Janna Leyde: Making the Yoga Connection

Janna Leyde Yoga interview

Janna Leyde, our most recent Teach Believe Inspire award winner, exemplifies all three of these qualities in her vocation. As a published writer and a veteran yoga instructor, she is no stranger to sharing the insights gained from her experience as a caregiver to a loved one with a traumatic brain injury.

We were fortunate enough to speak with Janna recently. We’re happy to share her insights about connecting with loved ones with a TBI, the benefits of yoga (to both patients and caregivers) and the vital importance of faith and forgiveness.

Q: On your website, you say that you love teaching people yoga. Do beginners tend to have an appreciation of yoga that you enjoy seeing come out in them? Do more advanced yoga practitioners have a different sense of fulfillment that comes across to you?

A: I think what I see most in beginners is surprise. And I love it. Most people who come to a class for the first time think: I have no clue what Im doing and Im going to be terrible and lost. Most times they are, but the surprise comes in two waves. One, how okay they are with being uncomfortable. Two, how unexplainably good they feel.

I tell pretty much every first-time yogi that I meet or teach the same thing: the first five, maybe even 10 times you do yoga, it’s pretty weird. It’s awkward and foreign and you are bound to feel lost, like you are the only one that has no clue what the heck is going on and where to put your arm or how to move you leg like that. I say this because this is how I felt. Lost, uncoordinated, not able to touch my toes, not in sync—and certainly not comfortable.

As for the advanced yogis, I don’t know if I see a different appreciation. The practice leaves them feeling good. Yoga is a practice progression, which is not exactly linear. There are thousands of poses with thousands of variations. I think we all end up coming back to the mat to continue to learn how to be comfortable outside of our comfort zones. For beginners, it’s that first Down Dog. For yogis and the yoginis, it can get as crazy as balancing on your head—without your hands.

Reconnecting the Body With the Brain

Q: Has there been much studied about the way yoga could potentially help people who have sustained traumatic brain injuries? What have you discovered?

A: When I first started studying up to write Move Feel Think, no, I couldn’t find anything substantial in terms of yoga providing the cognitive, emotional and behavioral benefits that I’m all about. In fact, most of what I was coming across was more about yoga to increase mobility and decrease, or manage, pain (both of which yoga is extraordinarily beneficial in doing). That was when I realized that because I was looking for something different that I might be on to something. Most of my motivation has been driven by my father, who has more challenges with his emotions, behavior and executive function more than anything. I also started to realize that the more cognitive or meditative practices were not what he needed. What he needed was to reconnect his body and his brain, so that the two could show him who he was. I know that, because that is how yoga helped me deal with the emotional trauma of the effects of his injury.

The bigger word to use here is neuroplasticity. A physical, or asana, yoga practice helps rewire the brain. It is physical exercise that also, as my dad puts it, exercises your brain.

With my approach, a more physical one, I have noticed greater impulse control, more concentration, more empathy, a greater understanding and awareness of injury, self-confidence, trust, motivation, improved reasoning, stronger sense of proprioception. I have noticed this with my father and with the other TBI students I have taught.

But why do I like this practice most for those who live with brain injury? Because those who live with brain injury are often singled out as different; treated special; or, at times, coddled. Yoga brings us all back to a baseline. There is no right and no wrong as long as you are not putting your body in any pain. Yoga does not treat anyone special. Yoga asks that we work with our individuality. To me, yoga is practice that leaves little room for adjectives, no judgment.

Q: What is it like practicing yoga with your father? Describe his response to the practice. Has he helped you learn anything about yoga that you might otherwise not have? 

Janna Leyde interview yogaA: It’s like when he taught me how to waterski. We get to have this special connection, but this time I get to give him a hard time—in jest, of course. But just like I was this little girl in a big lake that trusted him, here we are in the big wide world of yoga and he trusts me.

He tunes in. He tries hard. He listens to his body and he asks me questions or asks me to slow down or repeat things. For me this is a big deal, because he is initiating and interacting without prompts. Through practicing with him, I have learned how yoga is a practice that can bring anyone to their present moment, to face what they have and work with it rather than against it. I make a pretty strong argument for the fact that if there seems to be a missing piece—in life, in treatment, in self-discipline, in self-love (that was me!), in healing—it is most likely yoga that can fill it.

Q: Did writing your memoir He Never Liked Cake help you and you mother grow closer? Did writing it affect your relationship with your father? If yes to either, how?

A: No, actually I don’t think it did help my mom and I grow closer. No one has asked me that yet, so I had to think. My mother and I grew closer the second we realized we’d be a team through all of this—back in 1996. The good, the bad, the stuff no one else understands. I would do pretty much anything to understand her side and to protect her from anything that hurts. She’s never read the book and I’m a-ok if she never does.

My father, yes, I think, a little. I did have to do a lot of research into both of their lives, so I was able to dig up all the stuff he would have probably told me when I was old enough (which never happened for obvious reasons). Having read the book (5 times now… he studies it) my father deeply appreciates what we have all been through and how much love we all share. There are just days when that’s all pretty clouded.

However, who did I become closer to? Corny as it sounds… myself. I lived pretty separated from who I was for a long time. I hid feelings, buried stuff, lied to myself, and really didn’t properly deal with what I had gone through and what I would live with. I had A LOT of attachment to my past and A LOT of concentration on my future (yoga brought me to the present). I had fun, had great friends, good times, but if I stopped for a second, I didn’t love myself for most of my twenties. I just ignored it. The spring I sat down to write the book turned into the most cathartic, challenging, freeing, frightening seven months I’d been through. I admitted to who I was and chose what I wanted to work on changing. I got really raw and really real with things I never thought I’d have to touch with ten-foot pole. I suppose that is what memoirs do.

[socialObu shorturl=”http://ow.ly/KL1T7″ ]”Find your faith. Maybe it’s nature. Maybe it’s animals or yoga. Maybe it’s God or the Universe.” [/socialObu]

Q: What would you like to say to someone who has a family member who has recently suffered a traumatic brain injury? (i.e. what to expect, what to watch out for, things to remember as they go through the grieving and healing process)

A: Oh man…I would say “I’m sorry.” I know that’s terrible, but I am simply sorry for all of us that have this odd, weird, happenstance in life.

Then I would tell them to remember that this is not their story. This is only a part of their story. There are days when brain injury might feel like your only story, the only thing that decisions are based off of, but it is not. If you can separate yourself enough to find the good stuff—that which is not brain injury or the emotions and frustrations that come with it—then you will be able to have enough positivity and energy to handle the situation.

I would say don’t get wrapped up in trying to figure out why it happened. You. Will. Never. Know. Trust me, I spent about 13 years down that path. I got nowhere.

Find your faith. Maybe it’s nature. Maybe it’s animals or yoga. Maybe it’s God or the Universe. Maybe it’s your friends and family. But your faith will be what reminds you that you are not alone in this when you feel most alone.

Lastly—this is hard—it’s okay to curse and cry. It’s okay to say things you might not mean, because they just come out of your mouth and you can’t control that moment. You are human and this is hard.

Above all else, FORGIVE. There is deep power that comes with learning how to forgive yourself and learning how to forgive the brain injury.

You can find Janna’s book He Never Liked Cake here.

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