This morning when I arrive to one of the facilities, I glance at the sign-in sheet and began to match the names to the faces of the elders sitting before me.
I don’t ask for their mental health histories. I’m just here to teach them skills to help them self regulate. Trauma is physiological first. It happens first to the body. You can work on the mind all you want after the fact. It’s necessary and helpful. But, it’s not enough for complete healing. To resolve trauma, we must reconnect with our inner animal; we must learn to feel safe in the skin we’re in. This is my opinion and my experience, but it’s also documented through the growing field of trauma research.
There’s one name I don’t recognize; I mispronounce it, I’m sure. She’s new and in the restroom, another says. “Well, we’ll wait for her,” I say.
We always start late. Late is on time here. It’s kind of refreshing to me. Honestly. “Thank you for being late,” I sometimes say to friends I meet for coffee or lunch. Their tardiness allows me time to settle. And, in spite of all the yoga, I’m stirred up most of the time.
A few weeks ago, a woman arrived during savasana, the final resting pose. She struggled to get her wheel chair through the door. It was a total disruption – to me, and only me. None of the students moved a muscle. I was so confused about why she’d ride in during savasana. Was she just early for the next group? I tried hard to withhold my contempt, to meet her with unconditional positive regard, and I’m grateful I did because when I decided to awaken the group, she said, “I missed it?! It’s over. The bus was so late.” I felt so bad for her. She was so sad to wait another week. I encouraged her to sit and absorb the relaxation in the room.
We just never know what another person’s going through.
Today when my new student arrives, I see she’s wearing a dress – like me. I’m wearing a dress because I can’t be bothered with pants this time of year. It’s 102 degrees outside, which is normal here. Normal – whatever that means. I’ve lived through 35 Texas summers, and still, 100 degrees never feels normal. I’m also wearing a dress because there’s always one woman who says “I would participate in yoga, but I don’t have the right clothes.” I’m sneaky like that. But I’m also wearing a dress because it just puts me at a disadvantage with the postures and makes me uncomfortable. It feels downright weird. I’ve practiced yoga for so long that I forget how weird it is for beginners. Yoga is so weird.
Together, we begin the practice in chairs. Sometimes we stay there, but the group today is strong although they feel a bit low – as if some movement might help – so we do some accessible standing postures too. I pause and explain to them that I’m giving them time to settle…it’s not that I’ve forgotten what I’m doing or because I’m lost…I know I’m moving slower on the outside than they are on the inside. I’m titrating the amount of activation in their nervous systems.
I don’t want anyone bursting into tears or running out of the room or having a flashback of intrusive imagery. Inevitably, I might trigger someone, but I can present the practice in a way that does the least amount of harm. This is what many normal – whatever that means – yoga classes don’t understand: to live inside one’s body does not make us superior. For some, it’s overwhelming and downright dangerous.
My friend in the dress asks me questions every now and then throughout the practice. My answer to her is always some variation of “It depends.” Trauma-informed yoga is about dismantling the hierarchy of power between student and teacher; it’s about returning the freedom of choice to the student. She begins to understand that she’s in control – that I’ll make suggestions, but I’m not going to create her experience for her. At some point, I ask her if a restorative pose feels ok to her and she says, “This feels like what I’ve needed in my life for years.”
This is the only affirmation I need to keep coming back each week. If you feel inclined to support this work, you can donate here. At this time, your contribution is not tax-deductible because our 501c3 status is still in progress. One day soon I hope it will be. Additionally, if you are a yoga teacher, clinician, therapist, social worker, first responder, or someone interested in utilizing a trauma informed approach in your own life, I’m offering a 25-hour training April 26 – 28, 2019, at SoulSpace Yoga Community. This weekend is an elective for my upcoming 300-hour RYT program for teachers seeking a 500-hour Yoga Alliance approved training in the Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) area. The full 300-hour program begins in November of this year.