BALTIMORE — When she was a student at Johns Hopkins University, Nirali Chauhan enjoyed exercising. She took part in Baltimore Running Festivals and was certified as a group exercise instructor.
But on the very day she was to attend a one-year memorial for the passing of her father in a Chicago suburb Nov. 6, 2015, Chauhan was accidentally run over by an elderly neighbor in his sport-utility vehicle and suffered a variety of cuts, scrapes and bruises. While her body healed, a concussion she sustained became more problematic.
"After the injury, it became very difficult to move my body," Chauhan recalled. "It kind of felt foreign to me. I felt very dizzy and nauseous when I did move. So that inactivity led to a lot of weakness in my body, and that's something that I still struggle with today."
Chauhan then found yoga sessions operated by LoveYourBrain, an organization committed to improving life for people suffering from traumatic brain injuries, after she graduated in 2016 and moved to New Hampshire to pursue a master's degree at Dartmouth College. The yoga has helped Chauhan, now 25, become physically active once again.
"After an injury that profoundly impacts you, I think it is natural to fight your brain or resist the changes that your injury has caused," she said. "But the program teaches you that it's important to do the exact opposite in order to heal. You have to nurture it and feed it and love your brain and your entire self, and only with that intention can you properly heal. It took me a little time to get to that point, but when I did, it only got better for me."
LoveYourBrain yoga has expanded to 29 states and served more than 2,100 people. The organization is seeking to be in all 50 states by 2021.
The LoveYourBrain Foundation was established by brothers Adam and Kevin Pearce after the latter suffered a serious brain injury from a snowboarding accident in Park City, Utah, on New Year's Eve in 2009. Kevin Pearce, who spent nearly a week in a coma and was forced to give up his hopes of competing in the 2010 Winter Olympics, was hampered by physical and cognitive challenges until a friend took him to a yoga class.
In 2014, in their home state of Vermont, Pearce and his brother established LoveYourBrain, which offers programs to foster community and resilience to people suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBI). The yoga portion introduces patients and their caregivers to the physical benefits of yoga while also giving the participants a chance to connect to each other.
"Because TBI is so complex, it's actually quite challenging to come up with a program that is dynamic enough to be tailored to the individuals in a group, but then also has a consistent structure so that it's able to have fidelity and remain high quality across a wide variety of people," said Kyla Pearce, senior director of the organization's yoga program and wife of Adam Pearce.
"So it was surprising just knowing the benefits of yoga and its potential for supporting rehabilitation. But as we continued to roll out the program, we learned how to overcome the barriers so that we could effectively implement it on a very large scale."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2.87 million TBI-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations and deaths occurred in the United States in 2014. In addition, that number had increased by 53 percent from 2006 to 2014.
Medical experts have routinely promoted the benefits of physical activity in patients' recoveries, and Dr. Joseph Cleary, a senior pediatric neuropsychologist at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore, praised LoveYourBrain's approach.
"I think it's a cool kind of thing just because not only are you getting out of the house and practicing yoga, which would be beneficial, but they're practicing yoga with other people who have (brain injuries)," he said. "So that has to have a huge effect, almost like a group therapy effect on belonging and formalizing issues.
"We see a lot of kids when they go back into their environment, they withdraw from friends, and there's increased depression and anxiety because they don't feel like they fit in anymore. So that has huge implications for social and emotional and pure relationship values."
Added Dr. Christopher Vaughan, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Children's National in Washington: "We spend a lot of time focused on traumatic brain injuries as a harmful and detrimental issue, but there's something to be said about a positive message that focuses on brain health."
Chauhan, the Hopkins graduate, said she has been diagnosed with postconcussion syndrome. She became dizzy and nauseated when concentrating, especially in front of a computer, was carried to the kitchen table for meals, and distanced herself from friends because she felt they could not understand her situation.
"It turned my whole world upside down," Chauhan said of the concussion. "I really took a lot of pride in being able to excel at school. That was part of my identity growing up. And so after my injury, losing that part of me was really difficult because with any other type of injury, it's your brain that tells you to push forward, to be strong, to persevere. But in my case, it was the brain that was broken."
Chauhan said she still deals with postconcussion symptoms. But she passed the MCATs and will attend medical school next year. She said she is "in a much more positive and hopeful place" than earlier in her recovery and has credited LoveYourBrain's yoga sessions with helping her rebuild her life.
"I actually do feel like it's made me a better person," she said. "But it has been a long journey, and I know that will only continue as well."