“Practice in the body you have today.” It’s a phrase I say over and over to my students, but I’ve really had to listen to my own advice recently. About 2 months ago, I got a concussion while playing with my toddler.
My thought processes were affected, as expected.
What I didn’t expect was that it affected my ability to do and teach yoga.
The Day I Got a Concussion
The day I got a concussion was a Friday just like any other day. I had taught a yoga class in the morning, had lunch with my son at my sister’s house, went home for his nap. We played together that afternoon just like always, we had dinner when Daddy got home and spent some quality family time. I was supposed to go out with some friends that evening.
I never got to go.
My son, being a toddler, likes to play the “knock over an adult” game. Basically, (after making sure that the adult wants to play) he runs up to someone who’s sitting on the floor and pushes them over. It’s a fun way for him to explore his natural need for power. He really can’t knock an adult over without the adult playing along, so it’s pretty safe, too. Until it isn’t.
It was a classic example of not being aware of your surroundings. When my son ran up to me that evening, I didn’t realize there was anything behind me. I fell backward and hit the back of my head on the corner of a foot stool.
Immediately, I felt an immense pressure in my head and was instantly fatigued. I knew right away what happened. Though I didn’t lose consciousness, I had suffered a concussion.
What is a Concussion?
According to the CDC, “A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury—or TBI—caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth. This sudden movement can cause the brain to bounce around or twist in the skull, creating chemical changes in the brain and sometimes stretching and damaging brain cells.”
The word “concussion” sounds fairly benign, and you’ll often encounter the term “mild concussion.”
But, just try saying “mild traumatic brain injury.” “Mild” and “traumatic” are antonyms. Therefore, saying you have a “mild concussion” sounds like an oxymoron.
On the other hand, just like all injuries, there is a gradient of severity, so technically speaking, you can have a “mild TBI.” Really, “mild concussion” only means it’s not going to kill you, not that the results aren’t serious.
Symptoms of a Concussion
Some symptoms of a concussion are things you notice as the injured person. Some of them are things that other people notice about you. The trouble with self-diagnosis is that a person whose suffered a TBI isn’t really in any condition to decide whether or not to go to the hospital. Not to mention, some symptoms don’t show up right away, some not for days.
Things you might feel:
- Headache or pressure in your head
- Nausea or vomiting
- Balance problems
- Blurry vision
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Difficulty remembering how it happened, other memory problems
Things others might notice about you:
- Memory problems like forgetting an instruction (even a simple one)
- Clumsy movement
- Seems dazed
- Mood changes
- Behavior changes
Signs that a concussion is serious:
- Loss of consciousness (any loss, no matter how short)
- Unable to wake up
- Uneven pupil dilation
- Repeated vomitting
- Convulsions or
- Slurred speech
- A worsening headache
*Please note that I am not a doctor or a medical professional of any kind. You should always consult your doctor when you have been injured. For a more complete list, visit the CDC website.
When in doubt, go to the hospital. *
Even if you only have one or two symptoms,
it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Can You Do Yoga With a Concussion?
When I got my concussion, the doctor told me that I basically wasn’t allowed to do anything. At all. Nothing taxing on the mind, so no reading, no watching TV, no listening to music. He also told me that I shouldn’t do anything that taxes the body.
That means no yoga. Not just asana. That can also mean no pranayama and no meditation. My doctor told me to hold off for as long as I was still symptomatic.
For me, that meant about 10 days. By that time, I didn’t have the constant headache, fatigue, nausea, or dizziness that had accompanied my concussion. After a week and a half of not being able to think about or do anything, I went back to teaching for the first time since bumping my head.
Man, was it a reality check.
Never before had demonstrating a sun salutation been difficult. I had to remind myself that the body (and the brain) I have is not the one I had the last time I practiced or taught.
After that class, my headache returned for a couple hours. I guess I had physically done too much, not to mention the mental work of sequencing a class and analyzing and giving feedback to my students.
I had to practice self-compassion and not think less of myself because I could not do what I used to.
“Never before had demonstrating a sun salutation been difficult. I had to remind myself that the body (and the brain) I have is not the one I had the last time I practiced or taught.”
So if you are wondering if you can practice yoga with a concussion, here’s the long and the short of it.
The short answer is, “no.” The long answer is:
1. Talk to your doctor.
As I said before, only your doctor can help you determine when you are ready to go back to your mat.
2. When you get the ok, start easy.
What you used to think was easy will likely be difficult now- think even more basic.
3. Shorten your practice.
Even if you are used to doing a full hour of yoga, start with just 10 minutes. Test the waters, so to speak. Pay close attention to how you feel during those 10 minutes and stop early if you need to.
4. Be patient with yourself.
Progress takes time. Congratulate yourself on small wins. Don’t worry if each day is not better than the day before, some days you may have more difficulty than other days just like before your injury.
5. Forgive yourself, practice Self-compassion.
It’s easy to beat yourself up and blame yourself for your current situation. If you can forgive yourself for any blame you believe you deserve, only then can you move on and truly heal.
6. Most importantly: Honor Your Body
Honor Your Body: Practice in the Body (and Brain) You Have Today
This is the most important part of returning to yoga. In fact, having a concussion has taught me that honoring your body is the most important part of practicing asana in the first place. No progress can be made from pushing yourself past your limit; that can only serve to set you back.
Before my concussion, I would routinely push myself to my limit. Whether it was in yoga or weight lifting, or running, I would work to that edge. Many times that meant that I went beyond it and paid for it.
For example, I have a repaired ACL in my right knee. It’s an injury that I suffered almost 18 years ago. Several times, I have pushed myself beyond my limit and then wasn’t able to walk for a couple days because the pain was so unbearable. (Don’t ask why I didn’t learn my lesson the first time.)
According to a new MRI, I hadn’t actually done any further damage; I was lucky. But, I should have listened to my body when my knee told me it was reaching its limit.
With a brain injury, that kind of attitude can result in long-lasting damage, possibly irreparable.
You need to listen to your body after any injury, but especially after a TBI. Of all the organs of the body, the medical community knows the least about the brain. Because of its mysterious nature, one can never know when the healing is complete.
It’s possible that your brain and your body may never be the same as it once was. It may seem like you are done healing and you can stand in full Tree pose, then the next day, you are struggling with the kickstand variation. This is when that self-compassion comes in.
For me, practicing in the body I have today means that I will take every day as a new beginning.
Every day has the potential to be better than, worse than, or as good as yesterday, with no expectation or requirement of which it will be.
Honoring my body means that when my feel like I am doing too much, I will hold back. It means that if I feel like I am not doing enough, I will challenge myself.
It means that if I make a mistake figuring out which one of those two things I am right in this moment, I will forgive myself for the making the mistake and will change tracks.
It means that, months later, even though I was capable of doing a full hour of yoga on Monday, with somewhere around 10 vinysasas, I had to honor the fact that on Wednesday, I needed to do almost all of those Chaturangas from my knees (and even skip a few vinyasas going straight to Downward Dog).
Honoring my body means that I will continue to have to remind myself of all of this in the months (or even years) ahead as I rebuild my yoga practice, even if it won’t be what it once was.
Perhaps it will be similar to the past, perhaps it will be an entirely new practice, but whatever my path, it will certainly be one in which I promise to always honor my body.
Which is what I should have been doing all along.