Monday, December 17, 2018

Interview with Asya Haikin on Yoga for Traumatic Brain Injury

Accessible Yoga Blog: Where do you teach yoga and how would you describe your population of students?

Asya: I teach yoga in Falls Church, Virginia, for those with traumatic brain injury through a program developed by the LoveYourBrain Foundation. LoveYourBrain was started by an Olympic snowboarder, Kevin Pearce, who suffered a near-fatal brain injury while training for the 2010 winter Olympics. He discovered yoga during his healing process, so LoveYourBrain developed an evidence-informed yoga protocol with the needs of the brain injury community in mind. LoveYourBrain Foundation trains teachers and sponsors classes in the community. The student population is very diverse, from those who’ve had a concussion while playing sports to survivors of major car crashes with severe traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Caregivers are also welcome in the class. This is important because they often need support just as much as the family member they are taking care of.

Accessible Yoga BlogPlease describe your teaching and explain how it benefits your students? If you have an unconventional way of instructing or working with students, you may want to elaborate on that.

Asya: When teaching students with TBI, maintaining a quiet environment with soft lighting is very important. You want them not to feel overwhelmed and to be able to focus on the instructions. The sequence I teach is consistent from week to week, instructions are straightforward, and transitions are slow since dizziness is often an issue post-TBI.

At the same time, some students may be able to transition into a regular class as recovery continues and they become more comfortable with yoga. My goal is to teach all the elements of yoga they might encounter in a regular class with the variations they'll need to use. We have props, such as blocks and chairs, and practice modified poses, such as only going down half-way in a forward bend. They also know that it’s okay to pause at any moment during the class.

An important part of the LoveYourBrain yoga program is building community. For this reason, each LoveYourBrain class ends with a twenty-minute discussion. Students have told me that they find this to be the most valuable part of the class. The effort that people who take accessible yoga are making just to get out of the house and arrive in our classes can often be great, so I feel I should make it worth their effort and offer as much as we can. When I am teaching a ninety-minute yoga class for students with TBI, asana takes up just about half of the class time, the rest is guided relaxation and discussion time. So if you, too, are teaching a special population, making community-building part of the class makes so much sense.

Accessible Yoga Blog: Please share with us a teaching experience that resonates for you--for example, when a student understood something for the first time, when an unexpected event happened in class that turned out to be helpful, or some other noteworthy experience.

Asya: As teachers, we often feel that we are saying the same things over and over again. But, as an observant student, I know that no matter how many times I hear something, I may not have a full understanding of what the teacher is trying to communicate until I am ready to receive that information. Sometimes years later I'll realize the full meaning of a cue my teacher used to regularly repeat in class, or the full significance of a concept she was trying to teach.

I was very moved one day when a student showed me a collage that she made, inspired by some of the breathing instructions I regularly give in class. The image showed a woman standing in an archway, ready to step out of an enclosed garden. It was called “The Pause Between the Exhale and the Inhale.” The beauty of yoga is that it offers us inspiration on every level, and heals the body and the soul.

Accessible Yoga Blog: What made you interested in teaching this demographic of yoga student? (If you also teach “mainstream” yoga, you may want to say how the two modes differ or are similar.)

Asya: It can be very easy to find a yoga class, but if you are not your average young and fit practitioner you may often feel that those classes aren’t really for you. My interest in yoga has always had a therapeutic focus. I discovered yoga in the late 1990s, and the first yoga book I read was Yoga For Common Ailments by Dr. Robin Monro, Dr. R. Nagarathna, and Dr. Nagendra. I was looking for stress relief from graduate school, and for relief from back and neck pain resulting from scoliosis. The yoga landscape in this country has changed greatly since the 1990s, but we are now coming back full circle to the therapeutic understanding of yoga. Teaching accessible yoga brings the benefits of yoga to those who need it the most, and I find this kind of teaching most fulfilling.

Accessible Yoga Blog: What would you like to introduce into your teaching that might further benefit your students? (This could be from a training you’ve taken or an idea for the future that is on your wish-list.)

Asya: I love using Yoga Nidra with my students. I believe it especially benefits those living with a chronic condition, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or chronic pain. There are many great programs that teach Yoga Nidra techniques and I’d like to dive deeper into it and, perhaps, take a specialized training next year. 

Asya Haikin, MA, C-IAYT is a yoga therapist in Falls Church, VA. Her mission is to make yoga safe and accessible and to raise awareness about the benefits of yoga therapy. You can connect with her at

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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