What It’s Like to Break Your Brain in a Snowboarding Accident
How Kevin Pearce's yoga practice helped him cope with his brain injury.
Kevin Pearce talks about yoga the way most people talk about springtime, Burning Man, or really good indica.
"It's very welcoming. It's just so kind. Yoga is just so caring and gentle," says the 29-year-old former professional snowboarder, somehow animated and zenned out at the same time. "It helps me with positive thoughts. You're never judged in yoga."
While he's always been invested in its elements of mindfulness, Pearce delved into his practice full force while healing from a traumatic brain injury he suffered in 2009, in Utah while he was attempting a cab double cork, a move he'd built up to after several equally impressive snowboarding tricks. Dude is a beast.
The attempt nearly killed him, though. "The neurologist at Craig Hospital in Denver—where I spend three and half months in rehab—he was like, 'Your brain injury, on a scale of one to ten, is a nine.'" A 2013 documentary directed by Lucy Walker, The Crash Reel, chronicled his accident, journey toward recovery, and acceptance.
Pearce has made an unfathomable comeback; he's regained almost all function save for some vision impairment. But he acknowledges that everyone who suffers a TBI not only heals differently but requires a different level of support, which led him to found the Love Your Brain Foundation, an organization that aims to improve quality of life for those who went through what he did. There's even a yearly retreat he hosts, packed with yoga and meditation sessions.
"Having a community is the most crucial thing when healing," Pearce says. He tells us a little more about his ongoing challenges, his new purpose, and the effects of a solid sun salutation below.
Can you tell me about the first moments that you regained consciousness and were recovering from this injury?
The first memories were: I need to start snowboarding again. I need to get back to my snowboard. Why am I in a hospital right now because I need to be training for the Olympics? I was trying to go to the Vancouver winter Olympics at the time, and I woke up in the hospital thinking, what am I doing in here? I need to get back on the snow. That's something that is very hard that we have to deal with, how much our brains lie to us. Have you ever broken a bone or gotten a bad bruise on a part of your body?
So you get a bruise and your brain tells you that there is something wrong—and it's black and blue because you hit it on something and it's injured. When your ankle is broken and your bones heal, you know they are better because you can start walking again. Yet when you break your brain, it doesn't have the ability to tell you at all times if it's broken, or even if something's wrong.
So that makes healing it very difficult because you don't always know what you need to do. For instance, if you get a concussion, usually the effect goes away within days, weeks, or months, but it can take a lot longer than that to heal.
Your whole life revolved around snowboarding. How do you make that transition between something that's considered an extreme sport to something as low-intensity as yoga?
I was totally and fully completely 100 percent in the moment when I was snowboarding. I couldn't be anywhere else. I couldn't be thinking about anything else. So it's funky, because it's not meditation and it's not yoga at all, but in a way it does the same thing that yoga and meditation do—put you right there in the moment. It's the same idea of finding my flow.
Even the most mindful yogis drift. What recurring thoughts do you have when you practice yoga?
I do a bunch of public speaking and one of the things that happens more after brain injury than ever is that you have all these ANTs in your brain. The ANTs are "automatic negative thoughts." Negative thoughts are very damaging, especially when you are trying to get better. These negative thoughts actually slow down the healing or stop it.
Thoughts like, Oh my god I'm so stupid; why can't I stop thinking? or I don't need to think about that. That was so dumb that I thought about that. Those are all negative thoughts instead of when you're meditating and being like, I'm having a thought right now and I can let that go and I'm going to just breathe and be okay with having thoughts and not judge them. Judgment is a huge one, and you get judged a lot after a brain injury. You get looked at very differently.
Sometimes the judgement that people with TBI seem to face is the idea that they're broken somehow, and are looking for a way to be cured or changed.
Yeah. It's the last thing that you ever should or would or want to deal with after [injury] is people thinking that you're stupid or you need to be doing something differently or you need to be acting differently. That's like the worst thing ever after you're trying to deal with all your stuff. [You're going] through so much and somehow you're doing something wrong? It's so difficult because it's at a time that you need care and love more than ever and it's harder to get than ever any time before.
Are you striving to find the same flow you had before as far as competitive snowboarding?
I'm not trying to. No, I don't anymore. I don't feel I'd be able to do it in a safe enough way that I can be smart enough and safe enough about it because of how delicate my brain is now.
So there's a shift in focus for you. Do you feel like you have a different purpose now?
Yeah, totally and completely, 110 percent. My focus has completely changed from what it was when I was trying to be on the top of podiums and winning gold medals. Now it's trying to help people learn about how they can love their brains and how they can live their healthiest and happiest lives possible. Now I have the ability to help this enormous population of people that have suffered injuries to their brains. I can share what I have done and how well this has worked for me, and how much I've gotten out of it.
In The Crash Reel, your friend mentions that people tend to fall away when you go through something like this. Can you tell me about which relationships you saw evolve or dissolve after your injury?
Well your brain ultimately controls who you are and how you are and what you do and how you act. So when you injure it, you become a different person. Most of the time those effects are negative, and it makes people not want to be around you. And that's a weird thing to think about—someone that's going through something this traumatic and that their friends and loved ones would disappear and fall out of their life. But it's true because most of the time it's not very fun to be around that person and they're not caring and they're not loving, and they're not fun, and they're annoying and whatever it might be.
I have dealt with that a little bit, but for the most part it's been the opposite for me in the sense that my family was there every single day in the critical care with me for the first 36 days and then they moved to Denver for three and half months and were at the rehab hospital with me every single day, and brought me breakfast and dinner every morning and night. They had a cook come in so they could be with me and have food cooked for me because of how important food is for your healing. So I had this incredible amount of support and love.