On January 25th, I received a concussion while practicing acro, during a back whip. The front left corner of my head struck the inside of my partner's right knee as we were whipping backwards from throne to bird. Since then, I have been diagnosed with Post-Concussive Syndrome. Please read on to learn about what happened and how we can help prevent future concussions.
It's been like waking up every morning with the worst hangover you've ever had, every day. Since the filming of this video my trajectory towards recovery has been slow. I've still been unable to return to work and my ability to dance and practice the movement that I love has been severely restricted. It's put strain on many relationships in my life, but also strengthened many. I will continue to face the impacts of my concussion for months to come.
My partner Glen Acro Saunders wrote about our experience and I encourage you to read in full. We also posted this as a live document so that we can add insight and feedback received: http://bit.ly/emplaysconcussed
Emily Reuman and I (Glen Acro Saunders) thought we approached dangerous moves in acroyoga slowly enough and had prepped sufficiently. Emily received a major concussion during a back whip. The front left corner of her head struck the inside of my right knee as we were whipping backwards from throne to bird.
First off, I’m not an expert on acroyoga or acrobatics. While I have been an avid practitioner for the last year and a half (this document was composed in March 2016) - and since the beginning tried my hardest to have a healthy respect for the danger level of acro and take the proper safety precautions - obviously mistakes were made and now one of my favorite acro partners has a serious brain injury.
I write this document to:
-Understand best what went wrong
-Determine how to practice so that it won’t happen again
-Present this knowledge to help the community be safer
-Encourage dialog about injuries in acro.
In that respect, this document is a living document and will be updated with relevant details that are mentioned in discussions and on forums like the “Safety in Acro” Facebook group. I truly hope that sharing can result in a more informed, safer community.
The injury, from my point of view:
To me it didn’t feel like a hard hit, but it very seriously concussed Emily and we have multiple lessons to share from this. She has years of experience flying this whip and taught me. We thought we had worked our way up to this whip and she was comfortable in it and I was finally feeling like I had a handle on it. In addition to Emily’s teaching, I was also taught at festivals and practiced it very slowly at first, not removing my hands or using momentum until it felt safe, and even then with only the smallest bit of momentum. We didn’t add speed to the whip for months and only after hundreds of repetitions of practice. Looking back, the training for this was approached pretty intelligently, but we made some mistakes in execution (obviously). Here’s our breakdown of what went wrong and take aways to bring into our future training:
The biggest lesson from this is singular: It’s safer when you go slower. This has multiple meanings in context:
Do whips slowly. The crowd is still super impressed when you whip slowly and doing it with maximum speed doesn’t give you more impressiveness to the vast majority of audiences and slowly whipping gives you time to adjust, refine, and keep it safer. Adding speed narrows the safety margins while upping the danger level significantly.
Do reps more slowly. Rest between them. We were putting in repetitions of a sequence we were preparing for a performance that Saturday. The injury occurred when we said something like “lets pump out 5 more reps” [of the sequence] and we did some back to back - without the rest periods we had previously used between them - because it felt really smooth and like it was going great. This is when the injury happened.
Don’t rush just to get something: We were rushing to get the performance ready by Saturday. If it’s not ready and it’s optional (for us it was), spend the time to get it ready for a later date and/or remove the dangerous/unrefined moves rather than rushing to get repetitions in so the body feels it better. Besides resulting in doing repetitions while slightly fatigued (more dangerous), this can also ingrain bad habits into the body.
The physical accident happened because (and this is very likely the main reason) my footing was off. I felt it and it felt not perfect, but good enough, and Emily in retrospect says she felt it too. Both of us thought it was good enough but we could have and (with hindsight being 20/20) should have aborted the whip. Emily starts the whip slowly. The first 10% begins very slowly so that adjustments or aborting can occur.
Another factor was that, we think one of her legs was piking faster or harder than the other, contributing to her drawing to one side and eventually connecting with my knee.
Lastly, two things compounded to cause her to actually be in line with my knee at all. Many fliers on many bases aren’t in a position that aligns the base’s knees with their head during this whip. I’m 6’3” and have long legs. Emily had recently whipped through while keeping an almost fully extended torso, but her hair hit me in the groin, so I asked her to scrunch more during subsequent ones. My knees should have been flared outwards enough to avoid her head hitting them, but a combination of all of the above factors caused it to obviously not be enough. In the future I will be very cognizant of precision in my footing and keeping my knees wider within these and similar whips.
Additionally we have some other take-aways:
Don’t listen to likely concussed people when they say they’re “OK”. Stay with them. Some concussion symptoms are confusion, numbness, and slowness. This means that the potentially concussed person may not be able to accurately self assess their injury. Symptoms may not manifest for minutes, hours, days, or even a week later. Keep checking in on potentially concussed people.
Learn to diagnose serious concussions.
NOTE THIS IS NOT COMPREHENSIVE
Get the injured to a hospital if they’re seriously concussed. Fortunately for us, a close friend did recognize the gravity of the situation and took Emily to the hospital. Thank you. My (Glen) personal prior experience with concussions was from getting kicked very hard in the head during a Taekwondo heavyweight fight and as a goal keeper during a soccer match. My experience was massively different than Emily’s. My concussions were minor only affected me for several hours, not weeks.
Concussions are often cumulative and may require less impact to cause a concussion if someone has had multiple concussions previously. Additionally, certain angles of impact increase the chance of getting a concussion. Hitting the side/corner of the head is one of them.
Additional concussion info:
Too-short summary (read the link): Worry is coma - if the injured cannot hold convo, pupils are dialated or uneven, they have trouble walking or are vomiting, then don't sleep because there is a coma risk and they should be examined by a doctor as soon as possible.
A final note is that Acro is inherently risky. Injuries will happen, but every precaution should be taken to prevent them. If something feels wrong, talk it over and see how it can be made right or safely worked with until it doesn't feel wrong. A pause and adjustment could have easily prevented this injury.
-Glen Acro Saunders
Posted as a live document here so that we can add insight and feedback received: http://bit.ly/emplaysconcussed
A huge THANK YOU to my family, friends, partners, students, and communities for all of the love and support. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity and patience of those around me and far away throughout this hard time. An incomplete list:
Lauren Tallody Mara Schechter Carter Lavin Christopher Filkins Emily Heffling Peter Jackson Ashley Gremel Scott Racette Heather Kryczka TJ Wong Liz Breen-Golan Hani Darwish Ron Avitzur Aaron Koz Scott Cooper Micki Mooney Carson Watts Brian Cruikshank Jeff Davis Jacob Brown Eddy Goh Dani Forshay Tim Laurel James Ta-Dao Elizabeth Reuman Caudill Carolyn Reuman Dean Haakenson
Also love and thanks to my friends still handling the aftermath of their concussions for the advice and openness. Even knowing you're out there helps: Athena Matilsky Adi Foss Camellia Nieh