For brain injury survivors, a special weekly yoga class is more than just exercise
LoveYourBrain creates community among people often isolated by their symptoms
The only visible sign Manitoba teenager Danika Carriere nearly died is a thin, white scar along the bridge of her nose that hooks above her left eye.
Eight years ago, she was riding in the backseat, buckled, when the truck she was in left the road and plunged into a ditch. The impact flung her, head first, into a metal bar. It splintered her frontal bone and crushed her brain.
"Imagine you're walking into a room and it's like being in the cockpit of a plane — that's how many machines were keeping her alive," said Carriere's mom, Barbie Nault.
"They didn't think she was going to make it … It was brain surgery that saved her life."
A month-long coma and rehabilitation followed. Around the time when most 12-year-olds read their first Shakespeare play and learn decimals, Carriere was teaching herself to swallow, speak and walk.
Now 19, Carriere has a part-time job and attends a university Spanish class. She, like many brain injury survivors, lives with the grinding, constant fog of fatigue.
It's really nice to meet other people that can relate to what I'm going through.- Melissa Gowryluk
A special yoga class is one bright spot.
Once a week, she and her mom, drive to Winnipeg from Lorette, Man., to spend time with others who share the experience of a life-altering brain injury.
"I feel happy, confident and positive — definitely proud of myself," Carriere said after a yoga class in May. "I'm like on top of a mountain."
Carriere is among a dozen students who attend LoveYourBrain yoga on Sundays at Modo Yoga on Waverley Street. It's a free class for people who have survived strokes, brain trauma and concussions.
Jessica Ryan, got involved in the program in Winnipeg after she experienced two concussions, weeks apart, in 2017.
The experience was "really really isolating," said Ryan who works as an athletic trainer and professional yoga instructor. "Symptoms lasted way, way longer than I was expecting."
Dr. Gail Sawa, a doctor who works with athletes at Sport Manitoba, says the healing process is a lonely one for many patients with concussions.
"When people think of concussions, they often think of the physical symptoms — headache, dizziness, nausea, maybe people are having an episode of vomiting or balance issues," she said.
"But there's a lot of other symptoms that you can't necessarily see … some people feel heightened anxiety, feel depressed, have a low mood, almost like you're on an emotional roller coaster."
It was while she was in a lonely place, Ryan says, that she discovered the LoveYourBrain Foundation, a group that aims to make healing from brain injuries more positive for patients.
The foundation was created by American snowboarder Kevin Pearce who sustained a brain injury in 2009. Its mission is to foster resilience and community among those affected by brain injuries — the cornerstone of which is a six-week yoga class now offered across the United States and in parts of Canada.
Yoga, with its slow, purposeful movement and attention to meditation, is especially helpful because it offers both physical and mental health benefits, Ryan says.
I feel happy, confident and positive — definitely proud of myself- Danika Carriere
"[Yoga] reminds you [that] you can be in the present moment, you can connect back to your breath," she said. "We have the tools to find peace even when it's kind of chaos in our external lives."
Ryan travelled to Chicago to learn how to incorporate LoveYourBrain principles into her yoga classes.
In LoveYourBrain classes, movement happens in slow motion. Blinds dim the sunlight. Ryan reminds participants to pause as they move up and down to allow pressure in their heads to modulate and avoid dizzy spells.
After each class, there's time to sit and talk.
Melissa Gowryluk, 38, has attended Ryan's class for more than a year. She still lives with debilitating concussion symptoms after ice and snow fell on her head while walking into a restaurant in 2017. She has been off work ever since.
"It's really nice to meet other people that can relate to what I'm going through," she said.
Social isolation is common after concussions.
It can begin when patients spend hours, if not days, in dark spaces to give their brains time to recover. Most patients will be symptom-free after about a month, Sawa says.
Others will live with persistent, sometimes permanent deficits. According to Sawa there is still much work to be done on why concussions cause the symptoms they do.
Along with light sensitivity, patients often find it difficult for the brain to take in multiple sources of information at once, she said.
"Busy environments tend to be triggering," said Sawa.
Loud, chaotic spaces like work, school or a sports field can be overwhelming for a brain recovering from a brain injury.
For Carriere, it's hard to explain to friends and classmates why a normal activity, such as attending a class, can be exhausting.
"It's definitely tough to describe because people might think that I'm completely healed," she said.
"I still have weaknesses and issues when I'm fatigued. They don't completely understand that. So therefore, that's when friendships didn't go well and I lost several friends."
At LoveYourBrain yoga, where the focus is on building strength and resilience, Carrier has found comaraderie among people who understand.
"It's very comforting and I feel like it's like kind of like family here," she said.
LoveYourBrain classes are free and take place four times a year at the yoga centre's Waverley Street location. The next series of classes begins in July.
- An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Jessica Ryan was responsible for bringing Love Your Brain yoga to Winnipeg.May 22, 2019 9:36 AM CT