Brain Concussions and Yoga Therapy

Updated: Apr 6

If you experience a shaky feeling or swollen brain feeling, seek out a medical professional for a brain concussion or traumatic brain injury. The CDC define a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as “a disruption in the normal function of the brain.”[1] and may experience unconsciousness or change in mental state. The disruption may be caused by any of the following:

  • Bumps to the head

  • Blows to the head

  • Penetrating head injuries and

  • Jolts to the head

TBIs range from mild to severe. Not surprisingly, there are a range of consequences as a result of a TBI. This may result in a brief period of unconsciousness or change in mental state.

Alternatively, a TBI may result in amnesia or an extended period of unconsciousness. Effects can last from several days to a lifetime of challenges. Concussions are a form of TBI. The CDC reports about 75 % of all TBIs are concussions.


Potential Effects of TBI

The CDC reports the potential effects of TBI can vary in length over the short and long term. However, generally, the effects of TBI include the following areas:

  • Thinking, including one’s ability to reason and remember

  • Sensations, including sight and balance

  • Language, including expression, communication, and understanding

  • Emotion, including depression, personality changes, acting out, aggression, social inappropriateness, and anxiety.[2]


Is There A Role Yoga Plans In Recovery of TBI?

The benefits of yoga can be both physical and emotional. Studies show, for example, that yoga can be as effective or more effective than exercise at improving a variety of health-related outcomes, including improved balance, improved kidney function, reduced pain, and improved sleep.[3]

Yoga can also “help foster motivation, cultivate internal locus of control. . . and generally encourage healthy and balanced living.”[4] Additionally, a regular yoga practice helps reduce stress and anxiety and generally improve mental health.[5]


Benefits of Yoga for Those with Concussions


What is Adaptive Yoga Therapy?


While the results are preliminary, yoga appears to show promise for those with TBI. For example, researchers found that patients with TBI participating in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) instruction, which includes gentle Hatha Yoga, experienced a significant decrease in mental fatigue.[6] Studies of people with more severe TBIs establish yoga can assist in improving “emotional regu

lation in the mind-body connection, peaceful and calm feelings, concentration and focus, and self-control.” Participants also reported increased confidence and other health related quality of life improvements.[7] Another study of 10 patients with severe TBI established improved respiratory functioning, as well as self-reported improvements in participants’ psychological and physical wellbeing.[8]


Kyla Pearce is the Senior Director of the Love Your Brain yoga program. She is also a post doc research fellow at Dartmouth. Love Your Brain’s mission is “to improve the lives of those affected” by TBI. Pearce explains, “Our organization was founded in 2014, just about five years after Kevin Pearce sustained a very serious TBI during a training run in preparation for the Vancouver Olympics.” It is designed to “support anyone affected by TBI to come together through programs that build community and foster resilience.” These programs include a yoga course and a web based yoga practice.


Love Your Brain’s Yoga

Love Your Brain’s yoga programs are taught four times a year in 30 states and four Canadian provinces. However, Pearce says, one of the best resources Love Your Brain offers is their library of free meditations and yoga videos for people experiencing all severity levels of TBI. Why yoga? “TBI can interfere with the mind body connection,” Pearce explains. “Offering yoga and yoga poses is a way for people to connect their mind of body. . . The way in which the teacher instructs to connect with anything they feel inside their body is the success that is the practice.” The focus is not on “instructing people to achieve a certain shape with their body.” Rather, success for TBI patients is “connecting mind and body.”

But Love Your Brain doesn’t just offer yoga to those recovering from TBI. They also offer it to loved ones and caregivers of those with TBI. Love Your Brain knows “that the impacts of TBI for the support people can also lead to a cascade of heightened challenges, such as stress and burn out.” The website and the free meditation and yoga videos allow caregivers “to nourish themselves and take care of their own needs, in order to show up for their loved ones.”


Incorporating Yoga into Recovery from Concussions

Amy Zellmer is a TBI survivor, advocate, and author of two books, Life with a Traumatic Brain Injury, Finding the Road Back to Normal, and Embracing the Journey, Moving Forward After Brain Injury. She hosts a podcast series dedicated to TBI awareness, which can be found on her website, Faces of TBI. Zellmer’s own TBI occurred one cold February day in Minnesota, when she lost her footing on an icy patch of ground and landed on her skull. It was over a year before she began incorporating yoga into her recovery.

Can Meditating Actually Change Our Cell Structure?

Pranayama for Beginner

Starting Yoga with TBI in Mind

In addition to identifying yoga poses, her instructor helped her with modifications. “Tree pose is one I started with. But instead of putting my foot on my other thigh, I held on to a chair and basically just lifted my leg. I literally lifted my foot off the ground maybe and inch and held my arm out. Gradually, I let go of the chair. Gradually, I lifted my arms up higher.”

It is essential, during recovery, that sufferers of TBI take steps to avoid doing anything that could cause another blow to the head. Thus, before beginning any yoga practice, care should be taken to assess balance. Yogis should also stick with poses that work with the practitioner’s current abilities. Additionally, Pearce offers, “Sometimes there are different modification to the pose itself, such as avoiding inversions, which can exacerbate dizziness.”

Further, in recognition of how TBI can impact one’s ability to process information, the instruction they offer in their live sessions as well as the videos also “minimize using ‘left’ and ‘right’ or overly complex instructions. Keeping it simple, cueing slowly, and making sure people aren’t stressing to keep up and keep pace” are critical, particularly for TBI sufferers. Because TBI can impact auditory processing, “Having varied ways of instruction, and demonstrating as well as verbal to accommodate different learning styles is critical,” for TBI yogis.


Yoga and the TBI Community


Love Your Brain teaches “breath centric, gentle yoga,” Pearce says. “There is a lot of emphasis on connecting to the breath, the sensation of the breath, with slow, mindful, repeated movements. The yoga that we teach integrates breathing, physical movement, guided meditation, and group discussion.” The group discussion is offered in the four times yearly teaching modules. Pearce explains this is in recognition of the fact “TBI leads to isolation.” Pearce also points to the community story section on their website, “where we encourage people to share their story.”

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/index.html

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/outcomes.html

[3] Alyson Ross and Sue Thomas. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Jan 2010, Volume: 16 Issue 1.

[4] Hagen Ingunn, Nayar Usha, Yoga for Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Well-Being: Research Review and Reflections on the Mental Health Potentials of Yoga. Frontiers in Psychiatry Vol 5 (2014).

[5] Caroline Smith, Heather Hancock, Jane Blake-Mortimer, Kerena Eckerta, A randomized Comparative Trial of Yoga and Relaxation to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Complementary Therapies in Medicine, Vol. 15 Iss 2 (2007).

[6] Traumatic Brain Injury, Edited by Farid Sadaka, Chapter: Birgitta Johansson and Lars Ronnback, Long-Lasting Mental Fatigue After Traumatic Brain Injury – A Major Problem Most Often Neglected Diagnostic Criteria, Assessment, Relation to Emotional and Cognitive Problems, Cellular Background, and Aspects on Treatment (2014)

[7] Grimm, Laura & Van Puymbroeck, Marieke & K. Miller, Kristine & Fisher, Thomas & Schmid, Arlene. (2017). Yoga after Traumatic Brain Injury: Changes in Emotional Regulation and Health-Related Quality of Life in a Case-Study. International Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 8. 10.15406/ijcam.2017.08.00247.

[8] Sat Bir Khalsa (2012) Respiratory, Physical, and Psychological Benefits of Breath-Focused Yoga for Adults with Severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): A Brief Pilot Study Report. International Journal of Yoga Therapy: 2012, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 47-52.


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