by Janna Leyde
A few months ago I hyperextended the ring finger of my left hand. I was warned about this—hyperextending my fingers. Did I listen to my teacher? Apparently not. Who actually hyperextends their finger? Those wide-spread fingers were strong, holding me up in balances and inversions, so I just plowed through my practice. Then came the day it hurt like hell to type. Something in my hand felt crooked. The typing was doable, yet painful.
That same evening, two breaths into Eka Pada Koundiyanasana (this crazy thing), my body decided to call the shots. Clunk. My left hand gave out and I face-planted on my mat in Jen Whitney’s Thursday flow class. Embarrassing… yeah, kind of. But that was that. My body was telling the super-duper, overachieving brain of mine to back off. The next few weeks became a practice of learning to strengthen my wrists, staying out of my arm balances and giving handstands a rest. I grumbled about it at first, but I had no choice. Pain or yoga? I utilized different muscles. I discovered a little bit more of how my hands work—on my keyboard, in life, in yoga. By the time the tension had healed, I’d forgotten I cared so much about what I was missing, those poses I wasn’t practicing.
Today the left hand is back to good and my brain is much more in tune with how hands support a practice and how fingers don’t. Curiously enough, after that four-week break, my handstand has advanced out of nowhere. That hyperextended finger was exactly what I needed. Now, the poses I’d been striving for come with more ease, yet I’m less addicted to them. I quit being—as my mother puts it best—pushy with my practice.
And here we have yoga serving as my metaphor for life—again. In the last two months, I’ve marketed, pitched, spread the word, and pushed my book. It was as if some measure of book success had become the equivalent to nailing a peak pose. I could feel a crash coming. It was time to quit hyperextending before the face-plant.
Last week I took a break. After all, I did enjoy one heck of a book party (thank you, Book Court!), so a break was warranted. I wrote less. I pitched less. I emailed less. I quit monitoring and quit checking up on all things book-related. Last week it was my dad that did the writing and the reaching out.
So, what the heck, why not share his words? Below is a grant letter he wrote. This is his straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth words on his yoga practice, a practice I learn so very much from.
I would like to offer my support for your proposal for your grant for the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute entitled “The Application of Yoga for Individuals with TBI”.
I suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in 1996. My injuries are to the frontal lobe, which makes it difficult for me to make good decisions and interact appropriately. I also have trouble with self-awareness. I think part of having a brain injury is your mind disconnecting from your body, but that is hard to figure out how to fix. I would like to participate in this research because yoga has made positive changes in my life.
I recently started a basic routine yoga practice with my daughter. I do things haphazardly because of my brain injury, and I learned that you cannot do yoga that way. It’s a discipline. You have to do the poses a certain way, and what you are doing is tying your mind to your body. They really start to interconnect, whereas on a treadmill you can turn off your brain and watch the news or listen to music. Or if you do a puzzle, you are just sitting in a chair. Yoga is physical, but it makes me think constantly.
My wife says that yoga gets me to focus and to pay more attention to my surroundings. She says that I am less impulsive, which is a good thing. For me, it is hard to explain how yoga makes me feel better, but it just does. Physically it makes me walk better and have good posture, but it also helps me be normal. I got away from being normal, way off track. The yoga gets my mind and body to talk back and forth. It helps me exercise my brain, and I think that’s a good thing.
Yoga can help other people with injuries like mine, but it is hard to go to a yoga class if you have a brain injury. I think that if yoga became recognized as a treatment or a therapy then more people with brain injuries could participate. I hope we can make that happen.
If we’re being entirely honest, I did do the typing for him.
Janna Leyde is a yogi and writer living in Brooklyn and the author of 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. When she’s not on her mat or at the front of the room teaching, she is working on her second book about yoga for brain injury. You can buy her first novel, He Never Liked Cake, here.