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Yoga on the Brain

April 11, 2018

It is said that yoga is for everyone – it can prepare the mind and body for long-term health. So it is no surprise that there are also many benefits of yoga and meditation for patients who have sustained a brain injury. As a therapy, yoga can help quiet the mind, reduce stress and anxiety and teach the brain how to relax to allow itself to heal. It also helps to initiate neuroplasticity, increase cerebral blood flow, improve attention and awareness and regulate emotions.

Yoga therapy programs use tools that have been around for thousands of years for therapeutic processes. In a hospital setting, yoga therapy can be used to co-treat with other therapies to help patients reach their goals. A yoga therapist may be consulted throughout the duration of care and the tools learned in yoga therapy can be taken home and practiced for a lifetime.

Sarah Adleman, C-IAYT yoga therapist, says every brain injury is different so the goal of yoga therapy is to get a patient to be the best version of him or herself. "We all have an inner peace. When trauma happens we can lose sight of that. Yoga therapy gives people the tools to access that peace and reincorporate it into their daily life. We are not just our bodies, as we are not just our minds or our thoughts or our emotions or our spiritual selves. We are all of it and yoga therapy brings connection to all aspects of our being and especially connection to the outside world."

Yoga therapy for patients with brain injury goes beyond the physical practice and focuses on coordinating the body and the breath. After a brain injury the body and mind can struggle to work together as they once did. When working with patients at Craig during a 10-week trial, Sarah started with breath. “Breath is the foundation of all yoga. It is the bridge between the body and the mind. When patients with high levels of anxiety who can’t get his or her mind to slow down at night to sleep I start with how to breathe. Many of my patients are initially breathing wrong. They are stress breathing or breathing backwards,” Sarah said.

Dr. Eric Spier, a physician at Craig, agreed. “Breathing is a powerful tool that can help mitigate the stress response and even help create beneficial neuroplasticity,” he said. “TBI patients can be anxious to go home thinking it will ‘fix everything,’ but there is an ambiguous loss and there will be changes in their future because of their current situation. It is important for them to learn how to stop, stay still, and be present and aware. This begins with the breath.”

Sarah also incorporated memory, concentration and physical movement with patients during the trial. "If I am working with a patient with a brain injury who may have trouble focusing, we incorporate physical movements to assist with concentration. The entire session can be a focused meditation," she said. 

Dr. Spier and Sarah recently co-presented a talk on “Neuropharmacology and Therapeutic Yoga for TBI Rehabilitation” at the 2018 Brain Injury Summit, which highlighted how integrating yoga therapy into a TBI rehabilitation program helps to uplift mental health and causes healthy changes in the brain.

In the presentation Dr. Spier shared that he has seen patients whose minds were jumping from topic to topic and having a hard time focusing, but after participating in yoga therapy sessions they are able to then maintain focus and connection, and keep their executive functions online. “Yoga therapy leads to significant changes of gray matter in areas of learning and memory, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perception,” he says.

Before coming to Craig he worked with yoga therapists who became the glue during rehabilitation. “They help open doors with patients who may be resistant to physical therapy but are open to emotional therapy and vice versa. It is very useful to integrate therapies and techniques,” Dr. Spier says.

Research conducted at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis tested whether the mind-body-spirit function of yoga had more of a profound impact on its subjects than traditional rehabilitation exercises. Since mind-body disconnection is commonly diagnosed after brain injury and head trauma, scientists concluded that incorporating therapeutic yoga practices were integral to recovery.

The traumatic brain injury study examined the impact of an eight-week yoga program delivered in a one-to-one setting for three people. Among the results for the group, balance increased by 36 percent, balance confidence by 39 percent, lower-extremity strength by 100 percent and endurance by 105 percent.

After the program ended, one of the participants said, “Yoga therapy rocked my world. It's changed my life....all the different aspects. I mean physically, emotionally, mentally, it's given me my life back."

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