Mindful Brain Yoga: Yoga for Brain Injury

Published on March 17, 2016 by Jon Cornish

Yoga Benefits:

Yoga is an ancient discipline designed to bring balance and health to the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of the individual. In more recent years it has become a multi-billion dollar industry in North America with its mental and physical health benefits. In Vancouver, yogis stroll the streets with their mats thrown over their shoulders, looking so good in those LuLu Lemons. However, the benefits of this practice, lulu’s or not, go far beyond a toned back-side- and they have been well documented.

Yoga has been shown to significantly improve feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression in healthy people. Studies have also shown that yoga practice can improve people’s cognitive functioning in areas such as memory, attention, and processing speed. One study done by Villemure et al found that experienced yogis had greater grey matter volumes in certain brain regions related to pain regulation, pain tolerance, stress, and attention. Holzel et al. (2011), using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), found increases in brain volumes after just 8 weeks of mindfulness training and yoga. These areas of increased volume are known to be involved with learning and memory, emotional regulation, and the process of awareness. A recent systematic review found statistically significant reductions in anxiety and stress in yoga groups compared with non-yoga groups in seven out of 10 studies reviewed.

So regardless of whether you practice yoga for health and fitness, to cope with stress, or to meet girls in yoga pants, it’s clear that it is good for you. It helps calm the mind, keeping us present and relaxed, while simultaneously challenging us physically and mentally. However, yoga has huge potential in areas of treatment as well that are less well-known.

Yoga as Treatment:

Yoga has recently been shown to be an effective treatment for symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, mental stress, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pain conditions. However, a major area of research that is lacking is yoga for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or concussions.

Traumatic Brain Injury:

In 2011, emergency departments in the lower mainland documented over 15,000 concussions. These figures have dramatically increased in recent years, as much as 50% between 2008 and 2011. TBI has got a lot of attention in the media as of late and the increased awareness around the potential long term consequences have highlighted the importance of seeking medical treatment.

It is well documented that concussions are an immense medical burden to both children and adults. Many people are left with chronic symptoms that can last a lifetime. The personal, social, and economic costs are tremendous. In this population, where treatment options are limited and resources for psycho-social programs are scarce, yoga presents itself as a low risk, low cost, accessible form of therapy.  If efficacious, it could quickly become a mainstay of therapy with wide ranging benefits to these individuals and to society. Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and headaches are the most common and debilitating problems after a concussion, along with fatigue, and sleep and balance disturbances. As we discussed above, yoga has been shown to help reduce these types of symptoms in other healthy populations. (For more on this please see Dr. Paul Hrkals article: "Promising Natural Compounds for Concussions and TBI").

The Intervention:

A team of researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC), led by Dr. William Panenka- a well-established clinical investigator and medical doctor specialised in TBI and Delrae Fawcett – A Research Coordinator with a background in Health Psychology, aim to create an evidence-based yoga program tailored for individuals with a concussion. They have teamed up with yoga therapist Shivani Wells (www.shivaniwells.com) and STRETCH yoga studio to create a program for “Mindful Brain Yoga”. In order to accomplish this important task they plan to examine how the body is engaged when practicing yoga, and align it to the symptoms associated with brain injury/concussion. This will allow them to create and adapt the practice of yoga to meet the specific needs of this population.

The Research Study:

The efficacy of this tailored yoga practice will be evaluated with a controlled longitudinal intervention design. Forty concussion patients will be recruited and randomly assigned to an intervention group (n=20) and a non-yoga control group (n=20). Additionally, they are going to integrate a qualitative component to this study through a participant program evaluation interview at program completion. Their multilevel design will allow them to dissect which components of the yoga protocol are operative physiologically, improve the understanding of the beneficial effects of yoga in general, and eventually result in a refined yoga protocol designed specifically to treat symptoms of brain injury.

The study has just begun recruitment and will likely commence in April 2016. The intervention program will consist of 3 yoga classes a week for a period of 8 weeks. Participants will be assessed on various physiological and psychological measures before and after the intervention.

With Love:

So let us be mindful with our precious brains: love your brain, love your body, practice yoga, and most importantly- remember to breathe!

Delrae Fawcett is a Vancouver-based Research Coordinator at the University of British Columbia with a MSc in Health Psychology. She is passionate about yoga, health and wellness and believes in practicing and living what you preach.

Image by © 2015 Microgen via DollarPhotoClub