Trauma Sensitive Yoga: breathing the walking wounded, part 3

breath + movement = roots

Psychologist Babette Rothschild has said:

“Breath is a reminder of trauma. Sensory messages from muscle and connective tissue that remember a specific position, action, or intention can be sources of triggers. Accelerated heart rate and increased respiration can be implicit reminders of that same reaction that accompanied the trauma.”

As we talked about the breath during the training, I thought about how fortunate I am to have studied directly in the Krishnamacharya lineage — studying with Srivatsa Ramaswami, Desikachar, Mark Whitwell, and lately with Gary Kraftsow.  They all studied with Krishnamacharya and Krishnamacharya’s yoga is all about linking breath with movement.  This aspect is crucial in teaching trauma sensitive yoga.

Donna Farhi has said that “breath is a dynamic system that most of the time runs on automatic, allowing input from internal organs to mange the rate and depth of breathing.”

Trauma is stored in the body and body memories can override thinking.  Breath is the doorway to the nervous system — trauma survivors have layers of physiological defenses in place that serve as psychological infrastructure and protection from implicit memories.  Removing these defenses too quickly can result in significant destablization.

Hearing this I thought about the yoga classes I’ve taken where pranayama is indiscriminately taught, seemingly for no purpose other than to fill space in the class (this is my experience, your mileage may vary.)  I became more aware of this after I returned from studying at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram the first time.

In that lineage yoga practice is asana-pranayama-meditation.  I remember being in a class after my return and the first thing the teacher did was kapalabhati breathing — no explanation, no instruction, just do it.  It was very jarring (I started but did not finish) and I thought…HUH?   Does this teacher know everyone’s dosha in the first place to be doing this?   If it did not feel at all right to my system, an experienced practitioner, I could only imagine what it felt like to the ones who were brand new to yoga in this class.

If you’ve read the first two parts of this series, you’ll know where I am going with this.  Breathing — just doing it or hearing the breath of another student — can be a PTSD trigger for trauma survivors.  Ujayi breath can be very scary; techniques such as kapalabhati and breath retention are out of the question in a trauma sensitive yoga class.

Trauma sensitive breathing should always be performed in the context of a muscular, physical form (asana) to facilitate grounding and present moment experience.  The movements are always initiated by the inhale or the exhale, because breath alone can trigger PTSD.

What are some breath practices for a trauma sensitive yoga class?  Simple breath awareness (constant attention to the breath); “add a little” breath; emphasizing breathing through the nose because some trauma survivors breath through their mouths; nadi shodana; and ratio breathing, i.e., different counts for the inhale/exhale.

The bottom line is helping people notice when their breath changes, helping them notice the quality of their breath so they can notice their experience in the present moment. Mindfulness. Just this, just here, just now.

As you may have determined, with so many PTSD triggers, being trauma sensitive in a “regular” group yoga class would prove difficult.  Although a trauma survivor may really want to experience yoga, the thought of walking into a public yoga class might be too challenging, too scary.  In his book Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga, our teacher Dave Emerson wrote about the experiences of trauma survivors in public yoga classes.  One woman said that just the experience of a teacher walking up to her slowly and silently as the woman was in child’s pose was enough to make her run out and never return.  She did not feel safe at all.

Creating a yoga class exclusively for PTSD or trauma survivors creates community, a sangha.  We were advised not to do this work in a vacuum, but to connect with a mental health professional, a VA center, a domestic violence shelter, among others.  We were also advised not to work privately with students because of safety issues.  I feel confident enough to work privately with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, but I might not feel secure with others, it would depend on the situation.  I am using The Trauma Center’s protocols in working one-on-one with TS students: (1) the student must also be working with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional so we can work together as a team; (2) the student must continue taking their medication, if any; (3) the student must not have been hospitalized for any psychological issues within the last six months; (4) there can be no active psychosis.

At the start of our training, the question was raised: how must yoga in America change if 80% (according to a collection of research) of the population have experienced or witnessed trauma?  Trauma is defined by Dr. van der Kolk as being inescapable stress, heightened alertness (constant hyperarousal), or helplessness in response to an event.  Some responses to these states are detachment/disconnection from the body, self, or social relationships; insomnia; fight or flight responses; depression; chronic pain; constant intrusive thoughts; consistent feelings of anger and shame; substance abuse.

We were asked: do we need to return to a “simpler way” of yoga?

This training was one of the most influential trainings I’ve taken in my 10 years of teaching.  I hope I have helped both yoga teachers and trauma survivors in this three part series.

Krishnamacharya said that breath is central to yoga because it is central to life…and yoga is about life.  Trauma is a part of life, but we do not have to allow it to define us.  Yoga is about replacing old negative patterns with new positive ones, one step at a time.

Just this. Just here. Just now.

the dharma of doo-doo

It always does my heart good when I hear a student talk about how yoga has helped them in their life. Most of the realizations I’ve heard are more about the non-physical than the physical, things on a deeper level than achieving an arm balance or handstand. I sit back and say to myself (or sometimes out loud), yes, they get it, someone has been paying attention!

I’ve always said that yoga is about life so what better teaching than a pile of dog doo-doo in the middle of a bike path.

A few weeks ago I had told my students that at Will Kabat-Zinn’s retreat he had talked about how one little thought can create our reality in a second. For example, we’re walking down the street and we pass someone, we assign the word “creepy”, and our mind instantly creates an entire story about that person, we create an entire world around that person. Will said, “you never know what someone else’s story is.” In other words, just as the Buddha taught, be on the lookout as to how your thoughts create your reality.

Then on Saturday morning during the yin part of our practice I read excerpts from Sarah Powers’ chapter in Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections Between Yoga & Buddhism.

Sarah wrote about how embroiled she became in her emotions as she laid in bed bathed in sweat from the heat. She said she became “utterly intolerant of my experience and before I knew it, I was defiantly standing, almost expecting I would encounter an enemy lurking.” Sarah said that as she simply watched her intense emotions she became aware of how her angst effortlessly slipped away and how she began to feel calm and present. She was astonished at how a strong emotion can decompose as she mindfully turned her attention inward to her direct experience in the moment. Her next moment was no less fiery, but her inner attitude had shifted. Her experience of the sweltering heat had changed simply because her attention had shifted from resistance to mindful observation.

As my students were in sphinx post one of them told the story of how she was walking her favorite path and she experienced what Sarah experienced: the shift from rage to mindful observation of her fiery emotions:

“On my first lap I just missed stepping in some dog poop in the middle of the paved walking path that circled my neighborhood park. I was enraged that someone would let their dog defecate on the walkway without cleaning it up and assumed it came from the large dog being walked by a woman I had just passed going in the opposite direction a few minutes earlier. I spent the rest of my first lap feeling irritated and blaming this woman for not cleaning up after her dog.

When I got to that same spot during my second lap, I still felt irritated and decided dogs should not be allowed in the park.

On my third lap I began to wonder whether or not the poop had perhaps been there for several hours, which would then exonerate the dog currently in the park as well as his owner. My irritation began to dissipate.

On the fourth lap I realized I had no way of knowing if it was this woman’s dog that had made the mess, so I really couldn’t blame her. I didn’t think anymore about it as I finished the lap.

On the fifth lap, I reminded myself there was poop on the walk but it no longer upset me. An oncoming jogger and I smiled at each other was we both sidestepped the mess.”

After my student told her story I clapped and thanked her for sharing this marvelous teaching. “You get it!,” I told her, “You’ve no idea how this does my heart good, thank you for listening all these years!” I asked if she felt these emotions in her body — Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness. Yes, she said. I told her that ultimately on the fifth lap she experienced Buddha’s Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, mindfulness of the dharma, i.e., the nature of reality which is impermanence — all things change. Her feelings of rage at the dog poop in the middle of the bike path during the first lap had changed to feelings of neutrality by the fifth lap. My student’s thoughts on first seeing the dog poop and then a woman and her dog had created her reality and her own suffering. If we are paying attention we notice how all things are temporary. That’s awakening, and it comes slowly but surely.

I said, “See how our thoughts create our reality? You created your own suffering all because of a pile in the middle of the path.” I asked whether she would have noticed these subtle shifts of consciousness if this had happened before she started a yoga and mindfulness practice. Her answer was no.

Yoga is Life. All things are a training. Even a hot steaming mess in the middle of your Path.

guest blogger Barry Wadsworth on "Yoga as Mindfulness Practice – A Buddhist Perspective"

Many of you know that my yoga practice is informed by Buddhism. I am unable to treat my physical yoga practice as anything other than a moving meditation or mindfulness practice. I have studied the buddhadharma for so long with various teachers in both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions that I think it’s ingrained in my DNA by now! Yoga is my meditation and vice versa. In some of my workshops I’ve started to incorporate dharma talks on Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness as they apply to the physical yoga practice.

Most yoga teacher trainings (at least the ones with which I am familiar) do not speak much of Buddhism (even though Buddha was most definitely a yogi) which is why I was so glad I found the first Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock in California. It was finally a training that spoke to my entirety and I am blessed to have been part of the first training with such wonderful teachers in both classical yoga and Western Buddhism.

I see no conflict with my Buddhism and my traditional yoga training in India at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram and with Srivatsa Ramaswami. It’s all good and each enhance the other as far as I am concerned.

Vinyasa krama is what I have studied with Ramaswamiji since 2004 and it is the yoga style that I primarily use for my own practice (combined with yin yoga) and with private clients. According to Ramaswamiji, vinyasa krama yoga is an ancient practice of physical and spiritual development, and is a systematic method of practicing and adapting yoga for the individual. Krama is a Sanskrit word meaning “stages.” It is a step-by-step process involving the building in gradual stages toward a “peak” within a practice session. This progression can include asanas of increasing complexity or gradually building one’s breath capacity. In his book The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, Ramaswamiji says that “by integrating the functions of mind, body, and breath. . .a practitioner will experience the real joy of yoga practice. . .Vinyasa krama yoga strictly follows the most complete definition of classical yoga.”

So I was glad to “meet” Barry Wadsworth when he made me an administrator of the Vinyasa Krama group on Facebook. He has just completed Ramaswamiji’s 200 hour vinyasa krama teacher training and is also Buddhist so we had a lot to talk about. Our Facebook conversation about yoga and Buddhism morphed into his writing here…enjoy!

For those of you who would like to explore classical yoga with a true yoga master who studied with Krishnamacharya for over 30 years, Ramaswamiji will be teaching in Chicago during September.

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“For Buddhists, the practice of yoga asanas as a method of mindfulness practice is especially meaningful. Although some traditional yoga teachers emphasize mindfulness of breathing in synchronization with the breath, the Buddhist context of using bare attention to penetrate the moment as a means to realization is not as emphasized or is missing. During Chan and Vipassana practice, especially on retreats, slowing down all activity to the point that you can peer into its very nature is essential and can lead to a very direct experience of impermanence and self-nature. This understanding and emphasis coupled with the practice of yoga asanas is particularly useful.

In the Yoga Sutras, there is the concept of uninterrupted, moment-to-moment one pointedness or focus. But the goal there is not realization of self-nature in the Buddhist sense, but realization of individual self (atman) as distinct from the citta vrittis. Of course, this is where Buddhism departs, with an emphasis on there not being an independently existing person, self, or soul.

Practicing yoga has been a kind of experiment for me. Can a practicing Buddhist practice yoga in such a way that the fundamental truths of Buddhism, suffering, impermanence, and no self (anatma), are not distorted or lost? I think the answer is definitely yes, but it requires a clear understanding of the differences in addition to the similarities of the two traditions. Otherwise, it becomes a confusing melting pot that doesn’t do justice to either tradition. For me, the goal is not Patanjali’s dualistic realization of individual self as distinct from phenomena and Universal Self (Purusha of Isvara). It’s also not Shankara’s non-dualistic realization that self is Brahman. Rather, it’s the complete liberation from attachment to any notion of self. Once self is removed from the picture, perception is pure and everything is seen just as it is. This is true, unimpeded and boundless liberation. When the experience of self is lost, perception pivots on itself and myriad things sing in harmony with all other things, infinitely correlated, perfect and complete. Any clinging to “self” collapses this perfect harmony, the natural state of things, to self and other, internal and external, interesting and uninteresting, good and bad, mine and not mine.

One might say that one who experiences “aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahman) also experiences this same non-dualistic reality and is not impeded by attachment or aversion to anything since everything is experienced as Self. Yet Buddha’s awakening specifically had the characteristic of going beyond an eternal notion of self, even Universal Self, as the highest enlightenment. According to Buddhist sutras, as long as there is any identification with self, one is still trapped in the cycle of birth and death and not completely liberated. The wisdom of knowing the truths of suffering, impermanence, and no self engenders compassion for all sentient beings and frees one to act completely for the benefit of others, without regard to self. I’ve seen this selflessness in my Shifu, Chan Master Sheng Yen and in my Vipassana master, Ven. Chanmyay Sayadaw. They both have the quality of being completely present and available, fully there for you with no distraction, when you talk with them. Your ego could even get puffed up with the feeling that you were the most important person in the world to them at that particular moment. But, they also had the compassionate ability to deflate the ego when the time was right. I’ve noticed the same quality in the Dharma heirs of Master Sheng Yen and some of Chanmyay Sayadaw’s disciples and lay students — fully present, awake and clear, penetrating, insightful, patient, and compassionate. I noticed the same qualities in the Dalai Lama. The world needs more saints like these!

For Buddhists and non-Buddhists, practicing yogasanas with mindfulness can be very beneficial in developing a very direct perception, a bare awareness of space, time, motion and sensation. Deepening this experiences enables the silence of meditation to stabilize in daily activity and bring about moment-to-moment penetrating focus along with awareness unbound by the environment. The union of Buddhist understanding with mindful practice of yogasanas is particularly beneficial. I’m very glad to hear of courses being taught, such as those at Spirit Rock, that have this focus. This is bound to improve the overall landscape of Yoga as it is taught in the West.”

Read more at Barry’s blog Chan Practice.

pruning out the deadwood


photo ©Loba Landscapes, 2009

An oldie but a goodie that I think is appropriate for this time of the year….

Making Room for New Growth

Whenever I talk on mindfulness meditation (or mindfulness training as I call it now) I always throw out these questions:

how many of you are working on automatic pilot? are you so comfortable that you have become numb to the present moment?

“How much pruning do you need to do in your life? Are you strong enough to cut the deadwood out of your life no matter how painful it is?”


addthis_pub = ‘yogagal60510’;

be here now


DeKalb Chronicle photo Eric Sumberg

Campus Horror

“What is known about the gunman late Thursday is that he was an NIU sociology graduate student in spring 2007, said Peters, who added that the gunman apparently has no police record and there was no known motive for the shootings as of Thursday evening.”

I was not at NIU but I had yoga students who were upset because they have friends at NIU. Even though I did not directly experience this tragedy it has still affected me. I keep thinking about the looks on the faces of the students who came in late to class and said, “there’s been a shooting at Northern. my friends….” I have never seen so much fear in someone’s eyes before.

DeKalb is down the road from the community college where I teach. the yoga studio where I teach is in a small town that is literally across the street from DeKalb.

The area is corn and soybean country, farm country, it’s about as Midwestern fresh-faced as you can find. many of these kids are still innocent about the world, they aren’t tough Chicago kids like I was growing up. many of them are farmers’ kids.

A friend in India told me that the story even made the International Herald Tribune, he had already read about it last night before I wrote about it here. I always laugh when people ask me, “aren’t you afraid to go to India by yourself?” Let me tell you: I feel safer being alone in an Indian village than I do in America. I feel safer being on the streets of Chennai at 2 AM than I would being in Chicago at 2 AM. Every time I go to India, when someone asks me what country I’m from and I tell them, more times than not I am asked whether I own a gun. This is the image that America has even in a remote Indian village.

The reality is that the same thing can very easily happen at the school where I teach. maybe somebody did not like the grade I gave them and they’ll walk into my class, look at me and say “I GOT YOUR YOGA RIGHT HERE, BITCH” and start blasting. Buddha taught that death is certain, the time of it is not. our lives can change in a split second as many people found out yesterday in DeKalb. yet we live our lives as if we will never die.

Tragedies like this always bring home to me how important it is to live in the present moment, to be mindful and to live mindfully. thinking back on yesterday I recall how before I taught my class I went to my department’s office to make copies of some handouts. two department secretaries were in the room complaining about one thing after another — how the hot water in the sink was not hot enough, how the faucet in the sink was loose, how someone on campus did not respond fast enough to a secretary’s email. it was a constant barrage of negativity and I could not wait to leave that room. I remember thinking, man, if they complain about that stuff, how do they handle the really big events in their lives? most of the stuff that we think is important really isn’t in the grand scheme of things.

The other night I read excerpts from this article by Phillip Moffitt to my private students. I loved what he said at the end of the article:

“Looking back over your life, how many weeks, months, even years have you wasted anguishing over something you didn’t get from a parent, a spouse, or in life? Did all that anguish serve you, or would it have been more skillful to have received fully the experience of the loss, accepted it as what is, and then allowed your emotions to go on to experience what is possible in the present moment? More importantly, are you still caught in an endless cycle of wanting mind, imagining that it is the next accomplishment, change in relationship, or piece of recognition that will make you happy? Pay the boatman at the river of loss and sorrow his three rupees and cross over to the other shore. Your life is here, now.”

Be present. Be here now. Be love. Be peace.

peace
shanti
salaam aleikum
so shall it be