The Impacts of Trauma Sensitive Yoga – Studies in Boston

“[Trauma sensitive yoga] helped to ground me and bring focus.  It brought me back into the moment and felt really good.  The power of suggestion is what did it for me…It allowed me to feel safer for some reason.”

This is a testimonial about a woman’s experience after participating in daily trauma-sensitive yoga (TSY) over the duration of a week.  She is survivor of violence, who weathered homelessness for 3 years in the Vancouver East Side, a woman who has struggled with addictions and been incarcerated.

The learning experience I had in Boston felt like the tip of an ice-burg in a journey that will be integrated into my professional and personal life forever.  Gaining insight into trauma has opened a doorway of endless learning, and I hope to commit my professional career to supporting people in recovery.  Before I left Boston, the door continued to open with an invitation to enroll in a 110 hr trauma sensitive yoga teacher certification, the first one of its kind being offered.  When completed this course, I will be 1 of 15 certified TSY instructors in the world who is so grateful for this foundation.  As I immerse my self into teaching TSY, I am aware of the ongoing parallel learning process about trauma and recovery.

Since returning from Boston, I have been blessed with opportunities to apply trauma sensitive yoga within different settings – such as an outdoor expedition for women who were survivors of violence and within an addiction treatment center for young men.  The experience of inviting people into an interoceptive journey, an opportunity to practice self-awareness and meet one’s self where they are at, has been both humbling and rewarding.  Interoception is a physiological term used to describe ‘relating to stimuli produced within an organism’…the action of relating to and observing sensations in one’s body.

There have been amazing opportunities to see people shift challenging emotions and physical experiences through the practice of noticing their body and making choices – a core TSY principle.  For example, I had one-on-one session with a young male client struggling with addiction and moving through a deep experience of grief and loss.  He came to the session and shared he was feeling “weird” in his body, he felt like he had no physical strength, nauseated and generally uncomfortable.  He chose to participate in a 20-minute session, in which we explored 3 different forms he selected.  By the end of the session his eyes had opened wider and a shift in energy was evident.  He later shared that the yoga experience helped shift his mood to be more present as he started to appreciate noticing more in his body – this journey of grief and loss felt different for him.  It was one of his first experiences of allowing himself to feel the pain, instead of using substances to numb the hurt.

“There is nothing in western culture that teaches us that we can learn to master our own physiology – solutions always come from the outside, starting with relationships, and if those fail, alcohol and drugs.” 

Bessel van der Kolk

I have also seen what gifts come from a safe and healthy relational experience a one-on-one TSY session.  When two people engage in a process of exploring different yoga forms together, there is a reflective mirroring experience that supports a sense of resonance and connection with something and someone else.  This relational principle is foundational to any person’s journey of recovery.

To support change we must transform one’s relational experience.

This was the theme repeated within several different workshops on trauma recovery presented at the International Trauma Conference…and a supportive relational experience is integral to any trauma sensitive yoga experience.

I could go on for longer, but I think I am getting my point across, TSY is an impactful experience for participants in recovery.  As I dive deeper into the theoretical concepts informing trauma sensitive yoga and apply the practice, I am seeing rewarding and very impactful outcomes.  The beautiful part is, the positive outcomes are not only beneficial for the participants in different sessions, but engaging and supporting me in my own journey of health, well-being, and learning.

All this being said, none of this research, learning, and teaching could have been possible without the Irma Parhad Program funding and the Calgary Center for Global Community.  The funding supported me to – dream and live into a vision to support those impacted by trauma and to learn alongside David Emerson, someone leading the frontiers of trauma sensitive yoga.

So, thank you to those who support the Irma Parhad Program and engage people in their dreams to become unique contributors to social change.

Yoga Improving Lives. Yoga Creating Social Change. Yoga in Calgary.

This blog post provides an example of yoga contributing to social change, starting with the individual.  It goes on to discuss how yoga may contribute to social change, with an invitation for yoga instructors in Calgary to consider a trauma-sensitive approach to their teaching to flood survivors and responders.

Increasingly, examples of yoga supporting those recovering from trauma and suffering from mental health challenges are being seen in the media.  This is a recent video and article – Yoga Helps Mentally Ill Improve Their Lives – published within Voice of America.  It opens a small window into an example of creating change amongst those who can’t, won’t, and don’t access yoga studio’s for a number of reasons (more on that in another blog!).  In addition, the video exemplifies shifts and changes available for someone, anyone, who practices yoga.  It exemplifies that a yoga class does not need to take place in the serenity and beauty of a studio for people to feel an impact.  The class does not need to involve a vigorous physical practice, nor does it require fashion conscious Lulu Lemon patrons.  Instead the practice invites yoga students into their reality, to explore what it feels like to acknowledge their breath, to be present within their body and notice how it moves – to meet themselves exactly where they are.

One person at a time, yoga invites people into a journey of curiosity, inquiry, and compassion – perhaps asking people for the first time to consider compassion for their body.  One by one people are invited to explore what it is to be and feel alive, perhaps a foreign experience.  One by one people are changing and shape-shifting themselves on a deep subtle level – something words cannot sometimes articulate.

This, I believe, is a root towards social change – yoga is simply an available gateway.

The Voice of America article is one small example of how the yoga gateway contributes to social change…and many other examples contributing to social are small until the different threads entering through the gateway of change begin to weave into a common fabric.  The change demonstrated in the video – an individual shifting pain and anger, another choosing a healthier lifestyle – offers insight into experiences of connection.

The root catalyst and cause for change is through relationship because – being human means having a need for connection.

Connection begins with ourselves – the intimate and subtle acknowledgement of relating to the experience within ones body.   Michael Stone (2009) writes, “when we see the shadow of our actions, we can get motivated to change our habits.  Non-violence is the essence of such change” (p. 64).  This quote can be viewed within an individual’s experience of change, in addition to expanding the quote’s perspective outwards, it reflects on society’s actions upon the natural biosphere.  The interrelated health of an individual directly correlates with the health of the planet – and many people are arguing that internal, in addition to external non-violence will contribute social and environmental change on this planet.  In his article “Ahimsa Can Save The Planet’, Pankaj Jain (2012) states,

The West must now emerge as a new ecological leader, with Gandhi [non-violence] as the foundation of its lifestyle…There cannot be and should not be a separate “war on terrorism,” “war on climate change,” “war on drugs,” “war on corruption,” “war on obesity” and so on. All aspects of modern life—our physical, mental, and spiritual health, the environment, the global security and international peace, social justice, and so on—will get a great boost if we first become nonviolent in our most basic activit[ies]. (p. 36)

Our most basic activities rely on simple choices and perspectives – what we eat, how we care for ourselves, what we consume or do not consume etc – and a mind and heart that feels clear and calm supports perspective surrounding those most basic activities.

My experience living, learning, and teaching trauma-sensitive yoga over the past several months affirms the complex integrated web of health and well being between an individual, community, and the planet.  In recent weeks Calgary has experienced a shock wave of water delivered by the planet that has disturbed stability, health, and well being amongst individuals and the community.  This brings me to an invitation for readers to consider and share amongst community – I am returning to Calgary at the end of July.  I intend to initiate opportunities for people such as those within the video to access experiences of yoga, to offer trauma-sensitive yoga training workshops for yoga teachers and those interested, and to pursue dialog and action that invites healing to both people and the planet.

The gateway for trauma-sensitive yoga in Calgary is open after being traumatized by the impacts from Mother Nature’s response to climate change.

Change is the most constant thing in life.

From afar, I have seen many yoga studio’s in Calgary and the Bow Valley extend their generosity to victims and responders to the flood, aiming to support recovery and healing from this tragedy.  I would like to contribute to these actions by inviting yoga instructors to participate in an one-day trauma-sensitive yoga workshop at the end of August.  My intention is to support yoga instructors extend their generosity in a way that best supports those who are recovering from this traumatic flood experience.

Further details regarding specific date and location will follow shortly.

References:

Stone, M. (2009). Yoga for a world out of balance. Boston, USA: Shambhala Publications.

Jain, P. (2012). Ahimsa can save the planet. Hinduism Today. p. 36.

Developmental trauma and a call for further integration

20130506_175610_Sophia_PergaI just spent four days at the International Trauma Conference hosted by the Trauma Center in Boston.  It was a fascinating experience with many layers of learning!

The focus of the conference was on early childhood attachment and developmental trauma – elite researchers from around the world presented their scientific findings that explored the complexity of trauma.  For example, Bessel van der Kolk, from the Boston area Trauma Center, discussed his attempt to include a new diagnosis called ‘Developmental Trauma Disorder’ in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).  The “new” disorder was not accepted partly due the proven complexity of the condition.  The disorder places emphasis on early childhood attachment – trauma possible through subtle and covert day to day neglect and abuse.  Another example includes findings presented by Alan Stroufe, demonstrating it was possible to confidently predict dissociation and other possible mental health issues in an adult by seeing how a child was raised between infancy and 18 months of age – focusing on their ability to safely and comfortably attach to their caregivers.  All the evidence pointed to developmental trauma contributing to significant long-term impacts on a person that may lead to a lifetime of recovery.  Not only would this person suffer from the effects of accumulated developmental trauma, but if exposed to a traumatic experience as an adult, the adverse affects may leave a larger imprint due to the already saturated trauma related symptoms they are experiencing.

The reoccurring theme and statement

throughout many of the presentations I attended was –

“to support change we must transform one’s relational experience

This got me thinking!

The conference was a gathering of researchers and therapists who work one on one with clients.  The discussion was based on ongoing early childhood trauma, experiences often people cannot explicitly remember…and the solution is to transform the relational experience.

Dare I return to the age old saying – it takes a community to raise a child?!

I find myself wondering where the community developers and policy makers were, those that have an eye on the systemic and structural issues significantly impacting a family’s stress levels?  The scope of this conversation needs to broaden into a diversified audience.  As an example, consider the possible impacts of maternity leave.  In the USA, mat-leave is 3 months (potentially unpaid), Canada 1 year, Slovakia 3 years, and the numbers (time off and percentage of mat-leave pay) are varied between states around the world.  It would be interesting (and challenging!) to explore research on maternity leave duration and the impacts on attachment (mother’s ability to be present for child due to being physically absent and with accumulated financial stress etc).  Policy makers could have a stake in outcomes such as these for individuals and families – but are they aware of the research identifying the complex nature of developmental trauma?

Imagine the possibilities that reside within an interdisciplinary therapeutic team made up of a clinician (supports process and integration), a community developer (brings a structural lens in addition to integrating supports and resources), a family systems therapist (able to view the dynamics at play within the family setting), and a trauma sensitive yoga instructor (elicits somatic experiences supporting implicit memories to safely emerge therefore solidifying relations with self and others).  I realize that a model such as this loosely exists for individuals recovering from trauma, however are the stakeholders involved communicating to provide an integrated process?

Where is the community raising, or supporting the process of raising the child?

Why are those who have professional responsibilities to communities not a part of this conversation…or attending a trauma conference?

When I reflect upon the observations and questions mentioned, it is evident there are two areas to focus on: a) the treatment of developmental trauma, and b) the prevention of developmental trauma.  When considering these two areas, it is valuable to keep the statement – to support change we must transform one’s relational experience – in the foreground.

When considering treatment, I believe the recovery process could be enhanced through professional therapeutic teams that view the situation through different macro and micro lens’ to support the enhancement of relational experiences and interactions with a client’s internal and external world…(and I must speak to the role trauma sensitive yoga could play because – hey, that’s the focus of my internship)…There is a great therapeutic opportunity available for a person who has experienced complex trauma that naturally magnifies a person’s internal relations with self and relations with others – trauma sensitive yoga (TSY).  This occurs through gently activating stored somatic memories that may not explicitly be part of someone’s memory.  TSY provides an opportunity for a client to interact with simple sensations that may historically trigger them, and learn how to feel safe in their body.  This is one example of how TSY can support a trauma survivor develop new relations with themselves, often rippling outward to positively impact surrounding relationships.

When considering prevention – sharing this research at a conference for policy makers, politicians, community developers, even with the corporate world who often provide financial support to local and national projects and initiatives, could benefit outcomes aimed at prevention.

This discussion is just some of the layers of learning I experienced – I am sure there is more to come!  Until then, consider the integration and intersections between micro and macro practice and development, between clinical, community, and policy…and consider the opportunity for healing and recovery available when one feels safe in their own body!

External and Internal Choice

What does the term and concept – choice – mean to you?

English language definition: an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities

A core guiding principle within trauma-sensitive yoga (TSY) is choice – a concept within the western world and English language that comes with freedom, privilege, access…

The action of choosing asks us to be present in the moment…at least – perhaps more present than if being directed.

In TSY, choice is offered within any form (posture) leaving the student to exercise specific neuropathways necessary for choosing.  Often it involves a process of interoception – looking inwards – in order to decide which adaption to the form is most comfortable for them in that moment.

This got me wondering…

Asana, the physical practice of yoga can be done almost anywhere.  Many people have a home/self practice.  Often this route of practice demands more from the practitioner – such as choosing when to practice, deciding on the postures and sequence, creativity etc.  There is limited room for apathy.  Instead, there the presence of self-direction and discipline.

More frequently, people can be found at yoga and fitness studios.  People choose this in comparison to a home practice for a number of reasons – and I would like to place emphasis on two: a) to immerse themselves in classroom environment where motivation is increased within a collective experience, and b) people have an opportunity to focus on directions provided by a teacher.  After a busy day at work where one may be consistently bombarded with problem solving and decision-making, having a yoga experience that is directed and feels healthy could be refreshing.  This certainly may serve a number of people – and with no intent of diminishing that experience I invite you to consider this…

Many of those work day decisions were most likely externally focused – based upon factors separate and outside a person’s inner environment, decisions grounded in intellectual and logical reasoning.

What would the experience be – a person who has been making externally based decisions all day long, comes to a class that invites them to look inward to make choices based on what their bodily sensations were telling them?

Would this send them running in the other direction – too tired to look inward and ‘think’?

Would it strengthen their ability to make effective externally based decisions?

Could it contribute to expanding a practice of ahimsa (non violence), on and off their mat?

I make this distinction because within a TSY oriented class, choice is based upon looking within.  As options are provided, students are invited to choose an adaption of a form that feels most comfortable for them.  This supports the enhancement of self awareness, making decisions based upon bodily sensations – a foreign experience for a complex trauma survivor who’s power to make choices may have been significantly limited, and in order to survive, they tactfully disconnected and dissociated from any bodily sensations and emotions.

Challenging?

Challenging!

The journey of strengthening one’s capacity for making choices can be a matter of life and death for a trauma survivor – therefore the journey of incorporating yoga into their pathway of recovery is a testament to one’s resilience.

All this being said, going inward and exercising the practice of enhancing self-awareness is challenging, even for a person who does not have a traumatic past –

So consider if your “choosing muscles” could use some exercise, and if so – the internal or external pathways?

Link

ARTICLE: Reclaiming Joy by Dearbhla Kelly

This article ‘Reclaiming Joy’ offers some interesting and accessible perspectives on how yoga supports recovery from trauma.  The author provides some neuro-scientific explanations to offer empirical proof – which in the contemporary western world, scientific evidence has become the new truth – therefore strengthening the yoga platform amongst professional service and health care providers.  As I engage in research on trauma and recovery, neuroscience and PTSD, mindfulness and yoga – the threads that weave the fabric pieces together are becoming more apparent.

This weekend I will be teaching a trauma-sensitive yoga class – and in the past two weeks have spent much time with David Emerson discussing the relationship between trauma, yoga, and teaching yoga to complex trauma survivors.  The article I posted, discusses benefits a yoga practice can offer to someone striving to overcome trauma, however there is no discussion about teaching trauma-sensitive yoga.

Yoga studios are in abundance throughout North American cities, classes take place within community centers and a variety of settings – and within these classes, many students will be recovering from a traumatic event or a history of trauma – and in rare occasions, the yoga teacher may learn a student is suffering from PTSD.  More frequently, yoga teachers are unaware of their student’s histories.  All this being said, students who have a history of trauma participating in a studio class will often benefit from the experience, and many will not due to being triggered…and, depending on the complexity of a person’s trauma, attending a yoga studio class may not even be an option.

So how can we create an environment that may be more attainable and safer for someone recovering from trauma to access?

There are techniques that yoga teachers can begin to incorporate into their classes to make them more accessible for trauma survivors.  These techniques not only support people to feel more in control of their body and choices, but offer opportunities for new neuro-pathways to establish that contribute to the person’s path of recovery.

To learn more about these techniques – read ‘Overcoming Trauma through Yoga’ by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper.

Searching but not finding, compared to being ever present!

Soundtrack to this blog – Searching by Blackalicious

I just finished a course on the precepts (yama’s) of yoga with Michael Stone and timing is everything!  I’m sure that no matter when I chose to do this course, it would align with life – but I can’t deny the incredible parallel process that emerged from the experience of slowing down to participate more fully in the intimacy of life!

I have a dear friend who often reminds me – “the struggle is the blessing” – a line in the song ‘Searching’ that stands out for me over and over again (as well as many other lines)!!

…And in this day and age, I realize that slowing down really is an art, a practice that requires conscious action because…even if we are simply sitting, being, breathing – we are in action.

Within the searching – I now understand that if I slow down enough, no longer is there a need to search…instead there is listening, watching, feeling…everything is already present!

The first precept is Ahimsa – nonviolence, non-harm.

The first exercise we had to do was sit face to face with our partner, a stranger for me, and answer the question – how do you kill?…and answering the question involved speaking for 20 minutes without interruption to your partner as they listened!  Well, firstly…it sure took a few minutes to get past the ego to authenticity!  What an incredible exercise of vulnerability and how amazing it was to hear and be heard!  I have been engaging with a sitting practice daily, and to witness the responsibility within non-harm is incredible.  It’s near impossible to truly live a life of non-harm to anything on this planet but to exercise an awareness is possible!  Stone (2009) argues,

industrialism is such an all consuming impulse that it’s hard to think outside the box.  In fact we have interiorized the aspects of industrial materialism to the extent that we treat our bodies as resources that should keep up with the impossible pace of increased productivity.  The body, however, just can’t keep up.  We tend to forget that we – our bodies – are nature.  The way we control and repress our own bodies and feelings is reflected in our treatment of other life.” (p. 64)

Meditation, yoga, ceremony…these practices and way of life support ecological intimacy within our bodies and soul.  There are so many layers to life in which we expose ourselves to harm – yet choosing to slow can down provide us with the experience of being present to the ecological system that we are, engaging in the intimacy of each moment.

I am present to the responsibility I have to slow down, to be present, to understand non-harm and so much more in order to sustain life on this planet.

Consider how does an awareness of your body contribute to the health of our biosphere, Mother Earth?

Stone, M. (2009).  Yoga for a World out of Balance: Teachings on Ethics and Social Action. Boston, USA: Shambhala Publications.

Yoga and Trauma.

I have been interested in the path of Yoga as a tool for dealing with a traumatic event for sometime now.  There has been an exploration of yoga being used for veterans dealing with post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) as a tool to subside the symptoms for a number of years.  The article hyper linked in the previous sentence, shared with me by Sarah Wade, provides an example of yoga applied in this setting.

I decided to explore yoga as a tool for dealing with traumatic events a bit further – to investigate peer reviewed literature that was researching yoga in international humanitarian relief situations ie: post natural disaster or violent conflict.   The intention behind the research was to consider yoga as a practice method within international settings.

As anything goes within an international development context – different practices are controversial due to the nature of relief coming from both external and internal sources – and yoga could only be considered indigenous to India, Sri Lanka or some other countries in East Asia.  Therefore, controversy remains within this suggested practice method – yet uncertainty and controversy resides within the international sphere and any mental health practices…

So explore for yourself…

I discovered some interesting findings – both positive and important things to consider – most importantly, ensuring the practice method is causing no harm!

I constructed a website to share my findings.  You can view it at ‘Yoga ~ Considering a Collective Practice Method’.

If you have any feedback, comments or stories – I would love to hear back! Discussion is welcomed!