How Yoga Fails Trauma Survivors

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I love yoga.

I am passionate about the healing powers of yoga.

And also, yoga sometimes fails.

If you’re a trauma survivor and currently in the depths of your healing, in the phase where sleep is elusive not even because of nightmares but because of fear of nightmares and your daytime hours are ruled by debilitating anxiety, consider the following for making choices about movement experiences that best support your healing.

Because not all yoga teachers understand trauma. Many yoga teachers have not experienced trauma themselves or have not taken the time or had the opportunity to study how trauma physically changes the brain and therefore your behavioural, cognitive, and emotional responses.  Additionally, when I ask my fellow yoga teachers how much trauma training they received in their initial yoga teacher training course, the answer is sadly more often than not…none.

They therefore don’t understand that you are spending every ounce of energy ‘just’ trying to feel safe in the world and that if they do something unsafe to you, you can go right back to the moment of your trauma in a split-second. They don’t understand that this re-traumatizes you and literally harms your brain and keeps your healing at bay. They don’t understand that asking you to do psychological work in a non-trauma-informed way, not even knowing if you are resourced enough to do this work properly and safely, is also very detrimental to your brain and health.

So when you put these two things together, the well-meaning but inexperienced or uneducated yoga instructor, you can sometimes end up with people want to promote health and healing but are actually doing the opposite and furthering harm and suffering.

So I say the following based on my own personal experiences as a trauma survivor, as a person who has participated in a wide variety of yoga experiences, as someone who deeply considers and questions these things with my fellow yoga teachers, and as someone who wants to give choice and power to my fellow trauma survivors by giving them information that will allow them to make the best decisions for them and their healing.

Touch
Some missteps in terms of supporting trauma survivors in yoga come from teacher training. Many teacher training courses do not even talk about trauma or mental health. In the way North America has morphed traditional yoga, the emphasis in teacher training courses is often largely on the physical components of the practice, what is called the ‘asana’ or physical postures, and alignment within these postures.

Correspondingly, a lot of time is usually spent teaching new yoga teachers how to do hands-on assisting of students in class. The motivations behind the assisting are many, including supporting you in stretching deeper into a pose and helping you feel what alignment feels like in the pose. No matter the motivation, the end result of this component of yoga teacher training is the same: yoga teachers who believe that they need to touch you in order for your practice to somehow be better or complete.

When and where and how and with what consent this touch is appropriate is very often not even touched upon in their training. So then we end up with teachers who will not even ask your permission to touch you. Choice can be taken away from you.  Again.

Some yoga teachers or even studios have considered the issue of touch and develop a system for it. They may ask you to indicate with a wave if you do or do not want touch or develop a ‘consent card’ system, whereby you turn a card that is by your yoga mat a certain colour to indicate if you wish to be touched or not. This is a step in the right direction. However, this still requires you to disclose your personal wishes in a public setting. It requires you to publicly declare your desires about your body.  David Emerson from the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute, indicated that in their research about touch in yoga, participants with an extensive trauma history often felt so uncomfortable publicly indicating their desire to not be touched that they chose to take touch when they didn’t want it over saying no to touch in front of other people. In his words, the most vulnerable people “said yes when they meant no.”

Empowerment
There are some yoga teachers who hold the narrow view that everyone should do the same thing in class.  They don’t know about choice and freedom of movement and how this applies in the yoga studio. As a trauma survivor in this kind of class, you can once again feel like your power is being taken away from you – you don’t even have choice about how to move your body.  You may feel pressure to stay with the class and do the moves as they are doing them or to resist your urge to rest if it comes up in class.  Sometimes you won’t even be cued to tune into the internal sensations of your body, something you have likely been cut off from in small or large ways because of your brain’s response to trauma. There is a much better way for the trauma survivor – a yoga class the includes choice, freedom of movement, permission to honour and follow the urges of your body.  There is a way that puts the power you lost in trauma back in your hands because power and choice matter.

Teacher Movement
A lot of yoga teachers wander around during class. Some move a little, some a lot. Some don’t even have a yoga mat to teach from. So know that if you’re a trauma survivor, this type of teacher could possibly feel unsafe to you. You cannot predict where they are going to be in the room, you don’t know when they’re going to come close or be far. You may be asked to close your eyes and then you can hear their footsteps wandering around, making you feel unsafe. It’s possible that at some points in your healing a teacher who stays in one place, positioned on his or her mat, will feel safer to you.

For Trauma Warriors Who Want to Attend Yoga:
A future blog post will outline trauma-informed suggestions for yoga teachers and studios.  For my fellow trauma survivors who are in the thick of healing, here are a few suggestions for you:

-If you don’t want touch:
If you’re in a stage of your healing where you can advocate for yourself, do it! Tell the instructor before class that you don’t want any hands on you. You DO NOT need to explain why. If they are unaware and uniformed and ask why, simply say, “I’d rather not discuss it right now.”  You DO NOT need to disclose your personal history to anyone you do not want to.

-If talking to others or people moving around feels unsafe:
Yoga can feel safe to some trauma survivors because they are coming to a community to practice movement in that community, everyone stays in their own space.  But there can be a lot of shuffling around before class starts.  If this unpredictable movement feels unsafe to you but you’re ready to take a class, an easy option to avoid the pre-class movements of others is to arrive early, set up your mat in what feels like a safe place in the room for you (consider corners, doors and exits, proximity of instructor), and then leave again. You could wait in the entry area or a change room, a hallway, your car and re-enter the studio two minutes before class starts when people are more settled.

-If you're worried about what you can or can't do:
Remember: You have control of your body at all times. This means you DO NOT have to follow the instructor’s prompts to a t. YOU choose what you do and don’t do, how and when you move and how and when you rest. You can take a break at anytime. You can leave at anytime. You have the choice and the power. REGARDLESS of who the instructor is or what he or she says. Your body, your life, your choice. Always and in all environments, even a yoga studio.

-If you’re afraid of closing your eyes:
Then DON’T. Simple. Regardless of what the instructor says, your mental, emotional, and physical health and safety is #1 always…so if closing your eyes takes you too far into your fear, your thoughts, or your traumatic memories, then don’t do it. Choose a soft gaze that looks down at the floor or towards the tip of your nose or keep your eyes wide open if that’s what makes you feel the safest!

-If you’re unsure you belong at a yoga studio:
I think almost all yoga teachers have the very best of intentions. We are a warm-heart, well-intentioned crew.  We likely teach yoga because it has helped us on our own healing path. We want to help you, wherever you are and however you’re doing. But there are some of us who understand you more than others.

Some of us who know that with every breathe you take, you are fighting harder than everyone we know just to be here, to choose to be here, to live in a world that feels unsafe. To show up and to keep moving forward. You are the bravest person we know!

So keep seeking your places and your people that feel safe, I promise we are out there. We know that sometimes the very hardest thing you might do in your whole day, maybe even in your whole life, is to arrive to our space and trust us with your bodies and minds. And we will do everything possible to not break that trust, including try to teach our colleagues about trauma. We are the ones who believe you can heal and we will do everything we can to support you, including cultivating a sense of safety in the best ways we know how and giving you as much choice and freedom while you practice yoga as we possibly can. Because you can do this. And you will!

Angie

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Buzz Away a Buzzy Mind

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You didn't know bumblebees could be an inspiration for relaxation, did you!?

Stress and anxiety can change our breath, shortening it and getting us into upper chest breathing, both of which activate the sympathetic side of our autonomic nervous system...keeping our physiology in a stressful state of fight/flight/freeze which in turn keeps perpetuating the stressful or anxious state in our brains and bodies.

So...bring in the bumblebee!

It's a simple breath technique that works MAGIC!

Inhale naturally and on your exhale hum the 'mmmmm' sound with your lips closed. Repeat and repeat and repeat. Inhale, exhale 'mmmmm.' Keep your breath steady, inhaling and exhaling naturally. Very gradually, begin to lengthen the exhale and amount of time you hum - but keep the breath natural and smooth. You can press your tongue lightly against the roof of your mouth or, if it feels better, against the back of your teeth.

Here's are a few reasons why it works:

1. The humming on the exhale naturally lengthens your exhale which activates the parasympathetic (rest & digest) side of your nervous system, effectively turning on calm as the relaxation response begins to soothe your brain and body.

2. The vibration of the sound 'mmm' stimulates the vagus nerve, which also activates the parasympathetic system (double dose or relaxation!!). Among other things, stimulating the fibers of the vagus nerve enlivens your internal organs and decreases your heart rate (that again!!), sending the message to your brain that it's ok to be calm and rest, which in turn shifts your physiology and therefore also your mental and emotional state.

So next time you feel stressed of anxious, harness inspiration from the mighty bumblebee and buzz your way to a calmer mind and body!

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Meditation is Scary

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It's so true that people think meditation is scary! I hear it so often! But it's because meditation is not what you think it is.

Yes, meditating can be sitting in a room by yourself, cross-legged, eyes closed, for hours on end.

But meditation is also so much more than that!

And there are ways to make it accessible for yourself as a beginner.

To start, use your breath. It's always there and provides a nice anchor point for beginning to train your mind to pay attention, which is the first stage of meditation.

And yes, you literally have to 'train your mind' at the beginning.

A few ways to start meditating for newbies:

1. Do square breathing. Inhale to a count of 1, 2, 3, 4, hold for 1, 2, 3, 4, exhale 1, 2, 3, 4, hold 1, 2, 3, 4. Or use a count that works for you but keep the breath even. Two minutes, go!

2. Sit or lie down - again, anywhere. The location and position do not matter. Place your palms on your belly. Feel your breath move in and out through the palms. Every time you notice your mind wander, gently bring your attention back to the sensation in your palms. Two minutes. You can do it.

3. Count your breaths (quietly in your mind). Starting at 11, count backwards. Inhale, 11, exhale, 11; inhale 10, exhale 10 and so on. If your mind wanders (as it is built to do), don't fuss, don't judge...simply start your count again at 11. Two minutes, gently focus on the count.

4. Extend your exhale twice the length of your inhale. Inhale 1, 2, 3, exhale, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Repeat for two minutes. You've got this.

5. Use an app. NO, this is not shameful. NO, this is not cheating on meditating. Literally millions of people use meditation apps every single day because they work.  They provide structure, guidance, and support and we can all use more of those things!  Headspace, Calm and Insight Timer are a few of the more popular apps.

Don't get caught up in the how, just do it.

You CANNOT DO IT WRONG.

Just start!

Get to know your mind. Extend the time as you get comfortable and less freaked out by your crafty little mind!

Start small and remember this handy little phrase to keep your practice going: a little and often!

start small

Dear Trauma Survivor

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Dear Trauma Survivor,

I know.

I know you may feel cut off from your body, like you can't feel it or you don't even know where it is in space.

I know you may feel like your mind is trapped in a cage, the bars holding you in a life you don't quite understand or want.

I know it’s a battle most people can’t see and that you spend effort trying to shield your loved ones from.

I also know you are fighting with all you've got to get yourself back.

I know you might not even know who that is right now.

And I know you’re afraid you don’t even have a self to get back to.

I know because I’ve been there, in the unknowingness, the confusion, the trying to make sense of the world again.  And can I share something with you?

The part no one tells you is that after trauma your starting over, your piecing your life back together, it looks radically different than before.

It looks so different, you probably don’t even recognize it or know what it is.

But I guarantee you that you’re doing it, even if you can’t see it.

Because what changes is that your forward will be microcosmically small. So small you probably don’t even see that you’re doing it.

The microcosm, the small part, that may be all you can see right now. You may not be able to see who you used to be…you can only see Right. Now. Because that’s how it’s supposed to be, it’s how your brain is helping you survive. It’s focused like a laser on the NOW. It has narrowed your focus and put blinders on for you because it thinks this focus is keeping you alive - and maybe it is. Maybe if you had to figure out where that old you went or grapple with this new you, it would be too much.

So dive in, focus on the microcosm. You know that expression you can’t see the forest for the trees? Well, you literally CAN’T see the forest right now, it’s biology and survival instinct. So be gentle and know that a narrow focus, a looking only at the trees, is a normal stage of your recovery.

And then pat yourself on the back for the forward movement. The quick texting exchange with a friend. The asking for help. The coming out from under the covers five minutes faster than yesterday. The pinning of a quote on your fridge. The looking at the gym schedule. The getting dressed when you could have stayed in your pajamas all day. The deep breath you remembered to take once today. The food you got in even though you have no appetite.

Look at ALL the ways you are moving forward. Find them. Seek them. Write them down. Celebrate them.  Sure, they’re not your giant moving forward steps of before. Yet, if you take a second to think about it, these small steps likely take much more effort than those giant steps you used to easily take.  So celebrate the effort and the small steps! Ask those around you to point them out to you to share in your success, it may help them understand that these little steps are like 500 of your before steps.

And then as you go about your journey remember this: success has ups and downs. And with trauma, in the midst of those ups and downs, there are messy parts in the middle. Dark parts.

Parts where you feel lost. There’s just darkness. But even in that darkness, there’s movement. That finding your up from down, that feeling around for the solid walls in the empty space around you, that padding the walls to find the light switch – THAT’s your forward.

Your whole world has shifted and the world is askew. You now have to find what’s true for you. And that takes being lost and stumbling and fumbling because not only are you healing physically but you’re also examining every single belief you have to see if it still holds true for this version of you.

Those forwards and backs, the darkness, the small steps, you need all of it. Because you’re building yourself a whole new world and that takes experimenting.

And that stumbling, fumbling, taking a breath and stumbling and fumbling again and again for as many times as it takes, that’s your heartbeat, your soul, not letting you stop.  Because it wants to be here. It wants to choose life. It’s telling you in every little small step it guides you to take.

And it takes incredible strength and courage to keep going because there is no map, no guide, there is only you. YOU will find your own way, create your own recovery roadmap.  And THAT is starting again.

THAT is forward.

THAT is fighting.

THAT is not giving up.

THAT is the new you – the you who knows the darkness but still seeks the light.

The you who knows your small steps matter.

And I know you can find your way because you’re HERE. That alone is no small feat and tells me everything about how strong and determined you are.

So go forward, focus on the trees. You'll see the forest again eventually.  With much love and colossal amounts of respect for your journey,

Angie

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