By Jess Winans
Golden Hill studio offers yoga to Traumatic Brain Injury sufferers
Ariel Amavisca was driving on the freeway a few years ago when she took off her seat belt for a few seconds to put a piece of clothing on and hit a tow truck. The accident left her totally blind — a side effect of the traumatic brain injury (TBI) she sustained.
“I’ve felt since my brain injury that I was going to do just about nothing and I was just going to be in a home,” Amavisca said. “I could hardly clean because I could hardly see anything, and I had to feel everything. I was like, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’”
For years following the accident, Amavisca took independent living courses and started to regain some of her vision back through rehabilitation programs and therapy.
One of those was a yoga program offered through Love Your Brain (LYB), a nonprofit organization that advocates for brain health and provides support for individuals affected by TBIs through advocacy, outreach, retreats and education.
The six-week long program — also called Love Your Brain — offers a free, 90-minute yin-style vinyasa yoga flow followed by a group meditation and discussion for victims of TBIs and their caregivers. It is currently offered at several yoga studios across the country including Mosaic Yoga in Golden Hill.
“We accommodate some known considerations for TBIs like balance when we construct our classes,” Mosaic Yoga co-founder Ryan Glidden said. “When we do balance postures, we do them at the wall because up and down movement of the head can sometimes create vertigo and dizziness. If we go all the way down or halfway down, we have blocks and bolsters there to support students and give them that extra support through the series.
“It’s our job [as instructors] to hold the space, have the wisdom as how to modify and adjust and also have the space for people to feel comfortable to be able to do that,” he continued.
While Glidden hasn’t experienced the severity of TBI in a way many LYB program participants have, yoga practice has helped him cope with several concussions and post-traumatic stress.
“My lifestyle and the way I live my life has changed dramatically since I started yoga,” Glidden said. “What I chose to do with my time, how I chose to eat, how I chose to exercise, how I chose to breathe, how I chose to think — I mean everything.
“[Bringing the LYB program to Mosaic] was a way to be able to support a specific community or demographic and use yoga as part of that modality towards recovery, which we [Mosaic staff] have all felt in our own small way, shape or form in our own lives,” he continued.
LYB was founded by Kevin Pearce, alongside his brother Adam, after he sustained a TBI training for the Olympics in 2010.
After attending rehab in Colorado at Craig Hospital, which specializes in TBI and spinal cord injury (SCI), he began doing yoga classes for the first time.
Following his first class, Kevin — who had been struggling with double vision, as a result of the TBI — noticed a profound effect on his eyesight. After leaving his first yoga class, he was able to drive home without his glasses.
Kevin went on to conduct a pilot program alongside Adam and LYB yoga program senior director Kyla Pearce at Dartmouth College. Thirty individuals who sustained TBIs completed an eight-week long series of LYB yoga classes.
After conducting the pilot program, Kevin and Adam met Kim Baker, the director of implementation for the LYB Yoga program. Baker had several years of experience working for nonprofits and the United Nations and was working in leadership at Lululemon Athletica when she met the Pearce brothers.
“I had actually written in my 10-year vision that I wanted to help create a yoga program for individuals that don’t typically have access to yoga,” Baker said. “I met them at the exact time when they also had this vision and connected with them, introduced myself, shared my background and kept in touch with them.”
Following the success of the pilot program, Kevin, Adam, Pearce and Baker began holding teacher trainings in studios across the country. They chose spaces that upheld their values and employed skilled teachers interested in working with the TBI community.
“We’re always looking for a studio with a welcoming atmosphere,” Baker said. “We look for places where the yoga that’s being practiced and offered is alignment-based and therapeutic-focused. The ultimate goal of the program is by going through the six-week series, students are becoming familiar with their studio like Mosaic, getting comfortable with the teachers, and basically finding a new home here and a new community base to continue practicing.”
The concept behind the LYB program is research-backed. According to a study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, TBI sufferers who engaged in yoga programs observed an increase in their exhale strength, breathing rate, ability to hold a tone or breath and a more regular heart rate. Participants also self-reported increased physical and psychological well-being.
“We had a woman who had, as result of her TBI, a very difficult time speaking,” Glidden said. “It was very hard for her to put together a thread of sentences. […] You could tell she had the sentence in her head but to be able to get it out into words was difficult.”
Following each class, the group hosts a discussion circle with a different theme each week. When it was her turn to talk, Glidden said she was speaking fluid sentences with ease.
“And after she stopped, I stopped and [said] ‘Do you realize that you just spoke a chain of fluid sentences without any hesitation without any stutter without anything?’” he continued. “And then she kind of realized what had happened too and it was just this ah-ha moment.”
Throughout those six weeks, that LYB participant worked with speech therapists, doctors and specialists. She experienced a notable change in her ability to express her thoughts verbally post class.
“There’s a lot of studies that show an increase in grey matter in the brain, improved memory, improved speech, improved sleeping from doing yoga,” Glidden said. “All of the benefits of a regular [yoga] practice find their way into our physiology of our minds over the course of some time. I think that she just had direct experience with some of those benefits. I can’t name the neuropeptides and all of that but when you experience it, it doesn’t matter.”
More than 40 percent of LYB attendees are typically referred to the program by their doctors. Others learn about the program from social media and word of mouth.
“Before taking a LYB class I felt like I was going to do pretty much nothing with my yoga training because what can a person do if she’s blind in regard to instructing yoga?” Amavisca said. “But you know what? I think this class gave me confidence in my abilities to instruct yoga one day soon.”
The LYB program is free for individuals with TBIs and their caretakers. After finishing the program, graduates are eligible for LYB approved courses at Mosaic Yoga at $5 per class.
—Reach Jess Winans at firstname.lastname@example.org.