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.



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

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