The Mindful Doorway: Modified Yoga, Mindfulness, and Research Supported Methods for Brain Injury Recovery (Community Meeting Recap with Love Your Brain Yoga)

Featured Image Description: Picture of Shiloh Zeller, a woman with medium length brown hair, with bangs, smiling at the camera. Caption reads: Community Meeting: Yoga, Mindfulness, Community and Brain Injury) Wed Jan 26th 6:30 – 8 PM with Shiloh Zeller of Love Your Brain Yoga. BIST logo and Love Your Brain Logo at the bottom.

The following is a recap of our January 2022 Community Meeting with Shiloh Zeller of Love Your Brain Yoga.

BY: HILARY PEARSON

I’m curious…. What are your top five chronic concussion symptoms?

I’ll go first:

  • migraines
  • hyperacusis (sound sensitivity)
  • photophobia
  • fatigue
  • anxiety

How do I manage these chronic concussion symptoms?

  • pain medication, vitamins, nerve block injections, TENS machine, lime Bubly water
  • noise cancelling ear pieces (SNR 40 decibels), headphones
  • light transition contact lenses, sunglasses
  • green tea, naps, spoon theory practice
  • journaling, wellness apps, therapy cat, and mindfulness.

Will this list work for everybody? Not necessarily.

Why? Because every brain injury is different, every recovery journey is different. Many brain injury survivors experience heightened levels of anxiety as a common result of their isolating condition. Incorporating mindfulness practices into my daily life has helped immensely. This article is all about how to get started.

Shilo Zeller, of Love Your Brain Foundation, presented at BIST’s monthly community meeting. Shilo is a registered yoga teacher and has a degree in neuroscience. Love Your Brain’s approach to yoga and mindfulness is a fantastic blend of Shilo’s love of neuroscience and her passion for yoga.

Love Your Brain is an organization that develops TBI friendly programs infused with an adapted, low-stimulus curriculum. The goal at Love Your Brain Yoga is to build resilience and community. Shilo describes their research-based yoga practices as a holistic approach to wellbeing. Program participants learn modified-yoga techniques (infused with meditation and mindfulness practice) in order to better support the differentiated needs of traumatic brain injury survivors. The Love Your Brain foundation offers a variety of programs and workshops.

By visiting their loveyourbrain.com you can check out a few of their programs, including:

  • Yoga Program (transform your physical and emotional wellbeing),
  • Retreat Program (experience community, mindfulness, movement, nutrition),
  • Mindset Program (build resilience through online yoga, mindfulness, and education).

Love Your Brain Yoga establishes an inclusive environment with low-lighting and reduced sound—creating a safe space for members to become active participants in a community where they feel worthy, important, accepted, supported, and accommodated.

Yoga isn’t something that we chose randomly when we were looking at ways to create a new program for individuals that have been affected by TBI. Our programs research yoga, meditation and mindfulness. The reason we do yoga is to make meditation more comfortable. Yoga is a holistic practice to support overall wholeness and wellbeing. Our programs aim to boost balance, endurance, resilience, and a growth mind-set. Our shared goal is to build resilience and community.

– Shiloh Zeller

What are the healing benefits of yoga?

  1. Yoga and meditation can change the structure and function of the brain.
  2. Yoga and meditation can improve attention skills (Cole et al., 2015) by increasing the thickness of the prefrontal cortex, associated with focus and decision-making (Hozel et al., 2010).
  3. Augment Memory (Azulay et al., 2013) by changing brain structures associated with memory, including the hippocampus (Holzel et al., 2010).
  4. Enhance Self-esteem (Donnelly et al.,2016).
  5. Enhance community integration (Donnelly et al., 2019).
  6. Reduce mental fatigue by supporting better information processing

The Mind-Body Connection

Shilo leads us through a visualization exercise. “Close your eyes and imagine yourself biting into a lemon,” she said.

Automatically, my eyes squint and my lips pucker, as if I had actually just taken a real bite out of a real lemon.

Shilo describes this physiological response as a “mind to body connection.” The mind forms an image that triggers an automatic response in the body.

In the second activity, Shilo asks us to shape our body into a pose based on the following phrases: confidence, fear, anger, joy.

“What do you notice about your bodily reaction?” she asks.

When I imagine what joy looks like, I can’t help but smile. What does the pose for fear look like? I instinctually crouch forward, as if to protect my vital organs. Where does this come from?”

The brain’s fear response system is located in the amygdala. Shilo explains that research indicates a reduction response from the amygdala when one practices yoga. The amygdala triggers the fear response in your brain, shock often induces feelings of anxiety. The prefrontal cortex (focus; decision making) and the hippocampus (memory) also benefit from yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices.

Mind and Body Integration

  1. Moral observations = yamas and niyamas
  2. Physical movement = asana
  3. Breathing exercises= pranayama
  4. Meditation = pratyahara, dharana, dhyana
  5. Complete wellbeing = samadhi

Our Why Video

Shilo plays a video titled, Our Why. This video contains an excerpt from a program participant as she comments on her journey with Love Your Brain and modified yoga—A Personal Experience of Living with TBI. Here are a few of her powerful statements:

‘‘I tried everything, I signed up because I was in so much pain. I was stuck on the couch being in pain every day and I needed to try something.”

“I might not be able to fix this, but I can learn other ways to not get so angry at it, or to be a better version of me.”

“I can never figure out why I survived the accident. I had so much anger and there’s just all this damage.”

“There’s no way to do this journey alone. I’ve lost a lot of people and a lot of myself and I don’t want to lose anymore, but this community offers me a safe place to try, if I want to be a part of something and to have people understand me for just being me.”

“The first questions [people ask you] are always, “What are you doing? How are you?” and I don’t have good answers.”

“You guys had an answer, and it was so simple just breathe, it was us sitting in a room together.”

“But when you walk into a room full of people that know exactly the way you feel and you don’t have to say a word.”

How does mindfulness show up in my life?

I am currently enrolled in a course titled The Holistic Curriculum at the University of Toronto. This course explores the principles of holistic education: balance, inclusion, and connectedness. Professor John (Jack) Miller teaches various contemplative practices as vehicles for enhancing presence, as teachers, as students, as human beings.

Jack Miller explores meditation and mindfulness in his book, The Contemplative Practitioner: Meditation in Education and the Workplace (2014). Below are a few of my favourite definitions as described by Jack:

“Mindfulness is insight meditation applied to everyday life and involves bringing awareness to acts that we do each day. Mindfulness can be seen as meditation in action.

“The rush and noise of our world makes it difficult to be fully present [and] being present is a profoundly healing act.”

Another word for mindfulness is wholeheartedness, when we do something we do it completely.

“Because mindfulness is so important to reconnecting ourselves with the world around us, I encourage my students to work on being mindful. There are many simple exercises that we can do to be more present. We can start our practice by focusing on doing one thing at a time.” (p.40)

Jack provides the example of mindfully preparing a meal:

“As you cut the celery for salad, just cut the celery. Don’t try to solve the world’s problems while you cut the celery. Sometimes, we can be so preoccupied that we can cut ourselves, rather than the celery.” (p.40)

“Mindfulness is being applied to healthcare, education, and even the military. Mindfulness as a practice dates back to the Buddha and even before. It was part of the eightfold path that the Buddha introduced as a way to relieve suffering.” (p.122)

Journaling

Jack has introduced meditation to approximately two thousand students. Jack asks us to meditate everyday. After each meditation, we complete a journal entry describing the experience. I have included two of my meditation journal entries below:

Journal entry #1

Meditation: observing the breath 10 minutes

Pain level today is 7/10.
I close all the curtains. I sit cross legged on the floor. I rest my back against the wall. I observe my breath.
In—one, two, three. Out—four, five, six.
Amy from physio taught me to breathe with my ribs— try to inflate a balloon that presses against your ribs, allowing them to rise with you.
I place my palms gently against my abdomen.
I breathe in— making the balloon kiss the tips of my ribs.
I breathe out—my palms protecting my energy as my centre softly collapses.
I inhale and hold my breath—one, two, three, four…
I exhale a shaky breath— pain pokes my neck, my lumbar, my spine.
I ignore it. I reposition. I let go and breathe. I visualize myself floating on my back in a lake. Weightless and safe. The water soaks in the pain.
Breathing becomes easier. It’s rhythmic and simple. I find I don’t need to remind myself to focus. I just am where I am
.

Journal Entry #21

Meditation: Yoga 25 minutes

I decompress after class and relax into my yoga pose. I find that I don’t have to lean against a wall for support this time. Maybe my back and leg muscles are getting stronger. At any rate, the pain is barely noticeable.

My eyes stay closed easily. Small noises don’t make me flinch. I sort of notice them in the background but I don’t feel as reactive as usual. My mind is able to engage with my calm zen easily. My mind flits to thoughts of worry; will I be able to maintain this? Or is this only easy today because I barely feel any pain?

I refocus and let my breath calm me. As if my breath affects me instead of my controlling the breath.

Jack responds to this entry: “It is also the same with meditation, just let it do its thing without too much effort.”

Shilo’s Experience

Five words I would use to describe Shilo Zeller: open, empathetic, patient, present, authentic.

Shilo shares her experience with concussion, brain injury and invisible disability during the Q&A session at the end of our community meeting.

‘‘I had two concussions in high school due to sports injuries. I blacked out during a game and played the next morning for another game. In the long term, I found that I struggled with brain fog, spelling and facial recognition. People would tell me, ‘‘But you look okay…’’

Shilo shares some words of advice:

  • Be who you are and stand in it. Be authentic and honest with yourself. This helps you gain confidence and is important for coming to terms with your new life.
  • Work toward finding a sense of self. What is it that you need? Who do you ask for help? Self-acceptance comes before self-advocacy.
  • Check in with yourself often and communicate what you need and how you feel to those around you.

Shilo’s tips and tricks:

  • Find your mindful doorway. Pick a doorway in your house. Every time you walk through it, remind yourself to be mindful and present—even if it’s just for a moment.
  • Figure out how many chips (or spoons) of energy you have. Figure out what flavour of chips you have today (sour cream and onion or salt and vinegar) and communicate this to the people around you.
  • Try repeating this mantra to yourself: ‘‘I am present.’’
  • Light a candle. Listen to some yoga music (no words, nice rhythm).
  • Encourage vulnerability and self-acceptance.

How does mindfulness show up in your life?

Will you create your own mindful doorway? Take up the practice of mindfully cutting celery? Lay down on a heating pad, hug your cat and blast your TENS machine to full strength?

It’s all about being present. Try to find little mindful moments throughout the day. Be present, be here, be now. Create a mind-body connection and breathe.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about finding a calmness within yourself.

Mindfulness is not about stopping feelings.

It’s about finding love for yourself that originates from within.

Check out upcoming Love Your Brain Programs, HERE

References

Miller, J.P. (2014). The Contemplative Practitioner: Meditation in Education and the Workplace. Toronto: UT Press.



Hilary is a Toronto-based nonfiction writer and U of T master’s student. Hilary is recovering from TBI, PCS, and spends much of her free time on FaceTime with Isla, her baby niece.