trigger mind

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 do not think they are perfect or infallibleit 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 legs.

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 NYC-20121029of 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 careI 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. 01-NYC-20100420It 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.

11 Responses to “trigger mind”

  1. (0v0) says:


    Thanks for the education. I’ll share this with my assistants.

  2. Carol Horton says:

    This is something that the yoga community needs to be aware of. Meaning both your specific community, and the culture as a whole.

    I hope that at some point you feel comfortable enough to share your experience(s) with your teacher(s). Hell, just email them this post with a nice note.

    Then, I hope that someone (or some collaborative) who is comfortable working with and knowledgeable about both trauma and yoga gives a training/presentation to your community and it’s well attended.

    Trauma is rampant in our society. And even people without full-blown PTS experience emotional flooding and strange discomforting releases that can be scary and disorienting due to asana practice. We are developing a much better understanding of the mind/body relationship and why this occurs (see Bessel van der Kolk’s new book, “The Body Keeps the Score.”).

    This info should be at least basically presented in every yoga teacher training.

    Thanks for the vivid writing – clinical, scientific language can’t share the feeling of the experience and it’s important to do so.

  3. Deb says:

    The kind of training Carol mentions above is something I proposed to the nonprofit where I volunteer. I let it fall by the wayside while dealing with my own health issues. This post and Carol’s comment is a motivator to get back to this important topic. Thanks for being brave enough to speak out.

  4. Tracy Moran says:

    Thank you for sharing this with such courage and honesty. It’s given me a new perspective and insight.

  5. Anastasia Kirtiklis says:

    You’re the best, Owl. Thank you for understanding. xoxo

  6. Anastasia Kirtiklis says:

    Actually, my teacher is extremely well informed about trauma and has worked with traumatized populations. I don’t think he or my community needs to be schooled.

    That I don’t want to tell him about it may speak to my inchoate level of healing (in the opinion of that commenter on facebook), or more likely, as I stated myself above, my very real and valid desire not to be given special treatment. Or awkward stares. Or to not receive condescending remarks about my rate of healing (ibid). This is precisely the bullshit trauma survivors get to contend with that is grossly unhelpful. Because I hold a different opinion than you it is because I am not yet progressed enough in my healing? So gross. NO THANK YOU.

    Yes, Bessel van der Kolk is awesome.

    I think what saddens/frustrates me about these reactions the most, and gets back to what I was saying in my last post, is that this is about my process, my awareness, not about my teachers or community. Yet everyone wants to rush in and blame everyone else rather than looking within for a second. It is totally missing the point. But hopefully some people got it. If you keep yourself busy trying to change everyone and everything else, you never really have to face your own shit.

    The idea of making all yoga trauma safe is ridiculous to me (though yes, educating on the basics is helpful), and seems to not understand the very fundamentals of triggering. ANYTHING can trigger a survivor. I wrote about this in a previous post: and will probably say more about it again.

    Cause I could go on and on. The bold new trauma industry is definitely something to question.

    Thanks, as always, for your comment.

  7. Anastasia Kirtiklis says:

    thanks, Tracy, and thanks for reading.

  8. Anastasia Kirtiklis says:

    Thanks, Deb. Hope you are doing well now.

  9. Kristina says:

    Very interesting post. I am proud of you for being so controlled in that state of mind. I think, regardless of the past trauma of the person next to you, you should have the respect to not flail your limbs around on them, or throw your towel on their mat. I mean, what the fuck? Of course some people are more sensitive than others, but that doesn’t justify the initial offense. I give you credit for sticking out the practice, and hope that you can avoid such stressful situations in the future. Xoxo

  10. Kristina says:

    And yes, it’s not just their “fault” but I still can’t help feeling defensive. It is also so important to deal with the inner issues, but I don’t think you should just learn to deal with it – because like I said above, trauma or mo trauma, that is just not proper yoga etiquette in my opinion.

  11. Anastasia says:

    Hi Kristina,

    Thanks for your words. It’s kind of hard to explain this one, but I should try, as it keeps coming up. Mysore-style Ashtanga has a different culture around it than general yoga culture (if that even exists. I use it to mean generic yoga/vinyasa/power classes I’ve experienced, though in a sense every studio/style/teacher has its own culture).

    In a mysore room, everyone is coming and going and practicing at their own pace. Teachers are walking around. It’s different than a set class with a teaching leading everyone together.

    In addition, part of this culture is practicing in whatever space there is, extending yourself out into others’ space if it’s required for the asana. This might stem from India, where the practice comes from, which is mad crowded and people have different ideas about space. It also may be because Jois (the guru) felt his western students to be too individualistic and territorial, and wanted to inspire otherwise.

    I don’t know. I do know that this culture has existed decades upon decades before me, and that I’ve only heard one other person say can be a problem for her, and she has PTSD as well. So it doesn’t seem to me that there is even a small call to change this, and I certainly don’t feel the need to change things to meet my needs alone. I mean, if you don’t have PTSD, at the end of the day a towel on your foot or mat is not a big deal. That is part of the point. What is maddening about it is what we imagine the intentions of the offender to be, but really, we have no idea unless we ask. In this case, the girl was as likely triggered by the crowding row as I was and maybe felt i was on top of her, or she just wasn’t paying attention. That we imagine her intention to be aggressive or malicious is something to look at. Unfortunately, this is near impossible if you have been triggered and are already trying to soothe out of that.

    There is a certain beauty in practicing in a crowded, silent room. It is only too crowded one day a week, and they just extended the hours that day to help with that. (In fact, it was because of the extended hours this happened—I used to know the least crowded time to practice, but with the longer hours, I now need to suss that out again, as people are coming at different times.)

    As for the yoga culture at large, who knows what that really means. If I were to set about changing something about it, it would probably be actually doing some yoga rather than some weird new-age-self-help-infused calisthenics. This issue would not be high on the list. But at the moment I’m pretty happy teaching and reaching the students I have, and learning in my own practice.

    In my class I set certain parameters, encourage people to move if they need more space, and to be careful. But that’s not to say there aren’t other aspects of my teaching style and classes that might set someone off else with different triggers (my directness, for example). I think that trying to sanitize yoga of all potential irritations is silly and totally misses the realities of practice, for trauma survivors and the general population both.

    Thanks for your thoughts. xo

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