"In just one night, everything changed."
That's how my yoga student Brittney Olberding started to tell me about a life-altering car accident she had been involved in several years earlier. At that time she was a 21-year-old, fourth-year nursing student at Azusa Pacific University just East of L.A. In her final year of college, she was excitedly making plans to begin her work as a registered nurse, a career path she was passionate about.
However, the events that transpired on October 8, 2006, would drastically alter the course of Brittney's life and offer her a new perspective on what it truly means to live.
While driving late that evening, Brittney struck a disabled vehicle on the side of the road, causing her car to roll down an embankment. Brittney lay motionless in the wrecked vehicle, unattended for hours, only to be found early the next morning by a tow-truck driver who had come to recover the car left on the road. Despite severe damage to Brittney's vehicle, the accident left few typical injuries. In fact, the only broken bone in her entire body was her ring finger.
But Brittney sustained a traumatic brain injury called cerebellar ataxia, which is an injury to the cerebellum causing motor system dysfunction. Brittney spent the first three months following the accident in intensive inpatient treatment.
Merely standing was an extremely difficult task for her, as was handling small objects, writing, and even breathing at a consistent rate and rhythm. For a year and a half, Brittney learned to walk and move fluidly again through outpatient rehabilitation.
As part of her treatment, Brittney enrolled in an adaptive yoga class offered within the San Diego Community College District's Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) program.
Those two years of regular practice served as a catalyst for Brittney to go back to school, though she knew how challenging it would be. She enrolled in a hatha yoga class and then continued her studies and her yoga practice at MiraCosta College, where I met her in 2013.
Brittney enrolled in my vinyasa yoga class, which explored the pairing of physical poses (asana) with breathing techniques (pranayama).
In vinyasa-style classes, the emphasis is on breath-synchronized movements, in which yoga poses are linked together using the breath to create continuous flow. The art of intelligently and thoughtfully sequencing inclusive, multilevel classes has always brought me joy through my years of work as a group fitness instructor and over a decade of studying and teaching yoga.
Brittney told me mindful movement exploration is what ultimately shifted her perspective about her practice, herself, and her injury.
Below, she offers four ways the practice of yoga can help anyone overcome struggles:
1. Stay centered on your breath.
"Through the yoga classes, I discovered the movements served as a 'moving meditation,' which enabled me to understand the beauty of the pace of my personal practice," Brittney said. "I learned that breath is what causes movement, and I found such space, peace, beauty, and appreciation for life through these classes and this style of practice."
2. Find peace with what is.
For Brittney, the practice offered more than just the physical benefits, which were powerful given the challenging work of continuing to build her coordination, strength, and balance. Yoga also offered mental relief and provided Brittney with the opportunity to learn to love and accept herself and others with an entirely new perspective.
"After my accident, I struggled with depression. But yoga helps me to get up and moving, strengthening and stretching my body while clearing my mind and continually allowing myself to accept what I can do and cannot do and to be completely OK with that," Brittney noted. "Yoga allows me to find contentment in the present moment, which is so valuable. My physique comes secondary to this feeling of peace, love, and self-acceptance."
3. Give back.
As Brittney continued to challenge herself physically, mentally, and emotionally on her mat, she also challenged herself through her studies, earning certificates as a certified nursing assistant and certified home health aide.
Given the profound impact yoga had on her life, Brittney felt compelled to share the gift of yoga with others. She enrolled in the yoga teacher training program offered on campus, where I was fortunate enough to have her as a student again.
"I never would have seen myself as a yoga student, much less a yoga teacher, but my accident brought me to enjoy the serenity that is yoga and to appreciate how transformative the practice can be," Brittney said. "Yoga taught me to live in the present moment and to celebrate what is possible today. I have found that challenging my mind and body through yoga has really brought hope and abilities to my life personally and to the lives of the people I work with."
4. Be present.
If at any point in life you find yourself faced with adversity, take Brittney's advice about how yoga can offer you a new perspective:
"Yoga is not merely crazy poses. The heart of yoga is to get your mind out of itself and just to be present in life as it is right now, because life is beautiful."