Perhaps I’ve been slow with the “how to practice when triggered” piece because it’s something I’m still working on myself. I cannot guide this, only share my experience. It hovers in unsafe territory.
It’s become fashionable for yogis who are upset with their lives to put out diatribes that announce the writer’s own sizable issues momentarily, while the bulk of the piece tears down their teachers, style of practice, and community.
To this I say, “Shut up.” “Yeah, I have issues” should not be followed by a “but.” “Yeah, I have issues” means, “Yeah, I don’t see very clearly.” It should be followed by a profound self-examination with the best help you can find, not a public broadside of others’ faults.
This is one reason I stall. When I do write about my practice here, I worry that people could take it as a statement about my teachers, past or present. That’s fine if you think, “Her teachers must be awesome.” It’s not fine if you judge them poorly. This is not about my teachers. I’ve looked over 20 years for teachers and those I practice with now are among the best in the world (wanky statement, but true). I trust them as much as I am capable of trusting, and if I didn’t, it would be my responsibility to leave and go elsewhere. I do not think they are perfect or infallible—it would be a problem if I did. Allowing space for others’ humanity (ie our teachers are not gods) is an important part of meeting reality. But that is not what this is about.
It’s about practicing when triggered.
If you want to practice as a trauma survivor in a space not designated as such, you have to figure out how to deal with that. You will be triggered. I am working on it, and though it won’t be obvious from this piece, I’ve come a long way.
Sometimes it’s minor, and I can practice through it and calm myself down with breath. Those are days the shala is not so crowded, or someone I find soothing is practicing near me. Today was not one of those days.
I haven’t figured out how to cope when it’s crowded, which means maybe 6-8 inches between mats. I try to time it so that I’m there when it’s not packed, but this is not always predictable, and part of me feels like I should be able to do it. Today was not even half full when I arrived, and I was relieved. But then, at the end of my sun salutations, Teacher asked us to move over and make room for one more.
One more was daddy long limbs.
Some people are extremely considerate in their practice. They leave fair berth between their body parts and those around them, by taking arms straight up instead of out to the sides, for example. Others don’t. In fact, to be fair, that’s part of the practice culture.
“Most in that room have been through primary series 1,000 times at least, and if SKPJ was right, that’s enough to give up…minding the 6 extra limbs on your mat as if they were other from your own.” (InsideOwl).
This is in no way an indictment of Owl, whose writing and being I adore. It’s just a perfect example of the “we are all one/you are territorial if you need space” yoga discourse. The glorification of non-separateness in yoga and meditation scenes has long struck me as problematic because many people lack safe boundaries. While touching base with our non-separateness on a regular basis is in some ways the crux of a spiritual practice, in reality, we cycle through many states during practice, non-separateness being only one of them. We absolutely need healthy boundaries to thrive.
This is especially so for trauma survivors. Let’s say, hypothetically, you were abused as a small child. You would have learned very, very early (before your mind had learned full separateness, in fact) that your body was not your own, and you had no ability to keep the limbs of another from violating it. Extra limbs on your mat, or worse, one coming toward you from the periphery, incite a terror and rage far, far beyond some individualistic, territorial grab for space. But because a “separateness trip” is against the rules of the practice, you are in a real pickle.
This is not limited to ashtanga. It runs through the yoga culture at large. I’m not suggesting we change the culture. It is what it is. We should be aware, though.
I probably just shouldn’t practice when it’s crowded. But some days it’s okay. And I want to. I want to think I can do it by now, after all this time.
I’ve never told my teacher that I’m a trauma survivor. I’ve only practiced there not quite 1½ yrs, and I’m still afraid. The few previous times I’m mentioned it to a teacher (always meditation), I was met with a condescending smile and dismissive nod. They didn’t get it and didn’t care—I was just another person with another acronymed issue looking for special care. This wouldn’t be my teacher’s reaction now, but also, I just don’t want to be labeled in this way. I want to be like everyone else.
So, in comes daddy long limbs. Pretty much every time I am triggered in practice, it is from bodies flailing above me or in the periphery, made worse by my lack of depth perception. He’s practiced next to me before and I made a note to avoid in the future. But in he came. So now I was wedged between him and a girl I’d practiced near before and liked well enough. I hoped she’d provide energetic comfort, and continued my last salutation.
By padahastasana (moments later), I’d already been triggered by his limbs moving in my near periphery. It wasn’t his fault and in those first moments I knew that, before trigger-mind took over.
By prasarita padottanasana I wondered if I could leave without anyone noticing and just finish, and calm myself, at home. But I hoped I could calm myself there and didn’t want to look like an asshole. By utthita hasta padangusthasana, the girl next to me dropped her towel on the mid-front of my mat, right where my right foot belonged. Ordinarily I could ignore it pretty well, but triggered, I could not. She picked it up, used it, and set it back down even more expansively in the mid-front of my mat. Then a third time.
Sometimes I can ignore these type things and not interpret them as excessively aggressive. I am sure I unwittingly make these same transgressions, though consciously I try like mad to keep my shit to myself. When I am triggered, I cannot. In fact, I cannot feel my body, and have only the slightest influence over my breath, though this has improved over time. When I am triggered, my separate mind takes over and tries to make up for the boundaries transgressed.
Why the fuck did she need to place her towel on top of me when she could easily have placed it in the two feet of empty space in front of us? I’d have loved to throw it onto the middle of her mat. A year ago, I might have. The reason I didn’t was not noble but because I knew full well that I would punish myself for a month or more, fantasizing about who saw and how harshly they judged me.
Then I imagined, with some envy, just how entitled this person must feel to throw her sweaty dregs on top of me. Not once, but three times. This is just the type of behavior our culture rewards. Ah, the lucky ones.
By now I was in dandasana and my mind had completely filled with this rageful, delusive chatter. She was getting an assist from a teacher. In his presence she set it not on my mat but in the space between us, creeping only a few centimeters onto my mat and fingers. I flicked it away with my hand.
What a cunt.
At this point the idea of leaving the shala had totally fled my mind. It would have been time. I did find the momentary clarity to deepen my breath and try to slow down. My practice speeds when I’m triggered and I just try to get through it. But by triang mukha eka pada paschimottanasana I slowed and tried to feel my body. I noticed my desire for help, my wondering if someone would help me, and even briefly flirted with the possibility I could ask for help. These had flitted faintly amongst my rageful thoughts and gained ground with breath.
I sped up again. I couldn’t ask for help. It was crowded. They were busy. If he didn’t react in exactly the right way (whatever that was, I have no idea) I would be devastated far, far beyond the damage of being triggered the rest of practice and working through it myself.
By janu sirsasana, I tried to slow and feel again. I usually find these poses soothing, with plenty of sensation to explore. I lengthened my breath and could feel a bit. Then fast, the terror that my rage presses back broke over me. I teared. No way. I couldn’t do it. The teachers I know best, the ones most likely to notice I was amok, weren’t there. I couldn’t break open in the middle of this crowd. Lord knows what would come up. Not an option. I sped up again, even faster.
I gave myself over to the rage again, and felt it smash back my terror and grief with no effort at all. It produced violent thoughts and I watched them, entertained them even (should I admit it?), relieved that they came to the surface, freed from the recesses of my psyche where ego keeps them chained, turned outward instead of in. I went faster.
Soothing poses I gave 5 short breaths, difficult poses or those requiring space, 3. I moved at five times my usual snail’s pace and kept my eyes shut as much as possible. By dhanurasana, I thought I might burst again. I didn’t. Urdhva dhanurasana. Standing, waiting, feeling my heart pound madly against my ribs, I felt my shoulders hunched forward, turtling me inward even after backbends. Shame. Then a soft touch on my back and my teacher’s gentle presence. Gentle. Kind.
A miracle. Not his bearing but my read of it. A first. Always before, each time I was triggered, this time by far the worst, or maybe just the most consciously felt, I projected judgement and anger onto my teachers, felt it coming from them in tight bursts. Not today. There is a fragment of hope.
Closing sequence. No room to move forward. New neighbors, more space. I stayed. These poses calm me and I take my time in them, usually and today, hoping to steady my heart. A quick shavasana and chant.
I rolled my mat. The back near the restrooms was crowded. I was a bit damp with sweat, but could not wait to change. I had to get out into space. I stuffed my jeans into my bag. The zipper broke, slowed me down, I fumbled with it. Grabbed my coat and shoes, my teacher at the desk behind me now. Did he sense my energy? See my body quaking? I hoped not and so.
The street! Tears. Sunshine. I walked long to the water, street blocked by the construction of another crass new sky rise luxury apartment complex. Turned north and then west again. Walked, cried, still numb but relieved, wanting the ocean but letting the river soothe me instead.