I was not heartened by the reactions to my last post, Trigger Mind. You didn’t hear me, and I really wanted you to hear me. That blocked me a bit. Angered me too, and I lost motivation to post here.
I shared my experience with you. And that experience, the healing of trauma, is not simple, easy, controlled or clean. It involves pain.
Though I worked hard to be clear that it was not about my community or teachers, most of you insisted it be so, in comments here and on social media. I addressed that and will not take it further. I feel the need to be clear about what you missed, though, as there are implications.
Some of you ignored my message and steamrolled my right to heal and practice in terms that feel right and good to me. You offered unsolicited advice that you are not qualified to give. You did this, perhaps, because you are uncomfortable with pain. And who isn’t? Precious few.
Some friends understood. I’d asked a few to vet it before I posted, and had even read it to my shrink (ah yes, I do have qualified help), who responded to my, “Is this too edgy or is it okay to post?” with, “Yes, why not?”
When I shared with him the reaction from the interwebs, he asked, “Well, what did you expect?” in a tone that said “don’t be dumb. They are internet commenters. The peanut gallery.”
“What were your motives?” he continued. “Did you want pity? Did you want them to care about your pain? Well, you are right, they don’t.”
Good questions. Did I want pity? I don’t think so, not consciously. I’ve learned that if I want something unconsciously and refuse it, his mere suggestion makes me livid. This didn’t. No, I think I wanted to be understood.
Did I want the interwebs-at-large to care about my pain? Well, that’s a tall request. And while it wasn’t my motivation, I really didn’t want such strong evidence of how little you did.
Part of my motivation was to share my experience. To be understood. And yes, to make clear, to break a little bubble of fantasy that is rampant among yoga “helpers”—yoga is not some easy panacea.
Like most of you, I love yoga. I spend over 35hrs a week practicing and teaching yoga and meditation (I consider meditation to be implicit in yoga, but sometimes need to mention it). Yoga is an amazing practice, and frankly, I probably have more faith in it than I do anything else.
But it is not painless. It is not some easy cure-all that will, on its own, heal PTSD. Its growing position in the trauma industry is definitely worthy of critique. Specifically, the call to make all yoga classes “trauma-sensitive” (I’ve spoken to this earlier), and the assumption that teachers with a weekend of “trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training” (commonly led by people with no real qualifications themselves) who seek to “heal themselves by healing others,” are doing more good than harm.
Keep in mind that most studies done showing that yoga has a positive effect on PTSD involved highly trained professionals and, often, other forms of therapy.
The only thing, I believe, that truly helps heal trauma, is the capacity to face and feel your own pain, and the ability to face and hold the pain of others. This involves a lot more than “letting go” and is easier said than done.
Do you remember Annie, in the yoga chapter of van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score (Chapter 16)? She was so triggered during her first trauma-sensitive yoga class at van der Kolk’s clinic that she went home and cut herself. Again, it was a trauma-sensitive class at van der Kolk’s trauma center. She went home and cut herself. Are you freaking out? Can you take that in?
What those of you who schooled me on the last post do not understand is that the body is not a safe place for a trauma survivor. We are largely split off from it, and our emotions. For us to do yoga, we must enter unsafe space—our bodies. In Trigger Mind, I stayed with my experience, my body, my emotions, and I shared it with you. And you didn’t quite listen.
When you chime in class, “You are safe here,” we cringe at your ignorance. There is nothing that betrays your cluelessness more quickly. We have spent 80% of our mental energy post-trauma (for many of us, most of our lives) in hyperarousal mode unconsciously trying to suss if we are safe. Some do-gooder cooing “you are safe here” does not magically deliver us from this deeply ingrained response. It makes us roll our eyes and pray we can get through your class, much less get something out of it.
When you try to cleanse and prevent every possible trigger in a class (which is impossible in so many ways), you miss the point entirely. Effective treatment “needs to involve (a) learning to tolerate feelings and sensations by increasing the capacity for interoception, (b) learning to modulate arousal, and (c) learning that after confrontation with physical helplessness it is essential to engage in taking effective action” (BESSEL A. VAN DER KOLK Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1071 Article first published online: 26 JUL 2006 | DOI: 10.1196/annals.1364.022). This is what I did in Trigger Mind. That is what it sounds like in real terms, experienced terms, outside of the clean, clinical, medicalese you feel safe with. That is what I wanted you to hear.
My engagement with effective action? I wrote the piece and some people got it. I talked to my shrink and decided, learned, it was better to move the moment I felt unsafe or near-triggered rather than try to be tough and stick it out. Shortly after Trigger Mind, Daddy Long Legs introduced himself (not knowing my experience) and we chatted breezily, which helped desensitize me to his limbs. While I’ve had near moments, I haven’t been triggered since that piece. Oh, and EMDR has helped, too. Not to mention the understanding and empathy of countless others.
My point here (I’ll be direct this time) is that healing trauma requires facing the unimaginable pain that could not be faced when trauma occurred. This experience is not safe, theoretical, or easy for anyone involved. There is no formula. No magic trick. Those advocating for trauma-safe yoga classes for all—fine. We have different opinions. I don’t see much, if any, value in yoga alliance, in the majority of yoga teacher trainings, and unfortunately, the majority of yoga classes out there, most of which seek to perfect the body, or power through endlessly impressive asana, or engage in magical rhetoric to numb and escape suffering. The chances of my being triggered in the average yoga class are about 85%. I would simply go on lockdown to avoid it, which is not healing in the least.
That you believe these classes can be made “safe” and trigger-free by a few hours of awareness training, that you think we can unlock, feel and process the horrors in our bodies in a room full of strangers while pop music blares, or that you think no teacher should be allowed to blare music in her yoga class, speaks to your own ideas about yoga, safety, and healing, and you’ve every right to them. But please don’t inflict them on my real-world experience and process as a survivor-practitioner. In my last year of practice, I was triggered three times (not much) at my studio, without telling my teachers or community about my experience or “condition” because that is how I want it. How I feel comfortable.
When advocacy for and teaching of trauma survivors is done with so little understanding of our actual experience, with so little willingness to take in and respect our individual, personal experience, I have to ask, who is this about? Who, here, is so desperate for safety? If you don’t have the ability to face another’s pain, to acknowledge and respect it, maybe even empathize for a second instead of stepping in to fix what isn’t yours to deem broken, please, god, do find another hobby.
First published Feb 23, 2015. (Dates changed sometimes to affect slider order on homepage.)