SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Russo said he is the last person you'd expect to practice yoga.
"I was riding motorcycles, mountain biking, snowboarding," he said. "I was definitely an adrenaline junkie. I like things that move fast.”
Russo thought yoga was a little too slow, but that changed in an instant when he crashed on his mountain bike on a trail in Draper about five years ago.
"I went over the handlebars, hit my head, (and) tore my ear on this side. My ear had to get resewn. My face was all kind of messed up," he said.
He suffered a traumatic brain injury, also referred to as a TBI. He had a brain bleed on his frontal lobe.
He was rushed to the hospital and suddenly his pace changed. He was in the trauma unit for two days and then had to figure out where to go from there.
“I had to relearn my whole life,” he said.
After two years of struggling to figure out this new life, he sought out alternative interventions, including yoga.
Dr. Anne Russo, a neuropsychologist at Intermountain Healthcare’s The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital (TOSH) and no relation to Joe Russo, said yoga can be healing for someone with a TBI if they modify the different positions within the practice to their own injuries and needs.
She encourages people with a TBI to find an instructor who understands their symptoms and limitations.
Dr. Russo said a TBI can alter someone’s entire life and cognitive functioning. She said it could change, “your mood functioning, alter your sleep, alter your dietary preferences, (and) change your personality,” since the brain is the central control mechanism of the entire body.
However, she said the practice of yoga can be, “good for your brain, good for your body, good for your cognition."
Dr. Russo said yoga can help improve a patient’s headaches and their ability to concentrate. "It helps you to work on finding peace and quiet as well as building up your strength levels," she said.
I’m not supposed to be here. I was dying as I was going to the hospital. I make the best of where I am right now and remember that I was given a second chance from that accident.
After his accident, Joe Russo said he had poor balance and wasn’t able to stand on one leg. Today, he said his balance and his coordination have significantly improved.
“We do a lot of left and right brain exercises, and that helps in everything else — your daily life,” he said. “Going to these yoga classes kind of built my confidence back up,”
Joe Russo said he can't remember much of the past and has developed new ways to stay organized. He takes meticulous notes and uses his phone to set reminders of things he doesn’t want to forget.
“I live in the in the present. That's how I work through it,” he described.
He draws encouragement from fellow survivors at a yoga support group at Full Circle Yoga in downtown Salt Lake City. He finds comfort knowing other TBI survivors’ experience similar struggles he does. He said it is helpful to exchange tips on everyday living, like how to get better sleep.
His friend Adam Bullough, resource facilitator for the Brain Injury Alliance of Utah, was one of the first people Joe Russo met when he first started yoga.
Bullough said the biggest change he’s noticed is Joe's perspective on life. “He just seems to have more of a positive outlook on everything,” Bullough said. “You start to find happiness in the littlest places and that’s what I love.”
Joe Russo practices mindfulness every day through guided breathing techniques and focusing on the current moment.
“I live every day like tomorrow’s it and that’s the best way to live,” he said. “I’m not supposed to be here. I was dying as I was going to the hospital. I make the best of where I am right now and remember that I was given a second chance from that accident.”
Both Joe Russo and Bullough are big advocates of the importance of wearing a helmet. Joe Russo said if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet during his crash, he wouldn’t be here today.
The Brain Injury Alliance of Utah holds a free practice on the first Friday of every month at Full Circle Yoga at 4 p.m. for people who have survived a TBI and for their caregivers.
The Love Your Brain foundation is also coming to Salt Lake the first weekend in May to train teachers, clinicians, and yoga practitioners about how to modify their class to the needs of someone with a TBI.
In July, the foundation will start a free six-week fundamentals yoga series for people who have experienced a TBI and caregivers.