When you think of concussions you might immediately think of football players, soccer players, other athletes, or military service persons. Did you think about your neighbor down the street who slipped on the ice and hit her head? What about your coworker who was in a car accident a few years ago? Your parent who fell in the shower? Or your nephew who, still learning to walk, banged his head on the corner of a table? Truth is the majority of the approximately three million reported traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), including concussion (which is a TBI), that occur in the United States alone every year happen to “average” people, like you and me. The actual number of TBIs every year is likely much higher, as the reported number is counted only by emergency room (ER) visits, hospitalizations, and deaths. Countless people don’t seek treatment or are un- or mis-diagnosed.
What is a TBI?
I’ve been living with a TBI for over eight years. Before you read more about my own TBI journey, let’s get clear on what a traumatic brain injury is. According to the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA):
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is defined as an alteration in brain function, or other evidence of brain pathology, caused by an external force. Traumatic impact injuries can be defined as closed (or non-penetrating) or open (penetrating)… A concussion can be caused by direct blows to the head, gunshot wounds, violent shaking of the head, or force from a whiplash-type injury. Both closed and open head injuries can produce a concussion. A concussion is the most common type of traumatic brain injury.biausa.org
Note that damage to the brain caused by stroke or other internal factors that do not involve blunt force trauma are called non-traumatic acquired brain injuries. The word “traumatic” refers to the physiological trauma from the jostling of the brain inside the cranium/skull. It does not necessarily mean that the event or circumstance that caused the injury was psychologically traumatic for the person who experienced it (though these experiences can certainly be emotionally and psychologically traumatic, too). There is a rating of severity from “mild” to “severe,” though these qualifiers refer only to the amount of physiological brain damage and are absolutely no reflection of the injury’s impact to the person and their life. Take it from me, a “mild” concussion can have severe ramifications, even years to decades later. One more important fact to know is that one does not need to lose consciousness to have a TBI. That is an all-too-common myth that the public needs to understand.
After a traumatic brain injury most people experience:
- Sound and light sensitivity
- Mood and personality changes
- Inability to regulate emotions
- Clinical depression
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory problems
- Sleep disturbances (particularly staying asleep)
- Balance and coordination challenges
- Aphasia (messing up words and trouble with word recall)
- Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
This is certainly not a complete list, and no two brain injuries are the same. Symptoms depend on the person, their health history, the severity of brain damage, the areas of the brain (most) damaged, and more, treatment/care received, etc. These symptoms can present immediately post-injury, and/or develop over time months to years later (particularly within the first two after the TBI).
Onto my story. While the details are in my book, here is the Cliff’s Notes version. My life changed in November 2013 when the horse I was riding in a dressage riding lesson spooked. Despite being an experienced rider, I fell off, landing hard on my back and hitting the back of my head. Yes, I was wearing a helmet. After what was the worst night of my life to date (and I hope ever) with severe head pain, my husband took me to the ER the next day for a CT scan. There, the doctor literally said, “Congratulations! You’re concussed!” Thankfully, the scan revealed no internal bleeding. The staff gave me prescription pain medication and a two-page handout with post-concussion instructions, told me I’d be “fine” in a couple of weeks, and sent me on my way. After a quick errand, my husband drove us home. Just three miles from home and approximately 25 hours after the fall from the horse, we were going through an intersection (we had the green light) when a woman driving the opposite direction wrongfully turned left immediately in front of us. Physics was not in our favor and we collided, causing damage to my, the passenger, side of the car and instantly flaring the already existing pain in my head, neck, and back. Neither my husband nor the driver of the other vehicle was hurt, but it certainly impacted me since I was already injured. Talk about adding insult to injury on numerous levels. I had also just ended accident-related treatment six weeks before for a severe car accident that occurred almost exactly a year prior, in which I was also the passenger. Whether bad luck or karma, I guess I had both.
Yoga and Moving Forward
The ER staff was wrong. I was not “fine” after a few weeks. Turns out about 80% of people who incur a concussion/TBI return to “normal” within several weeks. While I’ve always been a high achiever, I unintentionally ended up in the top 20%: the group of people who don’t return to “normal.” Fast forward over eight years and I’m now disabled from the ramifications of my “mild” TBI (mTBI), with a long list of associated diagnoses. I had to give up my 14-year career as a licensed bodyworker and close my award-winning practice of 12 years. I lost several of my beloved communities because I could no longer participate, and even sometimes lost my sense of Self.
Despite the drastic changes in my life since my injury, it’s not all bad. Far from. There are countless blessings, gifts, and valuable lessons that have risen out of this, what some might call, tragedy. There are family, friends, animals, and activities that have helped and still help me process grief, come to terms, cope, and bring me joy. One of these steady activities is my Yoga practice. I was a dedicated Yoga practitioner for a few years before my TBI, but like a lot of things in my life post-injury, my practice changed a lot, too. I used to do vigorous hot Yoga practices numerous times per week, but within about a year post-TBI my body could no longer tolerate the heat due to some additional conditions the TBI caused. My practice became and still is much gentler and includes a lot of Yin Yoga (essentially stretching). Long gone are the days of fancy inversions and fast-paced Vinyāsa classes, but what I’ve learned as both a Yoga teacher and student is that those things don’t make an “advanced” practice. Yoga is first and foremost a spiritual discipline, and the (physical, āsana) practice can help you do more than just stretch hamstrings: it can help you explore the Truth of who you are on the most fundamental and subtle level. That is what “advanced” practice is: going more and more subtle. While I’m still far from what I’d consider an “advanced” practitioner, since my TBI Yoga has helped me come back into my body, examine my thoughts and perceptions, and be present with what is, rather than what I think “should be.” I grieved the loss of the hot Yoga community that had played such a big role in my life, but when that door closed another opened. That door was Maya Whole Health studio, where I’ve both taught and practiced since 2017 (on and off for a couple years, but consistently again since 2020). This community gives me both purpose and comfort. Community and resilience are essential to moving forward with a TBI, and the LoveYourBrain program brings community, resilience, and yoga all together for the TBI community.
LoveYourBrain (LYB) began in 2014 following the severe traumatic brain injury (sTBI) that snowboarder Kevin Pearce sustained just weeks before he was to compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. Kevin and his family had a very difficult journey, as documented in the documentary “The Crash Reel” by Lucy Walker. Yoga and mindfulness were an integral part of Kevin’s healing, adapting, accepting, and resilience.
So often the TBI journey is very lonely, especially as the years pass and people you know generally forget you had a life-changing injury, or ask questions like, “You’re still dealing with that?” (I’ve personally received this question) as if that was somehow inconceivable. Plus, most people just don’t understand the experience, let alone brain physiology, or don’t have much empathy. Kevin and his family understood the importance of community and what a difference it makes to moving forward, especially when it’s a community of other people affected by TBI. Hence, non-profit LoveYourBrain was born and offers their 6-week Yoga and mindfulness meditation program to people in the TBI community, including caregivers, for FREE. Students can participate in the program repeatedly, if there’s room, as well as retreats in-person or online. LYB also offers guided discussions for class groups to foster community and deepen connections.
The physical practice is tailored to the most common needs and challenges faced by people with TBIs, accommodating for balance, coordination, comprehension, neurofatigue, and more. They even keep the lights low, make sure classes are not facing bright windows, and encourage students to wear sunglasses if needed. When I did my LYB teacher training, their management of light and sound/noise volume was a relief that words can’t even describe. It was one of those moments where I thought to myself, “They get it!” and really felt both seen and validated. People with invisible injuries like TBI are far-to-often dismissed and invalidated, even by healthcare professionals, so having a community and program that truly understands makes a profound difference. If I had known about LYB in the first few years after my TBI, especially, it would have likely made a big difference to my own journey. That’s why I support this organization and their mission, as a member of the TBI community, an LYB student, and a LoveYourBrain certified teacher.
Maya Whole Health supports community causes and LoveYourBrain, joining in LYB’s annual MindfulMarch campaign for the third year in a row. Fellow Maya instructor, Susan Watkins (also a member of the TBI community and LYB certified instructor), and I will be hosting a gentle, virtual benefit Yoga class on March 27th. Get the details and register for class here. You’re invited to join us through the live class and/or by donating through our MindfulMarch link. All funds go directly to LoveYourBrain. We truly thank you for your support.
To my communities (including Maya), family, friends, animals, and healthcare team: thank you and my deepest gratitude for all you’ve done and continue to do for me on my TBI journey. You witness the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between every day. To LoveYourBrain, my heartfelt thanks for all you do for the TBI community. Thank you.