Trauma, yoga and empowerment

I am reading Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy: Bringing the body into treatment by David Emerson.  As I start in on the first Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapychapter, I am appreciating that he makes the distinction between teaching asana (postures) and bringing yoga into trauma therapy.

He outlines trauma-sensitive yoga’s principles of physical forms (based on, but distinct from, asana), breath, mindfulness and language and describes how to apply them in psychotherapeutic settings with trauma survivors. The chapters address interception (sensing the body from the inside), choice (a key focus for survivors of trauma), taking effective action, and being present, as well as the application of form and breath to support these concepts.

In the first chapter, Emerson defines trauma-sensitive yoga. In it, he quotes Judith Herman, who says, “No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”

Emerson continues:

Yoga, like therapy, can be either empowering or disempowering. I would suggest one way for yoga to be disempowering, especially in the context of trauma treatment, is for people to be told what to do with their bodies. With trauma-sensitive yoga (TSY), we are trying to create a space where our clients can experiment with doing something safe with their bodies and practice feeling what they feel without being told what to do…

If we tell our clients what to do or what to feel with their bodies, even if “it appears to be in their best interest,” we are not contributing to empowerment but rather reinforcing the trauma paradigm where people aren’t in charge of validating their own experiences.

Empowerment, in the context of TSY, involves giving our clients the space to have their own experiences without anything being imposed from the outside.

I think this is a powerful message that those of us working with trauma, and especially those of us integrating yoga into our work as therapists, need to take into account. As a therapist and yoga teacher, I’m deeply appreciative of this book that provides instruction in bringing the principles most useful for trauma recovery from yoga into therapy. I’m looking forward to reading more of it.

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Confessing my illegitimacy as a yoga teacher


I’m coming out as a kind of a fraud: I have an image of what a yoga teacher is, and I don’t measure up to it.

In this moment, writing this, pausing, and taking it in, my eyes tear up and my throat constricts a little.

I should be teaching tons of asana (posture) classes. I should have many more hours of training. I should have a vigorous physical practice of my own for at least an hour every day, along with chanting, prayer and meditation for another hour total. I should be more physically fit. I should be able to completely get rid of my chronic pain and  fibromyalgia through my practice. I should be integrating yoga postures more into my psychotherapeutic work with clients. I should remember to use asana and pranayama throughout my day to care for myself. I should be going on retreat more. I should have more students. I should be more visible. I should be having more of an impact in the world.
Writing that paragraph, above, and pausing to take it in, I feel the distress of the part of me that is the target of all those shoulds. I’m taking a moment now to place a gentle hand on my heart-space and say hello to this tender, bewildered part of me that is so umm…. (pausing until the right word comes)… shmushed by all these shoulds…. Doing this, I see how hard I am on myself, in general and in this moment.
Reading it back a second time, I find myself grinning. Yikes! What an ego! What a story! So identified with creating stature and legitimacy, and tying OK-ness to it. It’s funny to see that, although I think of myself as someone who is relatively unidentified with a role or public persona, there is a part of me that is fully identified. I see that and offer myself a little kindness. I say to myself, “Awwww, look. There goes that selfing process again.” And I gain a bit of distance from the distress.
The reality of my life as a householder yogini and yoga teacher is that I have had, since I started, an on-and-off practice. I go a year or two practicing every day and then months practicing sporadically. Some weeks I don’t engage in formal practice at all because of fatigue and other physical challenges. When I do asana, my practice is not physically vigorous; it’s adapted to my life stage and physical needs. (Aside: I just this moment noticed how I’m oppressing myself with a memory of how I practiced when I was younger and how other folks practice. I’m reminding myself that my tradition of study and practice honours viniyoga, an approach that adapts practice to each person’s unique conditions, needs and interests. It feels good to remember that.)
I teach one class and it’s not an asana class. Currently, in this class (Bringing Yoga Philosophy to Life, Sunday mornings, 10 am at the Bodhi Tree in Kemptville), we are inquiring into aparigraha. This morning in my home practice I was holding aparigraha and its related concepts of impermanence and letting go. I saw the story I was telling myself about me as a yoga teacher. I saw how some of my self-worth was tied to living out this story for acceptance from, or legitimacy in the eyes of others. I saw the distress I was causing inside me. I decided, in the name of aparigraha, to write about this in order to see clearly and embrace the reality of my actual practice, and let go of creating a sense of self, of identity, from the illusory story about “being a yoga teacher.”
It came to me in my practice on the mat this morning that if I can embrace how things truly are with yoga and me, then my whole life can be my practice, as long as I attend to the conditions of that practice.  In other words, life as usual, repeating the same patterns, doesn’t qualify. But a life lived awake and aware, and using that experience for transformation, does. Like with formal posture, meditation and/or breathing practice, I will need structures and support to keep me on track: a teacher, regular time set aside for reflexive practice, and a community, to list just a few.
These supports are already in place in my life, but I discount them because they don’t fit the story. They also don’t “make me look good,” or like certain other famous and accomplished teachers. But I’m not them. My practice is not theirs. My work now is to continue to see this clearly, and accept it. To be fierce about loving myself so I can be fierce about looking at myself and my life, and about using what I see to transform and continue to grow. This is what I’m reaching for, to fully embrace and rest into the truth of how my life is, as well as how my practice is. That’s why I’m confessing that I don’t live up to my story: so I can let it go.
What is your experience with “self-ing” and suffering? What is your experience with letting things go? I’d enjoy conversation on this topic so I invite you to add your comments below.

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