques
• Promoting safety and connection through inclusivity, compassion, and personal agency
Both personally and professionally, it has been deeply rewarding for me to participate in research that has helped our foundation impact thousands, and to begin shifting the culture around holistic support for healing after TBI. While there certainly are other yoga service organizations collaborating with research institutions—including Eat Breathe Thrive, Veteran’s Yoga Project, Africa Yoga Project, and BodyWise Foundation—there are many more that find it challenging to access the resources and academic connections necessary to make research a reality. I hope that over time we’ll find ways to bridge this gap, enabling us to collectively contribute to the science of yoga and to make evidence-based practices more widely accessible.
If you’re interested in learning more about the LoveYourBrain Yoga approach, our seven-hour training on Yoga International dives deeper into the best practices for adapting yoga for TBI. We also offer 20-hour in-person trainings for yoga teachers and health professionals. Or you can contact me personally at email@example.com. I also offer a six-class meditation series here on YI, designed specifically for people who have experienced TBI.
Also, in honor of Brain Injury Awareness month, we are currently offering a 31-day Meditation Challenge to help cultivate greater self-acceptance, resilience, positivity, balance, and sleep quality. We've also launched a range of free offerings as part of our Turn Boldly Inward campaign. Visit us to sign up for the LoveYourBrain Meditation Challenge and learn how to get involved in delivering accessible yoga for the TBI community.