75: Yoga Love

75: Yoga Love

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

Yoga Love

Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.

~B.K.S. Iyengar

“Janna Marie?” I heard my dad’s footsteps shift the floorboards. I looked at the clock—6:32 a.m. I rolled over into the freshly laundered pillows that my mother always stacked on my bed. Four hours was no longer enough sleep. I had to work for my thoughts, cracking them open like pistachios.

“It’s your birthday today,” he said, now standing in my doorway.

Oh no. Thirty! Right here. Right now. Today.

My heart squeezed tight. Something like camel pose would help this. One long, languid heart-opener, bearing it all to the Pennsylvania sun, would nip this anxiety.

“Are you going to get up and teach us yoga?”

“Dad, 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 cup of steaming black coffee. I found my students (my parents and our family friend Vicky) standing obediently in Mountain Pose at the top of their new mats, which sat atop old towels to keep the driveway from scuffing them.

“Um . . . good morning.” I walked in front of them, feeling every contour of the asphalt pierce the skin of my bare feet. “Come to the top of your mat and turn off your brain.”

My mother looked at me like I was nuts. Vicky picked up a cat and proceeded to ask me about what to do about the cats. There are barn cats that sit on mats when you do yoga at my parents’ house. And birds and our golden retriever and bugs and the occasional pine-cone that falls and shatters. It’s a high dose of pratyahara—withdrawing the senses—with nature. My dad stepped forward and puts his palms together at his heart.

Driveway yoga was his idea. He had taken to yoga with an enthusiasm I thought had long since died in him. Perhaps it’s a product of his Beatles Maharishi days, or maybe it’s because it’s the only thing that doesn’t overtax his injured brain.

Everything in his life requires a prompt, a list, a plea. We are constantly reminding him to be more patient, more compassionate, more aware, less compulsive, less demanding, less angry—forever finding ways to lessen the cognitive, emotional and behavioral deficits that come with a severe frontal lobe traumatic brain injury. It’s a seventeen-year oscillation between failure and semi-success when it comes to finding pieces of Old John.

But yoga works. We started a few years ago, when with a certification under my belt—proof that I knew what the heck I was doing repositioning a brain-injured man who moved like cement—the right parties gave me permission to teach my father yoga.

“Mom, just let me try it with him,” I had said. “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.

“Are you ready for this?” I had asked. It was our first time, and my voice sounded too much like my mother’s.

He sat down on the steps, waiting as I pondered how it would be most feasible to do yoga in my parents’ hallway. He said nothing, just sat and watched me choose a spot for the mat and stomp it flat.

“Okay, come to the top of your mat.” He stood up, the hardwood floor creaking under his 205 pounds. I watched his feet shuffle tiny steps toward his mat. He didn’t wear bare feet well, not like he used to. His feet were old, stiff, and he moved them as if they were two bricks attached to the bottom of his legs rather than feet. He stood on his mat, facing his fish tank.

“Not like that.” I put my hands on his shoulders, turned him and tapped the top of the mat with my toes, perfectly manicured with red polish. “Like this. Face forward, the front steps. This is the top of your mat.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Now, bring your hands like this—prayer position.” I brought my hands together in front of my chest, the flesh of my palms, fingers and wrists perfectly flush. “In front of your heart.”

“Okay.”

He sounded so obedient, but he looked like the leaning tower of Pisa, tilted, crumbling, old.

His hands met mismatched in front of his chest, fingers like tangled brambles, growing from knotted and knobby knuckles. I was reminded of the various post-accident incidents involving mowers and band saws.

His left foot jutted out to one side. His hip sank down on the right. He had no butt, and the straighter he tried to stand the bigger his belly grew. His thin arms looked like raw chicken wings. I couldn’t find his shoulders. I palmed the flesh around where the collarbone and scapula met and concluded that the muscle was gone. Wrinkles under his chin piled in folds. He held his head back, too far back, too rigid.

“Dad, okay. This is called Ta-da-san-a.”

He fought his speech until he could say the word right.

I worked from his feet to the crown of his head, demonstrating the way each body part should face and feel. Slowly, deliberately. I moved each stiff appendage and shifted his torso. His body resisted. It was like trying to work with old, hardened clay.

As we talked about weight and balance, tension and muscles, I thought about the last time I had felt the movement in my father’s body. Years, at least. A decade? My eyes welled up. I felt ashamed of the daughter I’d become. He was an extremely loving and affectionate person. And he was a really good hugger. He filled my childhood with hugs. The hugs didn’t happen anymore, and that was my fault. It felt funny to hug him, my efforts half-hearted, wrapping one arm around his shoulder kissing him on the cheek, like I was saying goodbye to someone on a New York City sidewalk.

Yoga would be a new kind of affection I could share with him, something good for us both. He tried each pose I chose. He let me help him and move him when he didn’t understand. He even asked questions. Two full hours, taxing on both his body and his mind. Taxing on mine, too. But we had yoga. Something we could share. Something that was trying, cumbersome, unfamiliar, and, in time, utterly satisfying.

The sleep had worn off my voice by the time I was counting breaths in Warrior Two, as I guided my driveway yogis. Vicky was strong. My mother was flexible. My father had more concentration, patience, and ease than the two of them put together. My father had found his stride.

For months, my father struggled through basic poses. Yet he kept at it, unearthing hints of identity, motivation, and purpose through his practice. “There is nothing else like yoga,” he will tell you. “Nothing else gets the mind and the body to connect like that.” He comes to his mat. He moves. He breathes. He feels. He thinks.

He is my greatest gift as a teacher.

~Janna M. Leyde

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