When Briana Spencer was 23 years old, she took her first yoga class at Santa Monica City College in Los Angeles and hated it. In reality, yoga forced her to confront things that she had spent years running from; like the trauma from her childhood that continued into her teen years. But she stuck with it, because despite the frustration it caused her, she liked how it pushed her body. And it was during that first semester of her yoga class, that something clicked.
“I felt a shift,” Briana said. “I felt like I could sit down with all my shit and just be with it. It’s the most challenging thing to be with, ‘cause you want to run… especially when you’ve been through so much trauma.”
Briana is an inspiring woman in many ways. Her ability to look back at her past through a lens of empowerment is remarkable, and one that many youth in foster care work to find despite the roadblocks they often face within the system. But the positive attitude and resilience she has today didn’t come out of nowhere. Her story is one that shows a tremendous amount of work, introspection and advocacy, as part of her efforts to deal with the past and take steps forward toward a vibrant, healthy future.
Growing Up in a Fight or Flight World
When Briana was born, her mother was 17 years old. While her father was occasionally around, Briana was raised mostly by her mother and a cohort of other female family members. She recalls her mother partying a lot and describes how one time her mother slept for two days straight to recover.
She longed to do “normal” kid things like go to the movies with her friends, but since there was little money and her mother was often unavailable, Briana was frequently left to fend for herself.
“Even though she was there, she wasn’t present–you know–mentally and emotionally. I kind of had to create a different world for myself," Briana said.
The world Briana created was one of reading and telling stories. She devoured books and began writing poetry at an early age. Today, she still practically whispers with awe as she talks about the connection she felt when she read Maya Angelou’s "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" for the first time.
“It touched something so deep in me because this woman went through so much and I was going through a very hard, hard time,” she said. “So for me that was the first time I accepted words, or books, as my teachers. Kind of like my parents. And I still see it as that.”
Briana entered her first poetry contest when she was in middle school, writing about what womanhood meant to her. One afternoon, contest organizers brought students from several schools together in an auditorium in downtown L.A. to announce the winners. To Briana’s complete surprise, they called her name. “And I was like, me? Oh! I’m good at something, because I never really felt like I was good at anything, you know?”
Briana’s ability to escape into her imagination became increasingly important as her home life got worse. By the time she was a teenager, her mother had severed ties with the family members Briana had relied upon for emotional support. Things continued to spiral downward, and she felt that she had few people she could trust and nowhere to feel safe. Briana started cutting herself and soon after, when one of her mother’s boyfriends tried to touch her, she finally reached her breaking point.
While she was on a school break, she found herself sitting in her room, staring at a pile of pills and preparing to take her own life. But something outside her window stopped her. A blue jay. It reminded her of her great grandmother who had just passed that same year and the same poem that first connected her to poetry, Maya Angelou's "I Know Why A Caged Bird Sings." She heard a voice say, "Briana, you have to leave this house, get out. This is not where your soul can live."
“It was the strongest voice I ever heard,” she said, hearing the voice of her late grandmother. “So I was like, OK, I’m going to at least try and fight for my life.”
The day after her encounter with the blue jay, Briana finally told a counselor at her school everything. She had previously shared bits and pieces about what was happening at home, but this time was different. The counselor drove her straight to a youth shelter in Hollywood, despite the rules about staff driving students. That was the beginning of what Briana calls her “second life” and her finding her way through the foster care system. From the age of 15 to 18, Briana bounced between 30-day shelters and group homes, and finally, when she turned 18, she landed in a transitional housing program.
Healing Grief Through Yoga and Meditation
After landing in the transitional home at the age of 18, Briana faced the overwhelming task of trying to prepare for independence. She gained access to a program California offers foster youth called Transitional Housing Program-Plus, or THP-Plus, which gives foster youth between 18 and 24 continued housing and support services. Over the next couple of years, Briana spent hours commuting by bus between school, home and work. When Briana was close to turning 24, she was laid off from her job at an adoption agency and about to exit out of the THP-Plus program. She didn’t know how she was going to take care of herself. The weight of this impending transition out of foster care drove Briana to one of her worst mental states.
“I was kind of feeling like, I’m going to end up going to the dark side. I was thinking of doing things like prostitution, suicide, or stealing as a last resort because I hit a breaking point of surviving all the time," Briana said.
But her connection to yoga through the Santa Monica City College class could not have come at a better time. One of the women in her yoga group helped her strategize a path away from the “dark side,” as Briana called it. Soon after, another woman from her yoga group offered to pay Briana’s rent and move all of her belongings into a new place, under the condition that she continue hunting for a job. Briana calls these women angels. "They saw something in me and believed in me. A lot of people give up on these youth but they didn't."
Over time, Briana became stronger and more independent in her transition out of the foster care system, thanks to the support of her women's yoga group, the physical and mental strength that yoga gave her, as well as additional guidance and support from Los Angeles-based organization, The RightWay Foundation.
The RightWay Foundation nominated her for the Gift of Compassion Fellowship, a six-month long program empowering foster youth to recognize and process grief using meditation. The Gift of Compassion Fellowship helps fellows understand that grief comes from loss, and that grief can be triggered by many things youth in foster care face regularly, such as losing a parent, sibling or home environment.
During the fellowship, Briana found new sources of healing and strength in meditation in addition to yoga. Today, she sees meditation as one holistic therapeutic alternative to medication. Meditation gives Briana peace of mind and an ability to manage her past experiences in a way that prescription drugs given to her while she was in foster care never did. She embraces mantras (phrases that are repeated during meditation), which build upon her deep belief in the power of words to heal. It allows her to own and release the grief she’s held onto for so many years, instead of numbing her out.
Learning to Forgive
For Briana, meditation and yoga have empowered her to understand and share her own story, and ultimately help her forgive things that happened in her past.
"There will always be the little girl in me that was hurt, but I can better know how to be the nurturer to that little girl that lives in side of me. I can mother her and gain her trust again–that is the power of the process. I am gaining a new understanding of my family members' own experiences though so I like that part, because yoga has opened my heart chakra as I've learned the power of forgiveness in myself and others. There is this meditation that I’m really considering doing, because I’m in the process of releasing,” she said.
Briana is hoping to use it to forgive her mother, whom she hasn’t spoken to in almost 10 years. She pauses for a moment, carefully and deliberately measuring the precious words of Ho'Oponopono-an, a traditional Hawaiian practice.
“I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you,” she says, then repeats the mantra. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.”
On moving forward and thinking ahead to the future, Briana dreams of a motivational and holistic carer. Right now, she works as a teaching assistant for first graders, as a peer partner at the Violence Intervention Program (VIP) Community Mental Health Center, as well as a mentor for foster youth in the Los Angeles foster care system. But when asked what she wants to be known for, she says, "I am a poet, artist and above all, creator."