It Has to Be

“When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite (positive) ones should be thought of.  This is pratipaksha bhavana.” –   Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 2.33,  J. Carrera

In 2008, my dad was laid off.  He was just another victim of the economic crunch that year.  His company, involved in cotton trade, laid off a lot of the “old guys” in order to cut costs.  After I found out, I called him although I was uncertain as what to say.  After a few minutes of awkward small talk I could tell that he wasn’t going to mention his recent unemployment.  I just came out and asked, “Are you okay?”

“‘Is it okay?’ It has to be.”

If you didn’t know him, or if you weren’t able to hear his tone you might think it was an optimistic thing to say.  But Dad wasn’t an optimist.  His reply, that sounded like it was muttered through gritting teeth, didn’t contain the slightest hint of hope.  He wasn’t okay, and he wasn’t going to confide in me.

Here lately, as I look over stacks of boxes preparing for our move, I’ve remembered that conversation over and over again.

Is it okay?  It has to be.

I wonder to myself, is this some sort of message from beyond?  Or is this my own anxiety reminding me of just how “not okay” things can turn out?  Am I currently gritting my teeth through stress and worry to tell people I’m doing so great, when I am scared to death?

When I think about that memory with Dad, I remember how that conversation happened just a few months before he was in the hospital fighting for his life.  But he survived that stay.  He had to live in a nursing home, but he actually got better.  He was able to live back in his home, sober, and more himself.  I say more himself, because without the fog of alcohol (and the low levels of testosterone due to liver damage, possibly) he seemed more vulnerable and emotional.  And after years of having a critical, emotionally distant father, I kind of needed to see him cry at insurance commercials for a while.

But he died.

That did not feel okay, or good, or for the best.

When I think about Dad, he was not okay, but it led to him getting better, then he died and none of us felt okay about that.  I strive for and madly pursue “okay-ness,” yet, we only can hold onto that state for a brief period of time until something else happens and we are back to wishing we were somewhere else feeling anything else.  I have the very natural desire to want to live in “okay,” set up shop, and never feel anything unpleasant again.  Feeling good isn’t a place to get to, it’s more of a state we just assume.  And when we are really down, we may just have to assume that state on faith.

I don’t know if my Dad is giving me spiritual guidance from beyond.  Or maybe my higher self..my saner self speaks to me in memories.  Many times over the past month, when I was the depths of doubt about my life decisions, “it has to be,” would echo inside my mind.  I wasn’t remembering soft, kind words.  I was hearing him speak through his clenched jaw.  I was hearing that it wasn’t okay, but we could believe it would work out anyway.  I didn’t have to Polyanna all over anyone.  I didn’t have to find evidence to the contrary.  I didn’t have to hope for events to fall into place, because who in the hell knows if that’s ever going to happen.  I could decide to believe in my own okay-ness, my own resilience.  I could decide to believe I would thrive again…not because it was true, but because I had to.

 

All at Once

“This is the real work: every part of you that has been exiled, condemned, rejected or walled off needs to be brought close, needs to be brought right into the heart, and allowed to merge into the light of loving awareness.” – Christopher Wallis

“Are you excited about your move?”

I get asked this question frequently since my husband has completed his graduate degree.  We decided that we would rather continue his job search back in familiar territory (Arkansas) than stay here in New England.  When I get asked, “Are you excited about your move?” I feel a little guilty.  I’m probably supposed to say, “Yes.”  “Aren’t you excited?” is probably just the new “How are you?”  I’m should smile and keep nodding, but I’m guilty of not keeping up my end of the social contract.  My responses to this question have ranged from drawn out pauses, blinking, staring out the window, or a long reply of, “Uumm…”  I know it’s not easy to hold space for untidy answers to simple, common courtesy questions, and for that, I apologize.

I had no idea how I felt.  I just knew that every time I heard the question I felt like someone plopped a boulder on my chest.  I think there was some positivity way down in there, but it seemed like a gem in a tiny crevice buried beneath several feet of rubble.  I knew it was in there, but I wasn’t sure it was worth the trouble to dig it out.  To look for that tiny gem, meant I had to confront the fearful part of me that said, “moving feels scary, so we shouldn’t do it.”  I know scary things are worth doing.  I know Eleanor Roosevelt wants us to do “that thing which we think we cannot do.”  Yet,  that emotion was so present and overpowering I felt frozen.

Over the past several, fearful months, my yoga practice changed.  It became less about asana and more about meditation, pranayama, and reading (which I’m finding the longer I practice, these cycles seem inevitable if not necessary).  In spite of my desire to run from uncomfortable feelings, everything in my being seemed to be pulling me inward.

In this process of going inward around this particular question:  the fear and dread were readily available, yet the excitement and hope remained quiet.  It’s as if a long time ago, my mind and body decided that fear was a reliable decision-making barometer and excitement and hope were not.  I’m was saddened when I thought about how, I’ve continually heard that part of myself and never allowed her to arise, speak, and to bring some levity to this whole situation.

The word yoga is commonly defined as meaning “to yoke” or “union.”  For a long time, I believed yoga practice was about creating some sort of union between mind, body, and spirit.  The more I practiced, the more I came to see that my mind and body usually ARE on the same page, it’s just me that believes they are opposed to one another.  And again, I’m finding that the divisions within myself are even more nuanced.  There’s my fearful self who I’ve embraced for a long time.  There’s my joyful self who I have locked away.  There’s high probability there are multitudes of divisions of my self that I haven’t even met, but this is the division that keeps showing up in the moment.

Every time I am asked, “Are you excited?”  I am reminded to bring that part of me in closer and out in the open, in union with all that I am.  Eventually my response to that question has begun to change, instead of feeling anxiety when asked, I started feeling warm inside.  Every inquiry came with a swell of energy within me.  All of those old emotions were still there, but instead of feeling like heavy stones they seemed more like facets of one gem:  Brighter some places, dimmer in others yet, beautiful to watch.

I feel grateful people care enough to ask.  I feel sad about leaving.  I am fearful.  I am excited and hopeful.  All at once.

Rest Easy: Yin Yoga + Yoga Nidra

The holidays are here, and SURPRISE!, we’re still stressed out.  Crowded lines at the grocery store, holiday parties, traffic, and to do lists might have you white-knuckling it until January.  In the midst of your end of the year cheer, stress, and anxiety, take some time for some self-care.  I’m excited to announce an upcoming workshop I’m teaching at Soulfire Power YogaRest Easy – Yin + Yoga Nidra on December 11th.  A lot of my students at the studio have had questions about the workshop, and I thought it might be helpful to address any concerns or frequently asked questions here.

What is Yin Yoga?  Yin Yoga is mostly done on the floor, and positions are held for longer periods of time (1-5 minutes).  Yin Yoga targets joints, ligaments, tendons, and connective tissues in order to open the body.  Students get the opportunity to practice the softer side of yoga that requires us to soften, open up, and settle into the stillness of the present moment.

I’m not good at:  Being flexible, stretching, holding poses, being still, quieting the mind (or insert any reason here).  GREAT!  None of those things are required to practice yin yoga.  You will be instructed how to modify for your body if needed with the use of props or even changing positions.  One of the great things about Yin Yoga is that it requires us to tune in and listen to our own body’s signals.  There’s no one way to perform any position, only the way that serves you best.

What is Yoga Nidra?  Yoga Nidra means “Yogic Sleep” because it can help students come into a state of conscious deep sleep all while being fully awake.  The Yoga Nidra itself starts off very much like a guided meditation where the student focuses on the breath or points in the body in order to relax the mind, and we will slowly transition into silence so students can come to a restful state.

I’m horrible at meditating!  FABULOUS!  I actually credit yoga nidra with helping me learn how to meditate.  If you were an expert at any of this, you wouldn’t need to go to a workshop.  If you can lay down and listen, you can practice yoga nidra.

I might fall asleep.  Good!  While falling asleep isn’t necessarily the goal of the meditation, it happens.  There will be no sleep shaming. (or any other shaming for that matter.)

Will the room be heated?  While most of our classes are heated, this workshop will not be.  There’s nothing more irritating than trying to meditate in a puddle of your own sweat.  Well, there is one thing more irritating, and that’s trying to meditate while shivering.  The room will likely be warm (around 80 degrees) so dress accordingly to your preferences (maybe even layers).  Blankets will be available for your comfort.

If you have any more questions that weren’t covered here, feel free to contact me!

If you are ready to REST EASY, sign up on the Soulfire Power Yoga website by clicking here.

 

Troublemaker

On Wednesday afternoon, I stood in my local Sephora, glazed over.  Christmas music was already playing and pounding in my ears.

“Can I help you find anything?” I was asked for the third time in five minutes.

“No…I…um…I’m wandering aimlessly.”

She blinked at me, and I looked down at the deep plum tinted lipstick in my hand, Troublemaker by Urban Decay.  I probably seemed confused, and I was–just not about makeup.

I had slept for about two hours the night before.  I awakened at 6:00 a.m. with stomach cramps, nausea, and shortness of breath.  After spending a few hours curled up on the couch watching the news, I decided that I needed to get outside.  I had to be in the world instead of lying down and fearing what it might become.  And for some reason in that moment, the place I chose to go was a makeup and beauty store with bright colors, the scent of fifty different blended fragrances, loud music, and cheery employees.  The world could have been crumbling, but in there it was business as usual.  Maybe that was the allure of it, I wanted to see that in spite of everything that I am afraid will happen, some things will stay the same.

“Would you like to try that on?”  Cheerful shop girl asked.

“Yeah, I normally don’t wear stuff this dark.  I just want something different.”

After she finished brushing on Troublemaker, I looked in the mirror and was taken aback.  The deep purple was vibrant and almost harsh looking, and I was surprised that I liked how harshness looked on me.  Years of attempting to look as pretty and soft as possible went out the window.  I didn’t want to me mild anymore but bold, wild, and enraged.

“I’ll take it.”

Emboldened with a shopping bag filled with risky cosmetic purchases, I walked in the mall looking in the eyes of my fellow shoppers.  No one seemed overly upset or happy.  Everyone looked far away engaging in their retail therapy, dissociative shopping experience.  Everything going on out there, didn’t exist in here.  In here, it’s Christmas, or a once in a lifetime sale opportunity.  Scents change from fried chicken to new leather,
scented candles, men’s cologne, and back again.

“Miss. Miss. MISS!”

I look across the mall to see a man at a kiosk waving a wrinkle cream sample in the air in an effort to get me to try some miracle skin solution.  His brows furrowed as I kept walking, expressionless.  He would not get my typical grinning, “No, Thank you.” I am unlearning my Southern over-politeness. Southern women are taught to always smile, regardless if they are happy, petrified, or sharpening knives behind their back.  This sickening sweetness is what my mother always called, “nasty nice,” where the words and the facial expressions didn’t match the intent.  It’s not that we are inherently dishonest,
we are just taught from a young age to, “be nice.”  It’s the default mode:  Smile and be nice, and you won’t get hurt.  We comply because we think it will keep us from getting hurt, but it doesn’t.  Then we aren’t allowed to share our grief, pain, or anger.  The world tells us to keep smiling and to not make trouble.  That would be the worst thing a woman could do.

Maybe that’s why I ended up at the damn makeup store after the election.  My old conditioning compelled me to try to look pretty, to be a good Southern woman, slap on some lipstick, smile, and get through it regardless of how I felt.  I’ve had to tell myself for a long time that was the strong thing to do, but now, I know that the “everything’s gonna be okay,” delusion is just another story victims HAVE to believe.  “Everything’s fine” kept me from feeling the weight of the multiple sexual assaults I have endured in this lifetime.  If I just smile and take it, it’s all going to work out, right?  If I act cute and defenseless, he’ll leave me alone, right?

In a lot ways, women are groomed to be victims from day one. We aren’t encouraged to be assertive. We are told to be nice and smile, be beautiful so we can be an ornament on someone’s arm.  If we stopped asking women to smile, get over it, and think positively then they might have to fully feel their victimization.  And it’s really hard for us to feel it.  We resist being a victim because no one wants to claim that label.  No one wants to own their own disempowerment regardless of how present it actually is.  We fear that word, that label, will suck us into this deep black hole of helplessness and vulnerability that we will never emerge from.  But I am helpless, afraid, angry, and hurt.  How can I make my way through it all, if I cannot even face what is here right now?  We don’t need to live in that place forever, but we have to open the curtains, shine a light, and take a good damn look around.

On my return trip through the mall back by the eager salesman at the kiosk, I began crossing to the other side, to avoid his gaze.  I noticed my desire to shrink and hide, and I quickly swerved back over toward him for just one more chance to practice not smiling, not hiding, and standing in everything the world told me not to be.

To look a man in the eye and tell him “No.”

To not give him the comfort of my smile at my own expense.

To make trouble.

To breathe and to see myself keep walking.

The Audacity to Rise Again

“Get down.  You’re going to fall.”

Mentally, I was somewhere far away, and hearing these words snapped me back into the present.  I looked across my mother’s living room, to see my three year old niece crawling on a dining chair.  The look on little Cora’s face with a slightly raised eyebrow said it all.  She was pretty confident in her furniture traversing skills.  Falling wasn’t a concept to her just yet.  You could tell by how she ran through the living room, not around her toys, but through them.  Yes, she would stumble over something and she would cry like most toddlers do, but she would get back up again and mow through whatever was in her way:  toys, furniture, her baby sister.

I felt a bit envious of Cora’s ability to trust in her body.  At an early age, I was afraid of mine.  By the age of five, I had been to the hospital a few times: stitches, bike accidents, tick fever, a concussion.  I remember being an overly-cautious kid.  Before crossing the street I would look both ways five times.  I would watch my two older brothers climb trees from the ground.  I have this vivid memory of this rusty fireplace grate they used as a little step ladder to climb a big pine tree in our backyard.  I can’t tell you how many times I watched them go up and I stared at it, frozen, hoping for the will to take a step on it and attempt to climb.  I never could, and I never did.  I had decided that climbing trees just wasn’t worth the risk.  Somewhere along the line, I began to believe that risk-taking and movement was for other people, because I was incapable, wrong somehow.  Injury seemed inevitable.

This week, I was teaching my vinyasa class at Phillips Exeter Academy, and I had a mini-inversion workshop.  I had them practice using the wall to come into a handstand, kicking up, and even pressing up.  I watched them giggle, fall, and even squeal; they were having so much fun.  I even got a little teary-eyed watching them.  There was such joy, excitement, and freedom in their bodies.  Yes, they are teenagers, and you could make the argument that youth equals ability to take risk.  But in that moment, I remembered that rusty metal grate.  Like my niece Cora, these teenagers seemed to possess this kind of embodiment that I’ve never really known.  An assumption, or maybe even a trust that the joy of being in your body whether it was jumping, running, climbing, or being upside down was worth the risk.

So, maybe it’s time to come clean as a yoga teacher.  I don’t do most inversions.  I teach them.  I’ve watched enough videos to be able to cue them, and help other people do them.  I used to tell myself that I wasn’t strong enough, but that wasn’t true.  I used to tell people it was because of my wrists, which is true sometimes, but I can do a forearm stand.  In fact, I did one this summer, assisted by a fellow teacher, and afterwards, I asked her, “Did that really happen?”  I sat in the studio, my whole inner core, burning afterward, and all my mind could think was that it wasn’t real.  Me, being upside down in a forearm stand flew in the face of over thirty years of, “I can’t. It’s not for me. Get down.  You’re going to fall.”

I’ve tried practicing being upside down, but honestly, it’s a hot mess.  I’m not talking about my form, or my ability.  My body rebels.  I shake, sometimes sob.  On occasion these guttural, primal screams come out deep within me.  I’ve had to practice not only welcoming fear, but accepting my own body’s reaction to fear.  That acceptance has been the hardest part.  As soon as that old fear bubbles up, my mind labels it as, “crazy” therefore it is invalid, it isn’t real, and we should go do something else.  Anything else.

For that part of me that is worried my fear might make other people uncomfortable, I explained to my husband, “You might hear strange animal noises and cries for help in there, but it’s just me practicing yoga.”  And I’ve been practicing.  Just little L-stands to start.  Feet on the wall, hands on the ground and breathing.  I’m trying to practice the unpleasant things in bearable doses.  It’s like there’s a lifetime of held fear and frozen memories locked deep within. The only thing I can do is courageously peel back each layer one by one, and listen to this young child version of myself scream at me for betraying her.  It’s as if she’s saying, “I avoided climbing trees, monkey bars, quit gymnastics after the first day, and stayed stationary to keep us alive, and NOW you want to do THIS?”  I hear her plead with me, “You’re going to fall.”  And I breathe with her.  When I do fall, I get back up again, and I whisper, “See? We’re okay.”

After my inversion (or, trying to get to inversions) practice, I have a short meditation.  Where I visualize my young self standing at the foot of the tree, staring at the rusty grate, and choosing to climb it.  Sometimes I visualize her gliding up with the finesse of a chimpanzee.  Other times I see her fighting her way up only to fall down, skinned knees with pine bark under her fingernails, leaves in her hair because she is right about one thing:  we will fall.  I always make sure she dusts herself off and tries again.  And maybe that’s where I’ve gone wrong for so many years, I wanted the smooth, safe ascension.  It’s a fairy tale.  I need to see her/me fall and survive.  I need to practice dusting myself off despite skinned knees and sobbing.  My freedom doesn’t lie in perfectly executed physical movements, landing in safety.  Freedom lies in courage in face of fear, the acceptance of what is, and the audacity to rise again.

 

That is a Beautiful Practice

If you go to enough studio classes, you will hear it said to someone, “You have a beautiful practice.”  This used to really bother me.  I’m sure that it was mostly due to the fact that no one ever directed that particular compliment at me.  While, I love to move, I don’t think I’m necessarily great looking doing it.  I’m not here to add to the backlash on pretty looking ladies with their beautiful yoga practices.  I know regardless of how we look on the outside we are fighting the same battles on the inside.

When I hear people talk about “beautiful practices” it still pings against some sort of nerve in me even though my ideas around beauty has changed.  You might say my baggage on this particular topic has been reduced from two checked bags to a small carry-on.  I used to practice hot yoga in oversized cotton t-shirts for fear that people would openly vomit at the sight of my body in form-fitting clothing.  And no, I’m not being hyperbolic.  I actually thought I was that disgusting.  I practiced yoga for years at home because I was afraid that I would do the poses so badly that I would be kicked out of class.  I believed that my body and coordination of it was so flawed and broken that it wasn’t even deserving of in-person yoga instruction.  When I finally got up the courage to go to a studio class five years ago, these beliefs began to change.

At the studio, I was surrounded with people who didn’t care if I had spandex on, if my mascara was running down my face, or if I was working out in my $5 cotton t-shirt.  It was the first time and place I understood that I didn’t have to be beautiful or ugly.  I could just be, and that was enough.  So, when the “B” word was thrown around in the studio, my insides would scream, “Not here.  Not in this place!”  I didn’t want any of us to be beautiful.  I just wanted us to be ourselves.

It’s possible that I’m taking this “beautiful practice” thing the wrong way.  I’m the one that’s associating it with some sort of sexual attractiveness value scale.  If you look up beauty in the dictionary, the word just means that something is pleasing to the senses.  Well, God.  “Pleasing to the senses” could be anything.

That is one beautiful plate of spaghetti.

Look at my beautiful pay check!

Have you checked out this beautiful thing called an air conditioner?

Last week I saw a newt crawling across the ground in the woods and I got really excited.  I stood and watched it slowly traverse blades of grass as if they were mountains, and I even giggled a little bit at it’s slippery tiny feet.  That was a beautiful newt.   Yet, I didn’t want to take it out to dinner.  If another newt would have walked by, I wouldn’t have tried to rank them in order of who was most attractive.  I wouldn’t have said, “Um, we already have one hot newt here in the woods, GTFO.”

I’m the one that’s associating beauty in yoga with some sort of unattainable feminine ideal.  As a yoga teacher, I see beauty in practice all of the time, and I’m not talking about those impressive, “wow” poses like handstand.  My friend and fellow yoga teacher Carlene has a beautiful practice that was highly modified post-breast cancer surgeries and chemotherapy.  She may not think it looked beautiful, and she probably just wanted to get back to Wheel pose.  Yet, the attention she gave to her practice in the moment WAS beautiful.  It also gave me a reality check about my own struggle with chronic pain in my practice.  What if taking care of my wrists and finicky SI joint wasn’t a limitation or another reason I was separate from everyone else?  What if being who you are in this moment was innately…just…beautiful?

My perspective on beautiful practices has changed.  It was a phrase I thought isolated people, but I am finding that it is actually something that brings us together.  Yoga has broadened my perspective of what is beautiful.  For a time in my life, things needed to look a certain way to be valuable.  The more I practiced the more these rigid definitions softened.   I started seeing beauty in the world, and I’m slowly coming around to the idea that I am a part of that beauty too.  Beauty isn’t reduced to a certain body type or technical skill.  It can also encompass presence, authenticity, vulnerability, and courage.   Being beautiful doesn’t mean we have to become aligned with an external ideal; it’s relaxing in to who we actually are.  It’s a big relief for me, because it means that I don’t have to be super-flexible or even really strong.  I just have to be in the present as I am.

The Most Loving Line in the Sand

If you follow me on Instagram, you know I’ve been participating in a challenge called #feelbetterinyourbody.  I don’t do many of these challenges anymore, but I made the exception for this one because it wasn’t solely about asana. Sometimes we take selfies or pictures of food that nourish us.  I even got a repost from the Yoga and Body Image Coalition for talking about lowering my foot in Tree pose.  There’s hope out there in the social media world.  Recently, we were asked to post about some of the awesome things we’ve done.  It stopped me in my tracks.

I’ve done a ton of awesome things.  Every time I attempted to make a post, it didn’t seem good enough.  My brain had a reason why every great accomplishment I thought of was a big pile of lame.

You got married?  Anyone could do that.

You stayed married?  Who cares.

You moved across the country?  Big deal.

Ran a 5K?  People run marathons.

Finished college?  You’re GPA was nothing to write home about.

Yeah, I guess living inside my head isn’t the rose-colored paradise I’d like for it to be.  For every accomplishment, my inner-Mean Girl is ready to shoot it down.  She’s the part of me that is going to shoot me down before anyone else gets a chance.  She’s a protector of sorts, but honestly, she’s kind of a dick about it.  I realized that I have begun to treat my accomplishments like dirty dark secrets, and while it keeps me safe, it prevents anyone from ever getting to know me.  If no one gets close, I won’t have to feel the pain of their leaving.

The truth is, when I have talked about the really neat things I have done with my one life I’m given, my friends are happy for me.  The few people that match my inner Mean Girl with their “so what’s” are people I don’t really care to have in my life.  You can say living openly and honestly is the great divider, and the haters will reveal themselves.  Being proud of myself doesn’t have to be scary.  It is actually a huge time saver.  It brings the good people out of the shadows, and makes the miserable ones disappear.  It’s the most loving line in the sand we can draw.

In the spirit of “making something awesome happen”  here’s a list of my accomplishments.  I invite you to share some of your own in the comments.

  • I got married
  • I’ve stayed married
  • I finished college (B.A. Psychology)
  • I made an A in high school AP Calculus
  • I took the LSAT 3 times
  • I had a job reading tarot cards
  • I have a Massage Therapy license
  • I am currently a licensed Master Massage Therapist in the State of Arkansas
  • I received training in the following massage modalities:  Neuromuscular Therapy, Lomi Lomi, Reflexology, Manual Lymphatic Drainage, Bellanina Facelift Massage, Tui Na
  • I am a licensed TIMBo Facilitator
  • I have run my own TIMBo groups
  • I paint
  • I held my father’s hand as he died
  • I’ve had an adult job with benefits and a retirement plan
  • I quit my adult job with benefits and a retirement plan
  • I owned my own business
  • I went out of business
  • I became a yoga teacher
  • I teach vinyasa and yoga as meditation to the students at Phillips Exeter Academy
  • I moved to New Hampshire with absolutely no plans, friends, or job prospects
  • I made friends as an adult
  • I am a writer
  • My articles have been featured on DoYouYoga.com
  • I have run a 5K without stopping to walk. (2013 Cow Paddy Run, Fayetteville, AR)
  • I got to be a part of the filming of Gentle is the New Advanced online yoga course
  • I have a regular yoga/meditation practice

 

Trauma-informed yoga isn’t what you think

I don’t like to talk about “issues of the day” on my little space on the internet.  I write about me, because once I start writing about “you” or “them” I travel back to self-righteous indignation town.  I used to be the mayor of that place, and it wasn’t pretty.   This will be one of my rare attempts to educate the masses, and hopefully we’ll end up on the other side with our soap boxes remaining tucked away.

I’ve come across several articles, podcasts, and interviews on the blooming popularity of trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga trainings.  Possibly because it’s a prominent topic in news media right now, trauma-sensitivity in yoga has become muddied with the safe intellectual spaces in academic settings  discussion.  Since I am a yoga teacher, I am going to stick to just talking about yoga, and some of the fundamental misunderstandings about what a trauma-informed approach is.

Misconception #1:  A trauma-informed approach to a yoga class is adapting instruction for a small percentage of people.  When we think of trauma we usually think of war or maybe violent sexual assault of a child.  The truth is, trauma is an actual normal part of life because trauma is a disturbing or distressing experience in which we perceive our life being threatened.  Car accidents, natural disasters, physical injury, witnessing and receiving domestic abuse, death of a parent, neglect, emotional and verbal abuse by a parental figure, addiction or mental illness of a caregiver, and even some medical procedures are all traumatic events.  It’s likely if you are teaching a class of ten people that a good number of them have been through one of these events.  To say you have experienced trauma is not the same as having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Misconception #2:  I haven’t been through THAT much, and I feel like calling my experience “trauma” is an insult to the real trauma survivors.  AKA:  I/They didn’t have it so bad.  This is an intellectualization that sometimes we use to not feel pain.  We want to negate our own experience because it’s easier to convince ourselves that we are just flawed or broken rather than actually feeling our own suffering.  Sometimes, we don’t want to admit the suffering of others as our own protection.  As a yoga teacher, it feels scary to think that you might have been injuring your students, so you just decide that you didn’t so you don’t have to feel that fear.  Sometimes, we refuse to acknowledge the trauma of others because that means we would have to acknowledge our own.  Being a trauma-informed yoga teacher simply means acknowledging that all pain is real.  If suffering or pain is showing up for a person, it’s because of an actual physiological response in the body or the brain.  It doesn’t matter what the original trauma event was.  If you feel it, it’s real.

Misconception #3:  Being trauma-informed is reinforcing a “victim mentality” by treating students differently than you normally would because of their history.  First of all, as yoga teachers, we don’t ask people about their trauma history, and I don’t think we should start.  Much of trauma-informed yoga teaching is about creating a safe place via trust, choice, and predictability.  Many people want to pursue this type of training because they want the magic formula for “never harming a student ever.”  Although, that drive to not harm others is well-intentioned, sometimes wanting specific formulas for human interaction is another way in which we seek to avoid engaging in present moment awareness and feeling.  Certain trainings are meant for the clinical treatment of trauma, and do contain many parameters for behavior such as eliminating touch in class.  If you are interested in this type of work, make sure you know if the training you are taken is meant for the clinical treatment of trauma, has a specific program curriculum, or just creating a more trauma-informed approach in a studio class because they all will differ in approaches.

When I completed my training with TIMBo, I kept the skills I learned in that program very compartmentalized.   My power vinyasa classes trudged along business as usual.  While the TIMBo program is a specific curriculum and not simply “trauma-informed yoga”, the awareness and tools I had learned dramatically changed my relationship to my students.  Specifically, I became more aware and responsible for my own responses to my environment.  How do I feel when a student tells me not to touch them?  How does my body feel when a student gets up to leave in the middle of class?  How do I feel when I witness a student being vulnerable and displaying emotion?  Do I want to fix them?  Run away?  Ignore?  Silence?  Over time I have learned and am still learning to hold the space for my students to make their own self-determined choices, rather than pushing them where I think they need to go.  Also, I’ve had to learn how to hold space for my own responses when I feel uncomfortable in class.  This term holding space hasn’t really been defined yet, according to my preliminary Google searches; although it has been used a lot in conversations.  The evolving definition I’ve come up with so far is:

Holding space – to give someone compassionate, non-judgmental, present moment support free of attachment to outcomes.

This is what a trauma-informed teacher brings to the classroom:  adaptability, empathy, compassion, acceptance, safety, and choice.  When you are really attached to running your class a certain way, giving your students this much freedom can feel scary and unpredictable.  Yet, you use the same tools you teach your students.  You breathe.  You ground yourself and you stay.  I can stand in front of a class and command them through a pre-planned sequence designed to give them a specific experience.  Or I can be responsive to what’s in the room, adapt my plans, notice my own physiological sensations, and allow my students to have their own experience.  It’s not special treatment or coddling.  It’s actually the harder choice.

 

Almost Yellow Leaves

“Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

A few days ago, I looked outside our bedroom window and gasped, “No!”  You would think that something really horrible happened, but I just noticed that the leaves on one of the trees had begun to turn to yellow.   Maybe it’s a product of growing up in Arkansas’ unpredictable weather, but I’ve never been attached to any particular time of the year.  You never really get stuck in one season for too long.  I’ve witnessed snow on Spring Break.  I’ve had heat exhaustion in September.  I’m sure a cold front came through the next day, and we had to break out the sweaters.  It could be that the winters in New England are much longer, darker, and colder.  Maybe it’s that I thought I would have gotten more accomplished in my free time this summer.  It could be that my husband is finishing graduate school, and we might be moving again by the end of this year.  Judging by the clench in my throat that last sentence gave me…yeah, we’ll go with that.

I have all these feelings of lack of control, powerlessness, and helplessness.  The truth is, he and I have a lot of options.  We actually probably have too many options, if that’s even possible.  I wish that “you are young and free and have the ability to do whatever you want” inspired me rather than make me want to hide.  Wide open should feel liberating, but it feels more like seeing 1,000 different ways to screw something up.  My go-to coping mechanism is to start making plans, but since there are so many options, there are too many plans.  The thing that was supposed to make me feel better by manufacturing an illusion of control has just pulled me into an anxiety vortex.  I honestly feel frozen and scared.

It amazes me that I have all of THAT baggage about needing have control, but I still love Savasana (corpse pose), a pose that requires you to do absolutely nothing.  The moment I hit the floor at the end of practice, relief washes over me.  There’s no expectations of me.    I can just be meat on the floor.  Yesterday, while in Savasana, I began scanning my body for any places I might still be holding tension, and allowing them to soften.  I let my involuntary breath response take over and noticed my shoulders become heavy and loose.   I had the thought that, “Why don’t I do this more when I am NOT in yoga?”  I don’t mean that I need to lie down more.  I need to practice softening when I want to grab the reins of my life.  I have to pause when I want to force a decision, any decision, just so I don’t have to feel the agony and dread of not knowing.

I’m probably just like that dang yellow leaf hanging onto a tree in late August.  It isn’t time to move yet.  I can spend my time planning my leafy descent: when it will happen, how it will look, and what will happen when I arrive at the ground.  Or, I could accept that the wind and time will take me somewhere or sometime without consulting me or my plans.  All we can do is enjoy hanging on while we can.  We can choose to soften when we want to force.  We can give up our own demands and expand our attention to what life demands of us.

 

Trash to Treasure

I’m reading Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which is coincidentally kind of magically changing my life.  Sorting through all of my stuff has been eye-opening about my own habits and has required me to delve into my own memories.  I couldn’t fully grasp what all was hidden in my closets literally and figuratively.

In 2010, my dad gave me a robe for Christmas.  This particular gift was like that pink bunny costume from the movie, A Christmas Story.  They even were the same color.  Concerned about my reaction, my mother warned me beforehand, but advised that due to it’s large price tag, I should try to act as if I liked it.  I remember thinking, “How bad can it be?  What type of person would turn down an expensive heart-felt gift?”  To my horror, this Pepto-Bismol-esque cashmere robe showed me that I was the exact type of person who would turn down a heart-felt expensive gift.  Other than my wedding dress, this dang pink nightmare was the most expensive item of clothing I had ever worn.  You would think that would endear me to it, but it seemed to add insult to injury.  It wasn’t just the color that I didn’t like.  The fit left something to be desired.  In fact, the way the fabric fell on my body seemed to say, “This is a woman who has given up on ever having sex again.”

pink1I hung onto that thing through Dad’s illness and death and through my moving in with and marrying my husband.  I even moved that fluffy disaster to New England.  Eventually, I gave up on trying to wear it.  I just figured I would put it into my closet and save it for when the style would match my age.  You know, when I was an actual grandmother.  I mean how long could that take?  Thirty years?  I was willing to get over the color and the fit because CASHMERE.  Right?  It’s the ultimate luxury fabric.  The downside to the magical heat-producing properties of cashmere made it impossible to wear it for more than five minutes without breaking into a sweat.  I honestly can’t imagine why someone would need a robe this warm unless they needed to walk in the snow to get to their outhouse in winter, and seeing as it’s NOT 1865, I guess I don’t need a robe that warm.

IMG_2794I really felt bad for not liking it.  I’ve spent almost six years weighing the pros and cons, criticizing myself for not liking my dead father’s Christmas gift, and judging my dislikes in clothing (if only I had the tastes of a 1950’s grandmother, my problems would be solved!)  The robe didn’t just carry with it grief baggage.  It had all my other baggage too.  Am I good daughter?  Am I selfish?  Am I ungrateful?  It’s a hell of a lot to put on a damn robe.

When I encountered that robe in my sorting process, I started making excuses for it.  (Hey, I only have to store it for about twenty-five more years, right?)  Then, I decided to put it on and look in the mirror.  Depending on how I felt, I would keep it.  To my surprise, I laughed.  I laughed at my ridiculous, too dang hot, frumpy, granny-robe.  I laughed at myself for having the delusion that I could try to make it work.  I also laughed a little at my Dad.  He was always buying me gifts that were probably better suited for his mother’s tastes, even when I was a girl.  He was one of those guys that thought his mother was the best woman to have ever lived.  While I think that probably felt great from a mother’s perspective, it was difficult for all the other women in his life who loved him.   I no longer saw the robe as a reminder that my Dad had no clue who I was.  It was a gift of major love and admiration.  It was so great that his mother would have loved it.  He wasn’t burdening me with bad taste.  He was bestowing me with high praise.  I, indeed, was a good woman.  I knew I was ready to get rid of ol’ Pinky.  I didn’t have to feel bad about sending her away.  There’s someone out there who can get good use out of her.  Her forever home can appreciate her instead of stuffing her in a box in the top corner of a closet like I did.

beforeclothes
Before

 

 

As I sorted through my clothes, I saw a pattern repeating a lot.  I had numerous garments that weren’t my taste, but what I thought I should wear.  I wore a lot of cardigans not because I like button up sweaters, but because I thought I should cover my body up.  On a different day, I would buy a tight dress because I thought I should be more confident.  I had a closet full of should’s.  I should waste less money.  I should have nicer things.  I should appreciate what I have.  I should hide my body.  I should love my body more.  I should be more sexy.  I shouldn’t be sexy at all.  I should be more feminine.  I should wear what my husband likes to see me in.  I should dress younger.  I should dress my age.

IMG_2797
After

 

When I noticed any should’s, guilt, or criticisms come up around my clothing, I tossed the garment I was holding.  It’s pretty liberating to put all the physical manifestations of your garbage mind in trash bags and drop them off at Goodwill.  Now, when I look in my closet, I know I love everything in it; whereas, before it was overflowing and I had “nothing to wear.”  Now, there’s nothing in that space that makes me feel regret, judgment, or shame.  There’s no, “Ugh. THAT doesn’t fit anymore.” or “That’s the frumpy sweater I wear when I’m having a fat day.” or “You spent way too much money on this dress you are never going to wear.”  For the first time, I can stand in front of my closet and feel like, “I’m a neat person who makes pretty decent decisions, and I have a lot of clothes that celebrate how dang neat, decent, and cute I am.”

 

No more should-ing.

aftercloset

P.S. If you think you can be Pinky’s “forever home” check her out at the Goodwill store in Portsmouth, NH.  She will keep you warm on these cold New England nights.