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.

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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!

Tis the season for…Habit Energy!

Things have been pretty quiet on this blog lately – when in reality life has been bustling!  Having just finished another semester of graduate school and then bouncing into work, room to breath got put aside!

I had a reality check this week, something I know happens in life and often I can see it coming: I over commit – get exhausted – loose perspective!   I find it so crazy – I’m aware of feeling overwhelmed and filled with information and action, aware that the candle within is dimming due to lack of oxygen…yet habit energy persists!  This time of year is especially known to be full – it’s like this full bubble slowly approaching that feels inevitable, yet there is always choice…and it seems I often choose too much!

One of the commitments right now is a course with Michael Stone looking at the precepts.  We spent the last three weeks engaged in inquiry and exploration of ahimsa – non harm and satya – honesty…! In those times of being a witness and striving to integrate and practice these two precepts, habit energy persisted and appeared to get stronger when striving to open and redirect the patterns.  The interesting part was having a subtle awareness of habit energy, yet choosing to live into it because I did not have the space for attention to live with clear intentions.

And honestly – I know practice can become habit too.  I have seen it within…that sense of routine, even boredom has crept in!  And the lesson that came up was, pay attention.  It seems simple – to notice and have attention so I can be mindful of my choices, mindful that this “habit” is causing no harm and coming from an honest and authentic place.

Attention resides within intimacy and intimacy rides upon my breath that returns to attention.  Maybe it’s this spiral of awareness that will crack my codes of habit energy…I think the spiral is a powerful natural design that carries that wisdom of this planet within it, so maybe it can serve in this situation…

…but the most important ingredient is – s p a c e .

If I draw a spiral on a piece of paper, I would not see a spiral if it wasn’t for the space between the circles.  If there was no space, it would just look like a blob or a coloured in circle on a page.  So in order to see a spiral – on a page or in nature – there needs to be space for light and colour, shadow and texture to show up.

Yoga contributing to social change?

Yoga contributing to social change.

Yoga as a tool for social change.

A revolution beginning in the heart…

A revolution expanding into communities and beyond…

For many years I have been tumbling these thoughts around my mind, rounding out the edges of ideas, massaging the questions, and observing…

The west continues to tighten its grip on ‘yoga’ – stretching the imagination of classical Yogi’s in India.  The practice reaches across a broad spectrum of possibilities in present day culture.  Many people are drawn to yoga for a diverse spectrum of reasons…and westerners continue to flock to studios to catch the craze!  All generations are exploring the practice, from little people experimenting with their flexible young bodies, to the elderly aiming to soften the edges of aging.  The practice is not limited to any one ethnicity or cultural background.

The invitation is out for anyone who is curious to move, breath and observe…or embrace the stillness – all qualities of the natural order of life.  The dharma.

Prisoners are practicing.  Seniors.  Under-served youth. Veterans.  Survivors of life threatening illnesses.  Injured bodies.  Those with damaged minds.  Those with hurt hearts.  Those wanting to participate in life…and so many more…

All this being said – if we look to the beginning of the eight-limbed path of Patanjali’s yoga, we return to the restraints and observances…the ethics and morals possible to integrate into everyday life.

So what could be possible if those named above or those who went to simply stretch, get fit, exercise, socialize, move, breath…invited a curiosity investigate – why yoga?

What if their practice deepened into an inquiry of their expressions, postures, breath – into the layers of restraints and observances…compassion, truth, and integrity that reside within?

AND –

What if the looking inward at all the layers of gifts, manifested outward into community and daily life?

Could yoga contribute to social change?

Could yoga be a tool for social change?

Could yoga start a revolution beginning in the heart?

Could this revolution expand into communities and beyond…?

With the practice touching so many lives and integrating into western culture – anything is possible!  Right!?

Strive for the impossible, for what was once impossible is now possible!

November = shoulder season!

How did it get to be November!!?  A month considered the shoulder season in Canada – unpredictable weather, not quite enough snow to play in and a wide range of temperatures making it hard to plan outdoor adventures.

So if moving in synchronicity with the season, sticking close to the biorhythms of Canada’s shoulder season – then perhaps it’s a good month to explore shoulder stands and inversions?!!

All kidding aside – within western context, shoulder stands and inversions aim to improve circulation and promote metabolic balance within the body.  We spend our days standing and walking, allowing the predictable pull of gravity to do its work on our musco-skeletal structures, fluid, and energetic layers.  Taking time to turn the body upside down stimulates our nervous system and supports the increase of mental alertness and clarity.  In yogic philosophy, inverting the body supports the flow of energy through our central meridian.  In anatomical terms, the central channel connects to neurological pathways linking to our endocrine system – inversions support balance and irrigation of these pathways.

…And an inversion can be done at any time…you don’t have to warm up for a restorative moment!  At the end of a long day in my head or on my feet, I often return home to a few minutes with my feet up against a wall, my back resting on the ground, arms out stretched!

During a time of year than can be dreary with lots of cloud and rain, temperatures dropping, we begin to turn inward.  A simple posture to reawaken a foggy mind or tired feet can be a blessing as we transition into winter!