COME TO THE TOP OF YOUR MATS AND TURN OFF YOUR BRAIN
by Janna Leyde
I looked at the clock. 6:32 a.m. I rolled over and buried my nose into the tidal scent of the freshly laundered pillows that my mother always stacked on my bed.
It was as if I had cracked my thoughts open like pistachios. Four hours of sleep was no longer enough to allow me to think first thing in the morning. I had to work for my thoughts.
“It’s your birthday today.”
Oh shit. Thirty. Right here and now, today.
My heart felt tighter. Something like Camel would help this. One long, languid heart-opener, bearing it all to the Pennsylvania sun, would nip this anxiety right in the ass.
“Are you going to get up and teach us yoga?”
“Dad’s it’s not seven yet.” I lifted myself up to sit straight. “We said seven.”
“We’ll wait for you in the driveway,” he said heading back down the stairs.
I slipped into leggings and a tank top and padded down to the kitchen to grab my aviators and a mug of steaming coffee. I walked outside where I found my students (my parents and our family friend, Vicky) waiting, standing obediently in tadasana at the top of their new mats, which sat atop old towels to keep the asphalt driveway from scuffing them.
“Come to the top of your mat and turn off your brain.”
My mother looked at me like I was nuts, and shook her head. Vicky picked up a cat and proceeded to ask me about what do about the cats. There are barn cats that sit on mats when you do yoga at my parents’ house. And birds and our dog and bugs and the occasional pinecone that falls and shatters. It’s a high dose of pratyahara with nature.
My dad stepped forward and put his palms together at his heart.
Driveway yoga was his idea. He takes to yoga with an enthusiasm that I had thought had long since died in him. He loves it. Perhaps a product his Beatles Maharishi days, or maybe it’s because it’s the only thing that doesn’t tax his brain.
He has brain injury. His personality took the biggest blow in that car accident back in 1996, and now we all struggle with his severe cognitive, emotional and behavioral deficits. Everything in his life requires a prompt, a list, a plead. We are constantly reminding him to be more patient, more compassionate, more aware, less compulsive, less demanding, less angry. We’re forever wading through the muck of challenges that come with his not being able to drive, work, balance a bank account. It’s a 17-year oscillation between failure and semi-success when it comes to finding pieces of the “old John.”
And then came yoga. Finally, with a certification under my belt—proof that I knew what the hell I was doing moving around a brain-injured man who moved like cement—the right parties had given me permission to teach my father yoga.
“Mom, just let me try it with him,” I had said early this year. “I really think he’ll gain a lot from it, a lot of things that he needs to work on: self-discipline, his patience, his motivation, his identity, his purpose. Oh, and he’ll probably lose weight.”
She said okay. She really wanted him to lose weight, if nothing else.
In the last six months, I’ve learned more from my father than he has from me. In some ways, he has the advantage: his brain is already mostly in the “off” position. (I challenge anyone to come to class with their brain—not their mind—turned off).
My father’s practice is pure. He has no choice but to listen to my cues and let his body move.
I’ve witnessed an incredible transformation. For months, he struggled with basic poses—he couldn’t conceive of how to move his body into downward dog, much less exert the concentration required to hold it. But lately his pranic energy has moved from static to dynamic, unearthing hints of identity, motivation, and purpose. He’s my greatest gift as a new teacher. He’s teaching me about the mind-body connection that can only exist when you give the brain a rest.
Janna Leyde is a yogi and writer living in Brooklyn. When she’s not on her mat or at the front of the room teaching, she is working on publishing her first novel, He Never Liked Cake, a coming of age memoir that tells the story of growing up with her father’s traumatic brain injury. Oscillations: A Yogic Exploration of the Brain offers her perspective on the practice through the lens of the complex human brain.