Kiss Your Brain: In honor of Brain Injury Awareness Month

My daughter was only 3 years old when I had my first concussion, and came up with what she lovingly referred to as “the brain kiss.” In her worldview, my injury resulted in a variety of limitations and changes to my regular mommy duties. But instead of being angry about this, she looked for ways to help. She knew that loud noises, quick movements and bright lights bothered me, so she would ask to turn on the dim string lights my husband had installed in our vaulted ceiling as an alternative to our bright overhead lights, would snuggle up next to me and quietly ask if I needed a brain kiss. Even the motion of leaning in for a kiss or hug was visually overwhelming and intensely painful due to my new intolerance of near point convergence. She would take both of her palms to her mouth, give her hands a nice long kiss, then gently place her palms over my forehead and eyelids. In that moment my pain melted away, and her love made me feel whole.

My children were remarkably empathetic and caring, more so than I could have ever realistically expected of children their age. My younger daughter, who was 18 months at the time, was notorious for crawling up really close to my face when I was trying to rest, pat me aggressively on the head and say, “Mama, your brain hurt?” This loving gesture didn’t always feel quite so soothing, but was a welcome reminder of the interconnectedness of mother and child. She could tell I was hurting, even when many others couldn’t. Now ages 5 and 7, my children do not remember having a mother that wasn’t living with the impacts of TBI, and to them, my story of resilience is part of who I am and how we operate as a family. 

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When I was taken to the hospital the morning after my first injury, it was reluctantly. “I’m fine, I just bumped my head.” To me, the visit was purely precautionary and the E.R. doctor seemed to agree. “You will probably be back to normal in 7-10 days.” A week later I started to notice symptoms- dizzy spells, difficulty concentrating, light and sound sensitivity, jumbled memory and debilitating headaches- and these gradually increased over several months. My brain felt like a snow globe that wouldn’t settle, and any time the cognitive input in my world, whether that was a screen, a page of text, a fluorescent light or a screaming child, became too overwhelming, my brain felt like it was slowly shutting down. I knew very little about traumatic brain injuries (TBI), aside from my unfolding reality, but based on what the doctors had told me, this just didn’t make sense. The few people I knew who had suffered concussions had seemed to experience them as brief interruptions with speedy recoveries. I went to weekly appointments, tried different prescriptions, supplements and therapies, and while some things seemed to help, I was still not feeling like myself. “For some people it takes a little longer. You will probably be back to normal in another week or two.” A week turned into a month, then 6 months, and finally I found myself sitting at my one year appointment being told that this “may be your new normal,” and that unfortunately my prolonged condition couldn’t be explained. We just had to be patient and take it one day at a time. Having slowly grown my own personal brain injury community over the past few years, I now know this story is far more common than most realize. 

One of the most impactful decisions I made through my healing journey, recommended by the Sinai Brain and Spine Institute in Baltimore, was connecting with the Love Your Brain foundation, an organization that provides free resources and research-backed yoga and mindfulness-based programs to the brain injury community and their caretakers, as well as serving as an ongoing support group. There is nothing more valuable, when feeling lost and alone in your experience, than to meet a room full of individuals who instantly get it. They nod vigorously as soon as you begin to tell your story, and it’s as if you’ve known each other for years rather than just a few minutes. The stories ranged from car accident to stroke to gymnastic dismount gone wrong and a variety of other fluke accidents that resembled my own. Every brain is unique and every brain injury is equally unique, but there is a great deal that can be learned from sharing personal stories of progress, pain and post-traumatic growth. 

I learned during these classes that a common coping mechanism in the aftermath of trauma is to disconnect from the body, leading to a feeling of brokenness. This sense of community connection paired with mindfulness and yoga classes to reconnect, increase awareness, and tune into subtle sensation in the body and mind helped me better respond to my special needs. After my injury I felt like I had lost myself; Love Your Brain helped me find my way forward. 

I have been blessed this past year with the opportunity to begin a new adventure at RISE Yoga Gettysburg, with the support of family, friends and mentors, and alongside a team of inspiring instructors. Our vision is to share the practices of yoga and mindfulness in an accessible and approachable way with all who might benefit from a self-care routine that builds mental and physical strength, flexibility, balance and resilience. According to the CDC, 6 out of 10 Americans live with at least one chronic illness. The Accessible Yoga School (AYS), an international non-profit paving the way in adaptive instruction for different body types, levels of ability and special needs, shares that, “Yoga is often recommended for people with chronic illnesses, yet there is very little discussion about how best to practice. If taught consciously, yoga can offer a sanctuary of self-care for…people who have energy-limiting conditions, as well as people with chronic pain or other chronic conditions.” 

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, so it is a time specifically to bring attention to the special needs of the brain injury community, however it is also a perfect time to reflect more generally on our mental health and wellness. Our brain is interconnected with every physical, mental, social and emotional part of our being and shapes how we experience and live in this world. Whether recovering from a brain injury, living with a chronically limiting condition, or simply navigating the stress and demands of living in this modern world, the practices taught in yoga and mindfulness can help us to pause and reconnect, giving our minds and bodies the loving attention we need. On days when I feel broken, my personal yoga practice reminds me that the goal is not to fix myself; but rather, that when I come to my mat, I am already whole. Just as my children show me with each of their gentle brain kisses, my yoga practice encourages me to pause and pay attention, responding with self compassion and loving kindness. And when I respond in this way, I am reminded that my practice is powerful, whether moving through a physically challenging sequence of poses or sitting in stillness with my breath. For those of you who don’t have a small child at home lovingly bopping you over the head, this is your friendly reminder this month to kiss your brain; give yourself some love; take a moment to breathe and respond to what your body and mind need, today and every day.

Our intention at RISE is to provide a welcoming space centered in equity and accessibility; a space that promotes healing, resilience and a strong sense of community, meeting students exactly where they are on any day, in any moment and in all seasons of life; a space that allows you to feel whole, just as you are, and in the midst of whatever path you find yourself on.

In alignment with Brain Injury Awareness Month, RISE Yoga Gettysburg will offer its first Accessible Yoga for Brain Injury Resilience series every Wednesday at 4:30 pm in March 2024. Tiered pricing and full scholarships are available. No prior experience is necessary. 

Learn more at: www.riseyogagettysburg.com or contact Alli at riseyogagettysburg@gmail.com 

RISE will offer ongoing class series in the future with adaptive instruction for other specific chronic and physically limiting conditions. Please do not hesitate in any class at RISE to talk with your instructor about how to best adapt practice to your individual needs. 

*Adapted from an article published in the Brain Injury Association of America’s “More Than My Brain Injury Campaign” in February 2023

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Alli Crowell, RYT-200, is the owner of RISE Yoga, Gettysburg. She has 15 years of experience in K-12 education and currently works part-time as an instructional coach supporting teachers and school leaders throughout the United States. In addition to her 200 hour Yoga Alliance Certification, she is certified in Children’s Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Accessible Yoga and is trained as a facilitator through the Love Your Brain Foundation, a leader in research centered around the benefits of yoga and mindfulness for the brain injury community. Alli is a recent graduate of the Accessible Yoga School, a program centered in equity and accessibility in yoga instruction.

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