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on teaching yoga to the anxious or traumatized. and for practitioners, too.

Forget what I said last time. I spent all day in the human room. We are all traumatized.

I loved the Time Out New York cover a few weeks ago that read: “Are we anxious because we’re New Yorkers or are we New Yorkers because we’re anxious?” because it’s something I’ve long considered. New York City is the only place I’ve ever felt at home, and the reason may be that the pace is in line with my nervous system’s baseline. Relaxing (or trying to) once made me nervous. This is true for a large number of New Yorkers and a fair number of my students.

I do not know much about anxiety as it exists apart from trauma, but I have wondered a bit if there’s some sort of spectrum of trauma we inhabit in the post-postmodern age. When I sat down to write this post, I websearched it. Low and behold, there’s a book: The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency. It looks like it could be good.

I am kidding and I’m not. There is a lot of anxiety out there, and many, many yoga students exhibit strong symptoms of trauma survival. Or is it just anxiety? In some ways, it doesn’t matter. Recently, wanting a break from all the trauma books and to remind myself that everyone suffers (constantly viewing life through the lens of trauma is irritating, I agree), I read Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, about six alcoholic American writers. But gawd, it was no break. They all exhibited major symptoms of trauma survival. If you doubt my objectivity, by page 38, Laing makes the same observation. This had me thinking about art and creativity as healing or distraction. Screw yoga already.

Is it post-trauma or is it anxiety? It doesn’t matter (in my opinion of the moment) but for this: trauma survivors are apt to be triggered into sympathetic nervous system hyperarousal, aka fight/flight/freeze, and if you are, it’s important to know it. If you don’t, you may just experience triggering as profound irritation, which is extremely frustrating to navigate when it can’t be OM’ed or CBT’ed away.

humanRoom03Teaching yoga to a group of trauma survivors can be easier than teaching survivors in general population classes. In a class of survivors, we know what is going on. The issues are front and center and we work with them as best we can. It’s not easy, but it is spoken, it is on the table, and everyone there knows we are in the company of other survivors. This helps to create a space where the work of healing trauma, via deep, patient attention to body, breath, and mind, can occur.

In classes for the general population, this is not the case. A year ago I read a series of posts on HuffPo that demanded all yoga teachers be trained to tailor their classes to suit the needs of trauma survivors lest a student be triggered.

As a yoga teacher and trauma survivor, I find this ridiculous. While I agree that there are many trauma survivors in general yoga classes and basic information on trauma would be a helpful addition to trainings 1) most yoga teacher trainings are worthless and 2) the idea that not touching humanRoom04people, or asking to touch in a certain voice, or not using straps in case it triggers a bound trauma for someone, or ad nauseum, ignores the critical fact that pretty much anything can potentially trigger a trauma survivor. A red shirt. A certain song. A whiff of patchouli. Getting assistance. Not getting assistance. Doing a pose. Not doing a pose. Physical exertion. A fleeting shadow. A strong breeze.

Peter Levine explains in his book In An Unspoken Voice:

Consider your response to the fleeting shadow, the subtle gesture of another person or a distant sound. Each of these events can invoke in us survival-bound responses without our ever being aware that something in our environment has triggered them. Notably, when we have been traumatized, we are particularly sensitized to (and hyperaroused by) these fleeting stimuli. Our senses of seeing, hearing and smell provide countless stimuli that cause us to overreact, humanRoom05even though we may be unaware of the presence of those subliminal stimuli, and our premotor responses to them. (p 319.)

If a yoga class is not specifically geared to trauma survivors, the endless possible modifications quickly becomes ridiculous. It also caters to the self-victimization of survivors, which is unhelpful (not to be confused with the original victimization, which is another issue).

We need to remember that yoga teachers are not psychologists, healers, or our Mommies. Yoga is not a panacea, and the average Rihanna-blaring, handstandy, love-and-lighty yoga class is not where a trauma survivor should look to heal unless she’s going to take innumerable factors into her own hands. We cannot walk into a room and expect everyone to change their teaching methods, much less ways of being, to meet our needs. It’s neither helpful or acceptable. Do you really want everyone to tiptoe around you? I don’t.humanRoom06

Let’s be honest. We trauma survivors are a highly annoying population. As students, we often need a lot of attention. Or we (pretend we) want none. We have no boundaries. We come early or late, dawdle after, monopolize the teacher’s time, and make weird, disturbing noises in class (and I don’t mean the occasional whimper or grunt). If we have boundaries, we are Fort Knox. We need space. We complain (yes, even after yoga. wt??). We dislike the conditions of the room. It is too hot. Too cold. Too loud. Too breezy. Too crowded. Too smelly. Too dirty. Too chatty. Too early. Too late. We are moody and we project those moods on our teachers’ and fellow students’ behavior toward us. We do not make enough money to pay and if we make plenty we still whinge about it. We snarl that we “know our bodies” when truly we are violently dissociated from them and do not. We are massive control freaks—about our bodies, our practice, and everything else. humanRoom07Our issues are boundless. They are also disruptive to the class and other students.

If you think that the average yoga teacher is equipped to handle this energy because he is spiritual and wants to help, you are wildly incorrect. If you believe it is his or her ethical responsibility to do so, you are incorrect again. These issues are difficult for long-trained therapists to handle. That you expect it from a twenty-something who wants to help you blossom after his month of “transformative” teacher training? Lordy. Reevaluate.

Yes, it sucks. It does seem that we are the ones always having to reevaluate. We didn’t ask to be traumatized or triggered or have our bodies and being turn against us.

But if we can drop the self-pitying victim bullshit, this subtle suggestion that everyone owes us something because we were traumatized and feel we have nothing, reevaluation empowers. I want to underline that 500 times. humanRoom08Did you get it? Reevaluate and take responsibility for your behavior now, even if it was triggered by inconceivably unfair events of your past for which you bear no responsibility. That at your core, you believe you were responsible and hate yourself for it is another matter that, yes, does get in the way of everything. Still try.

So, how to do yoga as a trauma survivor if you don’t have or want classes designated as such? More on that next time (preview: observing your triggered state must become part of your practice). Also to come is a bit on kinds of emotion, pseudo-emotion, too much emotion, i.e. what I mean when I talk about emotion. Also maybe some stuff on creativity, but who knows.

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Comic by Daryl Seitchik. Check out her tumblr. It is great.

coccoyoga name change coming soon

There’s a name & domain change coming soon, so if you subscribe by rss you will need to update your feed. If you are subscribed by email, you’re automatically taken care of. The next post (written but not yet edited) will be up at popomoyoga.com (yoga for post-postmodern life). CoccoYoga will forward there, but for a few days when the domain name transfers.

I’ve tumbled into writing a long bit that needs more clarification. I may break them up into a series once entirely written instead of posting as I write a 1000 words or so. Til then, enjoy the sunshine. ~A

quiz: wait. am i a traumatized yogi?

There’s been a lot of talk about yoga and trauma of late (especially here). It may beg the question: “Wait. I think and act like this sometimes. I’m not traumatized.”

“Am I?”

Some argue that everyone is traumatized in the post-post-modern era. While we certainly live in an age of anxiety (Kali Yuga for sure), and anxiety sufferers may experience life in similar ways, not everyone has been traumatized. Trauma is not an abstraction or a dramatic manner of describing experience.

Clinically, trauma survivors suffer from PTSD, survivors of repeated trauma (e.g. child abuse) CPTSD, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I avoid these labels as I find them unhelpful. They flatten human experience and elicit cliché. They are, however, extremely accurate regarding the symptoms and experiences of trauma survivors. If you are curious, Judith Herman’s beautiful Trauma and Recovery is the book to read:

At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force…. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.

Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life. Unlike commonplace misfortunes, traumatic events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence or death. They confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror, and evoke the responses of catastrophe. According to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the common denominator of psychological trauma is a feeling of ‘intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.’

The ordinary human response to danger is a complex, integrated system of reactions, encompassing both body and mind. Threat initially arouses the sympathetic nervous system, causing the person in danger to feel an adrenaline rush and go into a state of alert…. Finally, threat evokes intense feelings of fear and anger. These changes in arousal, attention, perception, and emotion are normal, adaptive reactions. They mobilize the threatened person for strenuous action, either in battle or in flight.

Traumatic reactions occur when action is of no avail. When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized. Each component of the ordinary response to danger, having lost its utility, tends to persist in an altered and exaggerated state long after the danger is over. Traumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in physiological arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory. Moreover, traumatic events may sever these normally integrated functions from one another. The traumatized person may experience intense emotion but without clear memory of the event, or may remember everything in detail but without emotion. She may find herself in a constant state of vigilance and irritability without knowing why. Traumatic symptoms have a tendency to become disconnected from their source and take on a life of their own. pp 33-34.

The worst fear of any traumatized person is that the moment of horror will recur, and this fear is realized in victims of chronic abuse. Not surprisingly, the repetition of trauma amplifies all the hyperarousal symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. p 86.

Unprocessed feelings of intense anger and fear become locked into the body and unconscious mind, waiting for release, easily triggered by sights and sounds that would not phase someone with a relaxed nervous system. Peter Levine’s In an Unspoken Voice offers a remarkable explanation from a medical perspective. He explains why and how trauma becomes frozen in the body, and what to do about it. Another must read.

Avoid most common internet literature, usually about veterans, often asking why some people suffer shell shock (the WWI appellation) and others don’t. C/PTSD is the normal human biological reaction to devastating events that cannot be integrated into a person’s larger experience often due to the level of horror, as well as a lack of understanding, empathy and support. Herman underlines the social complications of trauma recovery, which we’ve seen much of in the media lately, e.g. victim blaming in rape cases. “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering” (Trauma and Recovery, p 7).

Since I began writing about yoga and trauma, several students, colleagues, and friends have come out to me as trauma survivors. As Herman says, trauma is not rare. Nor is it imagined. Survivors have many biological markers that identify them (low heart rate variability, HRV, among others). It has raised a lot of questions for me about yoga and trauma, teaching survivors in designated classes and out, in classes for the general population. (More on this next time.)

My own yoga practice has often been subsumed by observing my traumatic reactions: fight or flight in asana practice, and freeze (dissociation) in asana and meditation. This only began after years and years of practice, when I finally found enough safety (through a solid, caring relationship) to explore. It was an opening of sorts.

Before when agitated in practice, I just numbed out. A vigorous practice can be good for that, with the endorphins and all. (This, in my honest observations, is how most people practice yoga. Like athletes who force and train the body, rather than being in and of it.) I didn’t experience my anxiety or nerves. It was all on lockdown, deeply repressed. I can pretend nothing bothers me better than most, and when my nervous system is agitated and I feel unsafe, I often do just that. Sometimes, I numb and float upward. It can actually feel pretty good, especially when my muscles go all soft and give up.

But the racing heart and shortness of breath of a challenging practice can also trigger hyperarousal and shift me into fight or flight. I shut down feeling and move faster, trying to break free.

Even when I feel safe and calm, sending breath and awareness into long held parts of my body brings up energy (and emotions and memories) I’m not sure what to do with. It can be scary. One’s own body is not a safe place for trauma survivors. No where is.

This, though, I have to work with and through, because ignoring feeling, shutting down, numbing out, strengthens the ingrained patterns of traumatic reflex. Forever I have fought between maintaining my status quo, which has gotten me through fairly well in some ways, which on some levels I like, and the change healing demands.

None of this is to say that my years of practice before I opened to all all this, when I numbed out and so on, were not beneficial on deeply healing levels, much deeper than, say, running around a track. They certainly were. I do believe it was my practice (yoga and meditation) that got me to a place where I could finally trust someone and begin the baby steps toward feeling and integration. That is the thing. While we’d love a one-step fix, healing these types of wounds requires care and effort from all angles: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, cognitive, etc.

Thank you for reading :)   Anastasia

how to feel awesome [?]: self-soothing vs self-care

There was some helpful, interesting feedback on the last post, yoga, self-soothing, and feeling what ails you, about how we often use yoga and meditation to stay right where we are rather than to help us see and behave more clearly.

Giulia, an art historian, had two remarks. First, well, can’t we just have some fun? Second, some self-soothing is necessary and helpful.

Of course we can have fun. Holy linoleum. We need fun, and there’s definitely an element of fun in my classes. I don’t intend to be unnecessarily stern in my writing, it’s just that most of us have the fun part down. Fun is healing in and of itself.

And, yes, self-soothing is necessary and helpful. Absolutely. I did mention that: “Some soothing is important, good, necessary, healing…. But when is it too much? Spiritual bypassing? Avoiding the pain? This is tricky.” Giulia concurred. This is an especially difficult question.

Sarah, a yoga teacher in the final throes of her psych doctorate, gets at the same thing. She wrote that the post, “got me thinking about difference / overlap? between soothing and self-care.”

Self-care requires more discernment. Sometimes self-care is sitting down to work instead of going to the beach. And sometimes it’s going to the beach instead of staying at your desk. (How to know which is a question for later.) Self-soothing is more of an emergency practice. When the nervous system has been jolted into sympathetic response, known colloquially as freaking out, it’s time to soothe.

The problem is when we self-soothe for kicks, because it feels nice, or maybe it’s habit. Trauma survivors, and perhaps everyone, take refuge in fantasy, good and bad, quite a lot. Even to the point of living there. Yoga and meditation can be excellent tools to spot it and back off (as it’s so ingrained in our realities, it’s harder than you think). Or they can be tools of spiritual bypass, by trading one set of fantasies for another.

For example, instead of imagining that your teacher, about whom you know nothing, really, is a controlling, unspiritual bitch because she calls you out when you come to class late (frequently), you get spiritual and pretend that her comments do not affect you because we are all whole and one and you do not need her guidance or acceptance in the banal material realm. This is bullshit. You are not “healed,” and on some level, you know it.

A trauma survivor may go further and fantasize that the teacher doesn’t want him there, will invalidate his class card, ran into his sister on the street and talked mess about him, somehow knows his boss and…ad nauseum.

But then! When he is in a good mood (or the teacher is—the anxious are always sussing the Other’s mood in attempt to stay safe), she’s nurturing, informative, and generally awesome. His imagination spins wildly in this direction. Next thing you know, his wife is into polyamory, Teacher has revealed her unmanageable desire for him, unlike his wife she adores his poetry, and they’re off on an extended trip to…ad nauseum.

It is self-soothing on a rampage, and trauma survivors often live there, in the ups and downs of their imaginations. Here self-care is required. When a glimmer of reality breaks in, it’s back to the breath. But that comforting fantasy can be as difficult (more?) to abandon as nicotine for a smoker.

The breath is not quite as much fun. Not quite (yet) as soothing.

Back to lateness and the controlling teacher. If the breath is not breaking your fantasies open you could:

  • Observe how you feel when she calls you out and suss what’s going on there. Then leave it for later and come back to your breath.
  • Later, when you are alone, observe in retrospect how you feel. Go into your breath and feel. Yes, we know you don’t breathe sometimes, because if you breathe you will feel, and if you feel you will break. But now you are alone, and safe, so feel. Break if you want. You will come back.
  • Look very closely at the reasons you always show up late. Check yourself. (Please consult yoga etiquette 101 & yoga etiquette 201.) Are your excuses valid? Do you really believe them? No one else does, but worse, in seconds of stone cold honesty, you don’t either.
  • Actually have a conversation with her about it (this is the hard one) so that the issue is pulled out of your fantasy realm and down to earth.

You will learn that your teacher is nurturer and bitch, but for reasons you hadn’t fathomed, having nothing to do with you. It is an enormous load off, if you can let go of the fantasies. But those fantasies have protected you through unspeakable, unfeelable things. Soon you’re shocked to find that it’s the manic ones that are trouble. It’s easy to peer under the heavy trips, as we don’t (consciously) like them, but the happy fantasies brighten our day and give us hope. What are we without them? Underneath they are bolstered by the same terror, grief and rage that spin the negative. Stepping back, they are one and the same.

It is daunting, but also fascinating and human. Self-soothing allows us to calm our system, self-care allows us to slowly shift toward health. Though when to do which can be difficult to discern, when we check in, and we’re honest, we know very well.

yoga, self-soothing, and feeling what ails you

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I’ve had little to say here of late. My thoughts on yoga are all over the place, which inevitably seem too intertwined with thoughts on life to give them voice here. How to separate and distill? It’s a practice, so I’m here. I could be swimming in the ocean, but I’m here.

One looming theme in my recent intimate conversations is just how far we go, how many tales we tell, how many distractions we seduce to avoid our pain. The (Buddhist?) idea that suffering is what we create when we refuse to face and feel our pain is intensely accurate.

But how do we call the original pain up to be felt when it’s been refused for so long? How do we find (carve?) a safe space to explore the depths of our misery? This question is complicated for trauma survivors, whose emotions and memories have been chopped up and scattered within to protect us from the unfathomable, rendered unconscious but unforgotten in the nonverbal, primitive brain. It’s a difficult question for everyone, traumatized or not.

Our friends, families and communities, wanting to see us happy, may brush off our anguish with it-happened-for-a-reason-esque platitudes or unhelpful analyses. Unfamiliar with their own pain, they may be quick to minimize ours. Health professionals are quick to medicate and pathologize any behavior or emotion presented them. “Grief? I have just the thing for that!” the doctor quips as she scribbles out another prescription. And the happy affects, those must be at acceptable levels, lest you be labeled manic III-bipolar, or whatever diagnosis is trending this year. Even spiritual counselors—helpers of all kinds, really—condescend with false compassion or stone cold silence. I’m given to the latter.

Someone exploring her fear and insecurity may quickly trigger the Helper’s own unexamined vulnerabilities, and suddenly Explorer is scapegoated as weak, emotional, or out-of-control. Heavy. She’s shoved to arm’s length with fake compassion and a weighted stare. I’ve been there, on both sides. Preferred is the awkward rawness of an honest, present silence, which comes sometimes, when the strength is summoned.

Though vulnerability was all the rage on your tedtalks last year, I’ve seen no trickle down, no real time embracing of our pain, to say nothing of our ugliness and evil. It’s always out there. It’s Her. Or them. Very, very few of us have done the work of facing our pain. Without it, real, engaged compassion is impossible.

So. How do we do it? There is this ungodly pull to pretend we are nurturing ourselves when in fact we’re just numbing out. Or distracting ourselves. Or maintaining.

Like many, I excel at maintaining. I watch carefully what keeps me going, what keeps me floating above the morass. As early as my undergrad years I found that if I kept myself extremely busy, so busy I felt like a robot much of the time and dropped into bed of exhaustion each night, I did not feel depressed. I didn’t actually feel much at all, but I didn’t notice that until later.

Years later I’m much more subtle. Yoga soothes me, as does the ocean. And books. If I’m feeling a bit off, or fear I might soon, I’ll drink an afternoon coffee to perk me up. Maybe an innocuous stimulant, but it definitely sweeps me up and away from my pain. I know how often I must schedule time with friends to avoid loneliness. I know how to practice so I feel, and I know how to practice to numb myself. Why would I ever choose the latter? Sometimes it’s the only choice.

The soothing. Most of us know how to self-sooth, whether we call it that or not. Some soothing is important, good, necessary, healing. Especially for trauma survivors. But when is it too much? Spiritual bypassing? Avoiding the pain? This is tricky. I read a comment about a post I’d written on yoga and trauma on a reposter’s fbook page. Someone unbeknownst to me wrote, “That’s probably all these people can manage, anything to just get them through the day.”

This may be true of the newly traumatized and the most dire, but the majority of us eventually come to a place where we are much like everyone else. We just fly into flight, fright, or freeze mode far more quickly than average. Still, you cannot generally pick us in a crowd. We want to engage with life and thrive too. We want more than to just get through the day. Don’t you?

Everyone needs a safe space for this, inside ourselves as well as out, and self-soothing plays a role. But when the nervous system settles, we need to probe a bit and feel our emotions, to face and integrate our terror. It’s a dangerous place, but it has to be done. It is impossible to meaningfully engage in life without accessing our humanity and our emotions and using them to steer our lives. It is just impossible. Those little machinations you have for keeping safe? They are killing you softly. Stop it.

If it seems I am speaking only to trauma survivors, I am not. I speak to everyone for whom this resonates.

And then there’s the problem of everything. Everything quick and shiny and soon. Our culture teaches us that if we feel bad, instead of feeling it, investigating it, going inside it, we should make haste to feel better. This ubiquitous fantasy that when we find the right job, the right diet, the right partner, the right asana, the right teacher, the right shiny green t-shirt, we will be healed. Until then (soon!), a fabulous snack will do.

The prevalent idea that shifting your mood so you feel better for the afternoon (maintaining) is somehow healing your pain is a tease. It does not. Affirmations, slogans, positivity clichés disguised as spiritual wisdom—another coffee or a swim in the Atlantic, whatever your tricks—may work for the short term, but if you’re refusing your pain, the nagging, rotting sense that your world will collapse (your health is failing you, your boss will retaliate, your kid is unsafe, whatever your demon vrittis) will still gyrate underneath, lurching up just when you thought you were clear. This will not go away with a few magic tantric breaths or a weekend workshop.

It is inane. There is no way to heal without walking straight into your pain.

And for $2500, I will tell you how.

Haha. Not really. Til next time. ~Anastasia