Conversation with Modern Yogis: Reclaiming the Body and Healing After Trauma

Reclaiming the Body and Healing After Trauma

August 14, 2015    BY Melanie Klein and Amanda Huggins

The yoga landscape is rapidly shifting as more and more individuals and organizations are engaged in efforts to diversify representations of yoga and yogis; to create safe, accessible, and welcoming spaces for every body and delve into constructive and critical dialogue related to these issues. The Conversations with Modern Yogis discussion series seeks to address these issues and engage local yoga communities and beyond. The series was inspired by Zubin Shroff's recent book by that name and was first initiated by Shroff and Piedmont Yoga in Oakland, CA. The conversations aren't always easy but are necessary in building solidarity and conscious community. 

Through honest, compassionate, and thoughtful actions, we strongly believe that we can make room for individual and collective healing and transformation.

The Yoga and Body Image Coalition has expanded this series in partnership with Shroff and Piedmont Yoga, seeing it as a necessary and vital step in shaping "yoga culture" moving into the future. Through honest, compassionate, and thoughtful actions, we strongly believe that we can make room for individual and collective healing and transformation. Recently, the Yoga and Body Image Coalition debuted the first panel in this ongoing series, Reclaiming the Body and Healing After Trauma, at the Yoga Collective in Venice, CA, as one of those actions.

Yoga and Body Image Coalition leader Dr. Thalia González led an engaging discussion on how yoga can help assist those who have experienced any form of trauma. The discussion, which included four panelists and approximately 40 yogis in attendance, created an open forum to analyze where trauma, yoga, and the reformation of the body situate within the personal narrative of who we are as yogis.

"Trauma" is a word that manifests entirely different emotions and experiences in different people. It's subjective, but at the same token is experienced at a universal level: trauma does not discriminate based on age, race, gender, or any other visceral or physical variable. As yogis, we cannot consciously teach or practice yoga without acknowledging that our peers, our community members, and even ourselves, may need to be treated with an even more elevated level of gentility and compassion.

Trauma can quickly become a defining factor in one’s identity. Panelist Kyra Haglund, a yoga teacher, clinical social worker, and Somatic Experiencing practitioner points out that trauma is more than psychological, it’s physiological. Haglund states, “It can become your identity.” Panelist and Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Dr. Melissa Mercedes Büttner agrees and states, “Often people who have experienced trauma become consumed by the traumatic experience and disengaged from other aspects of their life.”

Our intention within the yoga community, as teachers and practitioners, should be to help bridge and/or support any existing disconnects, bringing authentic connections back to life.

Victims often toe the fine line between attachment and detachment every day: an overwhelming feeling of being defined by the traumatic event, coupled with an indifference toward new or existing experiences. Haglund points out, “Trauma is a breach of our boundaries, our borders, our emotions, our psyche—it is an all-encompassing experience. This is why yoga is so important. It's an outlet for us to be able to work every day at recreating a place safety and back up the mechanisms that help us recover and remain strong moving forward.” Our intention within the yoga community, as teachers and practitioners, should be to help bridge and/or support any existing disconnects, bringing authentic connections back to life. 

More often than not, trauma is coupled with shame—a traumatic experience can make victims feel like there’s something wrong with them, that they’re not worthy or deserving beings. Shame makes it difficult to acknowledge or accept the reality of an experience, and may leave them yearning for a safe space to digest their surroundings.

Yoga can be that safe space; an outlet to let students know that trauma is okay, acknowledging it is okay, and dealing with it is okay. Still, the practice needs to be approached delicately so as not to be overly affronting. Students must be approached with even more love and compassion than usual in order to feel like they’re in a safe enough space to begin dealing with their experiences.

But how does one begin to create that safety net for students? As panelist Raja Michelle, founder and executive director of Green Tree Yoga Meditation, says, it boils down to using universal language: “Rather than creating an environment of separation, unify with love, breath, and relaxation. Practice is a natural place of acceptance, so when things do come up, the first thing to do is own your own presence in the moment with loving language, which helps to create a safer environment for your class. Allowing yourself and your fellow yogis to simply be—wherever they’re at—is okay!” 

Owning and acknowledging your own presence is imperative. Rarely will we have experienced the same type of trauma as our peers or students. Compassionately acknowledging that point of differentiation is a step towards building greater trust with victims of trauma. It’s okay to say, "I can’t fully understand what you’ve been through, but I’m here for you." Calmly holding your own space, remaining grounded, centered, and non-reactive will help to create the connection and the safety net that these students need. 

Owning and acknowledging your own presence is imperative.

When you haven't experienced, and thus don't embody the trauma your students or peers may have gone through, leverage the language of permission: For example, offer options like "If it's comfortable for you, close your eyes," rather than "Close your eyes." That way, you're telling a student they have a choice in every single thing they do in class—with past traumatic events, choice was often not present. Beyond just what we say, we also need to take into consideration how we say it: tone, pace, and authenticity are so necessary in creating the groundwork for a room of trust and to make connections at a very real, human level.

In many cases, victims of trauma may not be ready to practice yoga—asana may be too affronting and could cause a new yogi to shut down. In these cases, it’s important to meet people where they are. There are other ways to incorporate aspects of yoga into healing without forcing the practice on anyone. Beyond just the physical practice of asana, building community is key for making this modality of healing more accessible.

Dana Byerlee, yoga teacher and survivor of breast cancer, suggests encouraging victims of trauma to explore the softer side of asana: “It's beautiful to explore the more subtle practices of yoga: meditation, guided meditation…the softer counterparts of the more physical work. In my own practice, I've found that a softer practice has allowed me to really create a judgment-free space for healing.” Every yogi and every victim of trauma moves at a different pace—find what that pace is, and meet students where they are. 

Ultimately, the art of healing through yoga is simply the act of recognizing the human dignity within everybody. Transformation is collective. It is upon each and every one of us to drive transformation forward by the way we move in the world, whether it’s because we were able to reclaim our own selves after trauma, or because we were able to help others reclaim their awareness.

It is upon each and every one of us to drive transformation forward by the way we move in the world.

Stay tuned for details on the next Conversations with Modern Yogis event in Venice, CA, on Saturday, September 12, where we'll explore accessibility, inclusivity, and cultural appropriation.

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Amanda Huggins is an active partner with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and is deeply passionate about spreading yoga inclusivity. She's an L.A.-based digital media strategist at VaynerMedia, power yoga teacher, and sunshine seeker. 

Melanie Klein and Amanda Huggins
Melanie Klein, M.A., is a writer, speaker, and Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Santa Monica College. She is a contributing author in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice and is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body, and co-founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. Twitter: @feministfatale

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