The very first time I taught yoga, I blacked out. I vividly remember the moment I caught the supportive gaze of a friend as I cued chair pose. In that moment I descended into tunnel vision and my arms became numb. I began to shake and sweat profusely as my heartbeat drowned out the sound of my own voice. To others it was casually dismissed as self-doubt and lack of confidence. I was encouraged to “teach through it.” Deep down, I knew that it was something more. I just wanted to seem “normal,” so I downplayed the severity of what I was experiencing. In reality, my body had been hijacked. It was beyond my control, and it was something I had been experiencing since early childhood.
My mother died from breast cancer just before my fourth birthday. Although I don’t remember much, I can imagine the confusion and fear that accompanied my mother’s decline and passing. The connection and safety I felt with her was abruptly severed. This trauma was compounded shortly after by the sexual abuse I experienced at the hands of a neighbor. It is said that everything we experience in life lives in the tissues of the body — like muscle memory. Sometimes experiences are fleeting, and other times they’re a bit “stickier.” Trauma is one of those sticky experiences.
Trauma informed yoga teacher and psychotherapist Jocelyn Jenkins describes the response to trauma as “flight, fight or freeze.” She says, “One possible symptom is dissociation and it is not a choice. It’s our body’s way of putting us into self-care auto-pilot.” I met Jenkins when we both attended the same yoga studio. I had no idea that she was a therapist or would become my therapist. It was through weekly therapy with her that I began to make sense of my trauma response.
“Because there isn’t ample education in most yoga communities about PTSD and trauma, the symptoms can often be labeled as something to overcome or push through. This can lead to retraumatization. It can generate intense feelings of guilt and shame for not being able to control one’s body, mind or experience,” Jenkins shares.
As I began connecting with my body’s sensations, I noticed the draw to slow down. I found that in order to feel safe, I needed to physically slow my yoga practice to truly feel each pose. As a teacher I needed space to pause and reconnect with my body. In May of 2016, I attended a yin yoga teacher training with Corina Benner at Mountain Soul Yoga in Edwards, Colorado. Yin yoga focuses on releasing long-held patterns of tension in the body through maintaining muscle relaxation in supported postures. The residue of trauma I had experienced throughout life had manifested physically as muscle tension. As my physical tension eased, I experienced profound emotional release.
During the training I experienced a vivid memory. I recalled waking up from a sun-drenched nap in the bedroom of my childhood home. I felt the warmth of the summer grass on my tiny toes as I ran into my mother’s arms. I melted into her arms as we both laughed. I felt safe. I sobbed on my mat. It was the first time I had felt that way since she passed into spirit. This nurturing style of practice became a way to care for and heal my nervous system, both as a teacher and as a student.
Many of us are drawn to yoga for its healing qualities. It’s important to acknowledge that there is an undeniable presence of trauma survivors in the yoga community. It’s also important to know our limits as teachers and to encourage support from qualified therapists.
Post-traumatic stress has forced me to feel deeply. Although at times its intensity is overwhelming, I no longer push it away. After five years of working with Jenkins on a regular basis, I finally feel validated in my experiences, not only with yoga, but in life as a whole. Today my anxiety is pretty well managed. I practice self-reiki, meditation and yoga regularly. I take a daily dose of Lexapro and continue regular therapy with Jenkins via Skype. I still have challenging days. Sometimes I don’t feel like going outside, so I’ll stay home; I’ll make space for what is showing up and focus on self-care.
The undeniable truth is that each of us bring something unique to our mat. Taking action can mean “doing” less. In order to truly heal we must recognize that our bodies are constantly communicating with us. It is in our best interest to cultivate a deep level of self-care and acceptance of our unique needs. Each time we advocate for ourselves, we advocate for the visibility of trauma survivors in the yoga community. We are students, teachers, healers and so much more. Through owning our experiences, we unite in our resilience. We are in this together.
Photo by Evie S.
Originally published in the Summer + Fall 2020 issue.