Getting Practical About Ending Suffering

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“Trauma is the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood and untreated cause of human suffering.  When I use the word “trauma,” I’m talking here about the often debilitating symptoms many people suffer in the aftermath of overwhelming experiences…  The field of psychiatric medicine has chosen to view most of the long-term effects of trauma as an incurable disease…  I believe that trauma is not only curable, but that the healing process can be a catalyst for profound awakening, a portal, a door, an opening to emotional and real spiritual transformation. 

Though it is a fact of life, and it is, trauma does not have to be a life sentence.  I have little doubt that as individuals, friends, partners, families, communities and even nations, that we have the capacity to learn how to heal and prevent much of the damage done by trauma, and in doing so we will be able to significantly increase our ability to achieve both our individual and collective dreams.” — Peter Levine in Healing Trauma: Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body 

If what Peter Levine says is true (and most trauma experts agree whole-heartedly), then perhaps all of us interested in the cessation of suffering might perk up our ears. As we will review below, ending suffering is the whole point of the 8-fold Buddhist path as well as the path of Ashtanga Yoga laid out by Patanjali. Sometimes, however, I get the feeling that we are so enthralled by tantra and transcendence, promises of love, light & levitation, or at least getting the leg behind the head, that we fail to understand that most of us have not constructed the most minimal foundations for eliminating the grossest forms of suffering in our lives.

How then, would we expect our efforts on the cushion or mat to be effective? As Peter notes, we greatly underestimate the impact of trauma and its insidious effects on our nervous systems. If we continue to leave these effects untreated, the value of our more subtle work will be lessened, or in fact, we may exacerbate certain kinds of imbalances and form unhealthy relationships that cause us to suffer more rather than less.

If we are honest, we see that many efforts are in fact not working that well, as some of the most “practiced” and “accomplished” teachers and students continue to propagate extreme suffering amongst themselves and others. Granted, these paths are generally thought to work little by little over countless lifetimes, and numerous stories glorify the brutality of certain gurus as catalyzing an enlightenment we aren’t even able to imagine, but nonetheless, what qualities do we really want to manifest in our own lives, and are our practices actually helping us become who we want to be in the world? Are we interacting with people whose qualities we would want to emulate or gawking over people who inspire a sense of other-worldly awe that bears little relevance to our embodied situation?

For those of you who fancy yourselves to be advanced tantric practitioners for whom this world no longer matters in all of its illusoriness and impermanence, you can continue to do your visualizations and just ignore this post. The work I’m talking about is for the rest of us, granted yes, those of us who are able to do the hardest-ever practice of admitting honestly that we are perhaps at an earlier stage on the path, or at least temporarily having to deal with circumstances that require attention outside of our traditional sadhana.

When I hear teachers I consider truly great, they seem to hold all life in high regard and have a keenly developed sense of wisdom and compassion, so I wonder whether some others are missing a certain necessary foundation. There is no use doing advanced practices when you are fundamentally unprepared. Would you put a spire into thin air without the rest of the building? Well you could, but results would be predictably disappointing…

I would like to briefly summarize my own personal story about healing from trauma, but first, let’s just start by reminding ourselves that our starting point is suffering! That is what these practices we are doing purport to alleviate. Almost sounds like a buzz kill… It’s less glamorous than a tight yoga butt or superpower. But actually, there’s a lot of magic in it, and starting where we are doesn’t mean we can’t touch into the mystical. In fact, we have a greater chance to do that when we can be real about our true biological needs and get them met.

In the Four Truths of the Nobles (commentary by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, the Buddha suggests that:

1) Suffering comes along with taking birth: “The obvious aspect of suffering is immediate pain or difficulty in the moment. Subtle suffering is more difficult to recognize because it begins with happiness. But by its very nature this happiness must change because it can’t go on forever.” (I often feel relieved to work with my psychotherapy clients rather than yoga students, because at least they understand the first Noble Truth and are actually looking for ways out.)

2) Suffering has a cause: “The truth of interdependent origination is that if we do unvirtuous actions, we are creating suffering.” (Even if we were to genuinely believe that a certain master’s apparently abusive behavior is intentional and meant for our spiritual development and even if we took something exceedingly valuable from our own experience with such a teacher, there is still no excuse for other students and teachers to perpetuate abuse as happens every single day whether subtle or gross. If that “guru” is truly beyond generating karma, that is exceedingly rare and the rest of us had better be very careful about the seeds we sew at every moment, because there is no way they will fail to come back at us sooner or later.)

3) The cause can be uprooted: “If we abandon unvirtuous actions, we remove the possibility of experiencing suffering in the future… Therefore the Buddha has said that we should give up the causes of karma and the disturbing emotions.” (If you are practicing with a teacher who greatly disturbs your emotions due to gaslighting or other means, it is time to consider whether you are developing “equanimity” and “taming your ego” by trying to ignore your feelings and suppress your gut reactions, or causing yourself a slow trauma train wreck that will surface at some point of stress down the road.)

4) We have methods (the 8-fold path) at our disposal to end future suffering: “correct meditation, correct mindfulness, correct intention, right view, correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood and correct effort.” (I would simply like to add that the Buddha grew up pampered in a palace. If your upbringing was a little different, you might need to do some preparatory work to get to the point where you are able to jump in to these limbs in a meaningful way.)

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Chip Hartranft edition) echo these 4 truths as follows:

II-15) Everything is suffering: “The wise see suffering in all experience, whether from the anguish of impermanence or from latent impressions laden with suffering or from incessant conflict as the fundamental qualities of nature vie for ascendancy.”

II-17) Suffering has a cause: “The preventable cause of all this suffering is the apparent indivisibility of pure awareness and what it regards.”

II-16) Suffering can be ended: “But suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.”

II-29) The 8-limbed (Ashtanga) Path is our method for ending suffering through the development of discriminative awareness (quite different than blind faith): “The eight components of yoga are external discipline, internal discipline, posture, breath regulation, concentration, meditative absorption, and integration.”

Having seen the 4 truths spelled out by Buddha and Patanjali, we can see that Peter has laid out something similar with specific reference to trauma. 1) He calls trauma a fact of life. 2) He implies that the cause (which lies in the nervous system rather than in an external event) is becoming increasingly well-understood. 3) He and others have seen thousands of people heal and blossom from the 4) methods that are currently being developed and refined. So there is hope, even if you have felt like a hopeless case for any number of reasons or started to wonder whether all of your efforts may be futile.

Thrangu Rinpoche in the same exposition I quoted from talks about the necessity of eliminating the grosser obstacles on the path before focusing on the finer details. Patanjali also notes the obstacles to yoga and some suggestions for getting them out of the way, but I believe many of us need more help, help that often gets poo-pooed in spiritual circles.

It’s time for a brief personal anecdote. After twice moving across the world for my yoga teachers and making every effort to practice diligently and well-roundedly over a period of the past 16 years, one of them asked me why my practice wasn’t working (since the “happiness” that he claimed comes as a natural result of the practice wasn’t manifesting in me. In fact, I was severely chronically ill, angry, pathologically depressed, and generally incapable of doing much of anything other than my practice and some minimal teaching). I really wondered why myself, since I believed what I was being fed, something not quite as simplistic but nonetheless along the lines of “Practice and all is coming!”

Well, long story short, having now trained in counseling and specializing in trauma for the past few years and having done quite a bit of shamanic and psychotherapeutic work in addition to my yoga practice in a healing vein, I am now feeling better. The yoga in the form I was engaging would not have sufficed. I would have continued to suffer tremendously (like mega-high-amplitude) and become all the more ill. I would have inadvertently continued to be isolated from the rest of humanity, which would have made all of my afflictions worse.

Know what? I had no idea that I had trauma. I considered myself very fortunate in the grand scheme of things, but lo and behold it turns out my nervous system had perceived a high level of threat for a long time and felt very, very traumatized. (Many people cannot point to a single event or set of aversive circumstances and therefore ignore the possibility that there is trauma stuck in their bodies and attribute their pains to other causes. In fact, as I myself found out AFTER graduating from counseling school and writing my capstone on trauma, my own memory and perception of certain events had been skewed and obscured in a way that makes trauma very slippery to pinpoint for many and very easy to deny in those of us who actually want to take control of our own lives and not sit around feeling fragile and sorry for ourselves).

The idea that our salvation is in our own hands and that we need to walk our own path and the teacher cannot walk it for us is quite unfortunate, as it feeds into our modern pathological individualism, incessant self-blame and pressure towards self-improvement, and desperate need to heal in order to even survive in a hostile economy. While ultimately true and liberating, a greater recognition that the teacher or our community or others around us could walk the path WITH us is direly needed. Indeed, these paths were developed with the expectation that seekers would have intact nervous systems and deep trusting relationships with truly accomplished teachers, conditions that are rarely met in the yoga world today, though I do not exclude the possibility that it could happen, or even deny that there have been times (for which I am inexpressibly grateful) when I have experienced it myself.

While we can dissolve many kinds of samskara/conditioning with pure awareness (if we are in a state where we are able to cultivate that), traumatic conditioning seems to be a special case. When we have been traumatized in relationship to others, we often need others to help us to repair ourselves. This is not a pathetic failure to practice correctly. This is the truth of interdependence, something a lot of spiritual teachers like to give lip service to but seem not to comprehend when they leave us hanging with a bunch of practices to do as if that is all we should need.

That is not all we need. Interpersonal neuroscience demonstrates that our nervous systems need others to co-regulate with in order to develop properly and that even under optimal developmental conditions, various forms of trauma can disrupt these systems to a point beyond what we can fix by a little bit (or a lot) of breathing or posing by ourselves or even with our million Instagram followers. 😉 We are all being bombarded through media with the suffering of an entire world teetering on the brink of disaster. Even when we feel we are on a conscious level cool as a cucumber, there may be parts of us that desperately need reassurance through mindful contact with others.

Hence, all the hype these days about self-regulation, be it in the yoga or therapy realm is really a lot of hooey if you are speaking to somebody with any degree of trauma load, which turns out to be quite a majority given that oppression can cause trauma, not just shell shock, and that trauma is now believed to underly a great majority of mental and physical symptoms and disorders, not to mention how we all have various forms of ancestral trauma that we can see in our genes as well as behaviors… In other words, if you have any kind of problem, consider trauma as a possible underlying factor and investigate whether you are suffering needlessly from it.

There is nothing heroic about suffering, whether it’s torturing yourself with an inadequate or inappropriate yoga practice, mild insomnia or something that seems far more grave. If you can just get rid of it, go ahead. If I had only known sooner, I would have had a very different life. (No regrets per se, like Peter says, it has opened my eyes to worlds I am so grateful to know, but then again, maybe the cost would not have had to have been quite so high… I also do not mean to say that it will be a quick fix. It has taken an extreme investment in my case and is still a work in progress, but some additional relief has come at every stage of intervention.)

So maybe you’re young and fit, love your yoga teacher and are enjoying your life. That is wonderful and please don’t think there is anything wrong with that either. However, if there comes a point where any of this shifts, and you find that what has worked in the past no longer serves you, that is when I hope you will remember that other kinds of help are available.

I do not mean to knock the methods and profound philosophical roots of yoga, which I do trust from my own experience as being extremely powerful under the right circumstances. I still practice and teach them with conviction, but not with the naivety I once did. I have started to see that so many of us need some supplemental work at some point or another.

I felt sooo much shame on my own path, wondering why I needed extra help when I pretty much collapsed after working so hard for so long and gaining so much training and apparent competence. In the end the mantras did less for me than a hug from a person who truly cared for me as a person.

There should be no shame in getting the help you need, and my hope in writing and teaching about trauma is to get the word out so that more people will understand how it is affecting us all, and how we can more skillfully and compassionately work through it and move on to the more subtle suffering that at least at first masquerades as happiness LOL! 😉

To stay up to date with my writings, TIAVY (trauma-informed Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga teacher trainings, private consultations and more, please subscribe to my blog.

Permission to Indulge in a Profound & Healing Practice

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Jiyu supports me in one of my deepest practices in a long while…
Amazing description of an honest and beneficial personal practice by Angela Farmer

About 4 years ago, a therapist recommended that I practice with the sole intention of healing in mind. It’s fascinating to watch how I resisted that for so long, believing that I had so many other goals to simultaneously attend to. Whereas my teachers have always encouraged creativity and intelligent movement, and never pushed the strict routines recommended by most Ashtangis, there was still something in me that felt I had something to prove. I often felt that since I can do a certain level of practice, I should somehow try to maintain or exceed that, at least for a while.

Only now that I have set up my own space and spent years developing a trauma-informed paradigm that validates everything I believe in deep down can I actually fully let go and explore what the benefits are to diving inwards, without caring how it looks and without worrying that my social media following will dwindle. I’m finally at the point where I really don’t care. I see that my 4th series posts usually get twice as many likes, but I’m ready to work with the people (I know you’re out there) who want to work with whatever is available. Some days it may well be advanced series, but that is not the only way to have an “advanced practice.”

Whereas I’ve always incorporated a variety of practices and felt competent about knowing when to implement different techniques, I find that as a trauma survivor who has dealt with chronic illness for over a decade it helps to hear accounts like those of Angela Farmer above. For those who do not know her, she was one of the foremost Iyengar Yoga teachers, but for many years now she has been helping students to tap into their own discrimination and empowerment, which rarely unfolds when following rote sequences at peak difficulty day after day and year after year.

I love how she describes tapping in and listening to places that she would have to gloss over in a more active, rigorous or prescribed practice. It is true that for most of us we continue to hide the most tender spots, even if focusing very intently on internal forms and doing fine work in asana. It’s hard for me to admit, but emotions generally only bubble up for me in restorative work. Even though there have been times when I have felt great ease in whatever series, still some parts of me were perhaps performing rather than showing their vulnerable underbellies. It’s time for me to be a little more honest and let them come out.

I resisted getting a dog or roommate forever thinking they would disturb my routine and my practice, which I was clinging to since it helped me to function while dealing with a disease that made getting through the day virtually impossible for me. Now I realize that (especially with the trauma) I actually desperately needed companionship. Even in restorative poses on my own I was not able to reach anything that was asking for my tenderness. Only with therapists I trust and a couple of very special yoga teachers had I been able to peel away the multiple layers of facade and needing to excel and trying to prove that I’m ok and self-sufficient. Now, I find as in the case above, a warm fuzzy chewing animal putting pressure on my head and a fellow practitioner joining me for some practice creates a more profoundly real quiet and peace than the fake one-pointedness I sometimes felt in other practice situations that I now attribute to mild dissociation.

Angela mentions that her meditation experience is qualitatively different when she allows herself to practice in the way she describes. On the day I shot this video, I also felt a very different kind of stillness. I won’t say I’d never felt it before. In fact, sometimes I have felt tremendous benefit from practicing one or multiple Ashtanga series. It’s really a matter of trusting myself to see what I need on a given day and not falling into the trap that so many Ashtangis believe that this is laziness, or that failing to follow the formula nixes our chances for moksha in any upcoming lifetime. On this day it was clear that the inflammation on the backside of my body would not allow me to breathe deeply even in simple sun salute variations. After some brief standing poses I knew I could actually work more concentratedly laying down, oscillating between different patterns and easing my way inwards.

I am still a big fan of the series and likely will continue to implement them for years to come (or at least parts of them), but I will also be checking in with myself constantly to determine whether something else might be more appropriate and beneficial on any given day. Giving myself more and more of this permission feels like the real deal. It may or may not be glamorous, but I know it’s the real work. It’s the real me taking whatever responsibility I have for my real life. No guru I’ve met has convinced me that they know better than I do about my own state, but those I truly admire have also stepped up to find out what they uniquely can do in themselves to connect to darkness as well as light. There is so much value in the practices we have learned, but the value is in their skillful and compassionate application. I hope that those of us open to exploration will receive the support that allows us to proceed without needless doubt and unwarranted criticism. I hope that more and more brave spaces will pop up for us to look into what is truly possible.

For information about my ongoing retreats and upcoming teacher training at the end of July, please contact me!

Morning Mini-Retreat Update

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Hi Friends, Jiyu and I are so enjoying our morning mini-retreats and hope you can make it to experience a very complete practice, which will then inform any one of the practices you do in the future! We have added options for 2 days/week, a 5-pack, and a single drop-in, depending upon your schedule. Please see full details here.

Jiyu also wants me to let you know that in the cases pictured, the students asked him to do these particular assists. He does not want you to feel that he will be giving paws-on assists without your explicit consent and guidance 😉 After all, we teach TIAVY (trauma informed ashtanga vinyasa yoga)! Looking forward to practicing with you.

Morning Self-Practice Retreats in June & July!

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Get pumped for summer! 😉

INTRODUCTION–

Wishing you could go on a tropical yoga retreat, but have to stay home and work?  Join the club.  Get more benefit and less food poisoning by joining Jiyu (the teacher) and me (your dedicated fellow practitioner) for one or more 5-weekday morning self-practice retreats at our home in Denver!  (Can’t pull off 5 days in a row? Jiyu and I still want you to have a taste of the delicious nectar of this experience, so we have devised drop-in or 5-pack experiences for students we have worked with in the past. We just ask that you thoroughly familiarize yourself with the protocol laid out here so that the flow is not interrupted for those of us already in the groove.)

I was listening to neuroscientist Richie Davidson in an interview lately, and he mentioned how much more potent retreat practice is for making modifications to brain structure and function.  I have felt this on my many extended retreats.  Although we will not be secluding ourselves for long periods, we will nonetheless propel ourselves into full potential mode with this amazing morning routine, providing a combination of the most potent practices plus a warm and friendly community vibe that we feel is essential for most of us to experience optimal benefit. 

The mini-retreats will take place weekdays from Monday June 3rd through Friday July 12th.  Start your day with a brief puja and shamanic invocations to sanctify and empower the space for healing, then dedicated time for kriya and asana, tea with friends, 3 kinds of meditation and pranayama! I have developed this schedule based on recommendations from my principal teachers Richard Freeman, Mary Taylor, Jennifer Hinton & Patrice Bazile as well as my own long-term practice and the scientific research on healing and neuroplasticity.

I am looking so forward to doing this that I am sure it will be my best summer ever! And Jiyu is sure it will be his best yet as well (after all it is his first)! Be prepared to relish some puppy kisses as Jiyu matures in his teaching role. In that regard, his ideas of trauma-informed adjustments are a little different than mine, and once in a while you might end up with a dog and/or bone on your mat, but he gives paws-on assists (like those in the photos) only with your explicit consent and very careful direction! Usually he aids you by his fantastic demonstrations of care-free relaxation. 🙂

DATES–

The 6 available self-practice retreats are Monday-Friday (no moon days observed). If you are not able to make it every day that is up to you, though I would encourage you to think of this as a special opportunity to practice more consistently and intensely than you may normally be able to do. You may sign up for any number of weeks:

  1. June 3-7
  2. June 10-14
  3. June 17-21
  4. June 24-28
  5. July 1-5
  6. July 8-12

DETAILED SCHEDULE–

  • 5:55am Morning Puja
  • 6:00am Pranayama
  • 6:30am Zazen Meditation*
  • 6:45 Metta Meditation*
  • 6:55 Competent Protector Meditation*
  • 7:00 Ashtanga Invocation, Kriya & Asana
  • 8:57am 4-minute Quiet Meditation*
  • 9:01am Utplutih & Group Savasana*
  • 9:15am Closing Chant & Tea with Friends

*Please do not come or go during the silent periods (6:30-7:00 or after 8:55).

PRACTICES–

Morning Puja: We will delineate our sacred space through the invocation of the King of the Nagas, the ultimate support, invite Ganesh to have a seat in our sacred space, and then call in benevolent spirits from the 4 directions and 3 realms to be with us and bring their wisdom, compassion, skillful means, guidance, help, healing and curative energies while we practice together.

Pranayama: If you have been given a breathing practice by a competent teacher, please feel free to do it. If not, you can schedule a private lesson with me live or on Skype to develop one, or you could download Richard Freeman’s Yoga Breathing (2 CD/ MP3 set) onto your phone and bring earphones to do CD 1 or 2 with him. (The first 3 practices take about 30 minutes and would be a great start for anybody who is new to pranayama. You can do them sitting up or laying down.)

Zazen Meditation (15 min): This is seated (or standing if needed) meditation on breath and posture. If you have your own silent meditation practice, you are welcome to do that during this time.

Metta Meditation (10 min): This is compassion meditation, which has the potential to very deeply change our way of relating in the world. If you are familiar with this practice, implement your favorite method. Otherwise a script will be included in the chant download.

Competent Protector Meditation (5 min): This exercise is meant to restore healthy attachment, which is a prerequisite for most all forms of healing. It has been recommended by neuroscientists, trauma therapists and shamanic healers alike. You will visualize a real or imaginary being capable of providing you with protection, support, companionship, wisdom, warmth, and all else that you need. You will bask in the feelings associated with that support in order to retrain the nervous system to feel safe and cared for, which will allow your own innate healing mechanisms and life talents to gain a stronger foothold in this universe.

Kriya & Asana: Kriyas you might want to practice before coming include skin brushing, oil pulling (swishing sesame or coconut oil in the mouth for 5-20min–do NOT swallow!) during your shower (possibly warm with a 30-second cold rinse at the very end to invigorate the nervous system), salt water flush, or while here, kapalabhati and uddiyana bandha kriya… (Need a brush-up or want to learn more? Schedule a lesson with me live or on Skype. For those signed up for a mini-retreat, I am offering a 50% discount on private lessons.)

You will be encouraged to enter finishing postures (following backbending) with 20 minutes remaining. These are some of the most detoxing and rejuvenating postures when we take our time with them. If not inverting, you are of course welcome to do restoratives, etc., just as you are welcome to make the rest of the practice your own. I have slings and every prop I’ve ever seen available for your enjoyment.

We will sit for 4 minutes following the yoga mudra/ujjayi postures prior to utplutih. At this point in the practice it feels most natural to sit quietly. We will then reap the benefits of a nice long savasana.

Tea with Friends (15 min): Time for satsang (spiritual company), a light snack if you want to bring one, and fun with the puppy. I will need to get ready for work by 9:30.

INVESTMENT & REGISTRATION–

Each week will cost $50, or if you want to go all-out, you can sign up for all 6 weeks for the discounted price of $250. There will be no refunds for missed days, and if you register but then cancel within 48 hours of your start date, you will still be responsible to pay for the week. You must register by reading and signing this form by Sunday 12-noon prior to the week you intend to practice in order to ensure that there is room. You will then get the exact address (near Water World, 84th & Pecos) and final details from me.

For those unable to book a full week, drop-ins are available for $25/day, 2x/week for $40, or if you plan on coming 5 or more times this summer, you may purchase a 5-pack for $85 upfront, good through July 12th. No refunds. Please follow the protocol above, registering by noon on Sunday before the week you first wish to attend so that I have time to plan and send you the infos.

Jiyu and I are looking forward to practicing with you!!! 🙂

Last chances to study with me at AYD!

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Hi Friends, after 3 years of teaching at Ashtanga Yoga Denver, I will be leaving to pursue my calling, teaching and further developing Trauma-Informed Ashtanga Yoga, around town, online and internationally. Catch me at the Cube for my regular classes through May 7th and join me for a last Satsang celebration on Sunday April 28th 11-noon followed by lunch on the town. Thereafter please be in touch! I would love to have you on my email list and subscribed to my blog.

15-hour Intro to Trauma-Informed Ashtanga Yoga Training in Denver

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Early Bird Pricing until April 15th!

Awaken the healing potential of your practice by combining
ancient wisdom with modern neuroscience & psychotherapy.

I’m thrilled to be offering this training again this spring as a synthesis of my counseling MA project, my extensive background in neuroscience, 15 years of yoga teaching experience, and my own journey getting the most out of spiritual practices despite trauma and chronic illness.  This is an all-level workshop meant for Ashtangis looking to practice smart.    

Leading psychologists and neuroscientists agree that nearly all of us (whether we recognize it or not) are living with at least some degree of trauma, a condition stemming from overwhelm that has been linked to both distress and disease.  Fortunately, yoga interventions based on cutting-edge clinical treatments have been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (Price et al., 2017), and as trauma resolves, people often find a redoubled sense of vitality and purpose.  As Ashtanga yoga practitioners, we have a potent set of techniques at our fingertips, but unless we inquire deeply into the theories, attitudes and interpersonal interactions surrounding these practices, we are not likely to reap maximal benefit from our daily efforts, especially when trauma is present.

In this workshop, we will explore key concepts in trauma healing and examine how we can immediately apply them to our practice.  We will consider how the practice environment and student-teacher relationships exert a tremendous impact on the nervous system.  We will study the fundamental features of trauma physiology and gain awareness of how our intentions and actions may be perpetuating or alleviating trauma in ourselves and others.  Most exciting of all, we will investigate where Ashtanga technologies (such as bandha, mudra and chanting) fit in alongside some of the most ground-breaking trauma theories available.

This workshop is best suited for curious vinyasa yoga practitioners and teachers with any level of experience and proficiency.  Clinicians who are looking to bring yoga into their practices in a deeper way are also welcome, though some familiarity with the Ashtanga Vinyasa method is recommended.  All asana work will be gentle and adaptable to individual circumstance.  Although sharing will never be forced, there will be opportunities to engage in partner exercises and group discussion.  Please note that this training is not intended to treat trauma, nor are participants encouraged to work outside of their professional Scope of Practice.  Resolution of severe trauma may require a multifaceted approach, a pivotal part of which may be a careful yoga practice.

Jen-Mitsuke Peters holds a BA from Columbia University in Neuroscience & Behavior, an MA in Psychology/Neuroplasticity from Princeton University and an MA in Mindfulness-Based Transpersonal Counseling from Naropa University.  She has practiced with and assisted her principal Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga teachers Richard Freeman & Mary Taylor for over 2100 hours in addition to training extensively in other yoga styles and therapeutic modalities.  Her own experiences with trauma and chronic illness have awakened both her passion for healing and her deep trust in the transformative power of compassionate and mutually beneficial relationships.  She has been teaching yoga internationally since 2005 and is a registered psychotherapist and coach in private practice in Denver, CO.  Please contact Jen with any questions or concerns.

Schedule for the Weekend (May 17-19, 2019)
Location is near Water World at 84th & Pecos in Denver

Friday– 5:30pm-7:30pm
Saturday– 9am-12:30pm, 2:00pm-5:00pm
Sunday– 9am-12:30pm, 2:00pm-5:00pm

Each session will include a mix of theory, practice/experiential and discussion.  Check out Testimonials for an idea of what students gained during a similar training last summer.

Investment:  $325 (Early Bird Discount of $50 if paid in full by April 15th)

To register, please submit a registration email introducing yourself and your background and pay Jen through PayPal at jendpeters@gmail.com.  Once these steps are completed you will receive an email with further details.  Looking forward to this!

A Brief Introduction to Trauma-Informed Ashtanga Yoga

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Trauma affects us all in so many different ways. It might show up as an inability to perform a certain movement in our yoga practice or manifest as sleeplessness, headaches, or autoimmune disease… Trauma is not restricted to survivors of horrific atrocities. In fact, our nervous systems may become overwhelmed and we may begin to accumulate it anytime we feel a lack of support, even in everyday situations. By nature trauma is quite slippery: the body buries it when we lack the resources to digest it fully, and the latest research demonstrates that we also inherit it from previous generations, so many people are in complete denial even though they may be carrying a significant trauma load. I can’t think of ANYBODY I’ve ever met who would not benefit from possessing a better understanding of trauma. It is a pivotal and missing exploration, equally for people suffering from physical and/or mental afflictions to those looking to optimize their already-brilliant performance to super-human levels.

Further, I have come to believe that practicing yoga without an understanding of trauma is yet another inadvertent form of spiritual bypassing that can be quite dangerous. Although pure awareness dissolves many kinds of samskara (conditioning), research has demonstrated that traumatic conditioning often requires special treatment, including a safe environment and the compassionate presence of another being in order to allow the nervous system to rest in a particular zone of activation. Unfortunately, whether due to lack of informed consent, excessive use of force, well-intentioned ignorance, outright abuse, or techniques that can trigger dissociation, yoga classes are often very unsafe places that actually exacerbate trauma. How many times have we seen practitioners and teachers pass on their unresolved trauma to countless others through acts of gross or subtle violence? Our own trauma also puts us at greater risk of being manipulated and further harmed by such violence. It’s about time we all start taking trauma seriously and create a revolutionary space within which global healing can commence.

My main motivation for going back to school to earn my degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling was to develop a grounded Trauma-Informed Ashtanga Yoga, one that can evolve with my own learning and the experience of interdisciplinary practitioners, scientists and healers willing to look again and again at what really works. TIAyoga was the subject of my MA thesis, my all-consuming focus over the past 5 years, enriched by 9 years of previous study and research in Neuroscience at Columbia University, Princeton University, the National Institutes of Health & Max-Planck Institute, as well as 16 years of intense practicing and teaching around the world. The brilliant framework of Ashatanga Vinyasa Yoga adapted to the individual as I learned it from my principal teacher Richard Freeman forms a base from which additional therapeutic modalities can be implemented. For the first time in my own practice, I am getting to the bottom of trauma that has been disabling for me, and for the first time in my career, I am thrilled to teach, because I have finally found a way to share yoga that feels authentic, intelligent and nurturing for me and my students. 

We are seeing epic levels of devastation, from the tiniest microbes to Planet Earth as a whole. We are being faced with dark and frightening truths about members of our species and even those teachers and sangha members we have most admired, trusted and loved. It is up to us to do the difficult yet not impossible personal work that they have not done, despite whatever technical prowess or philosophical clarity they may possess. Although many of the practices we have inherited may be enormously valuable, they do not stand alone and must be done in the right contexts with conscious intentions and a richer understanding of how our bodies and nervous systems work. Our generation has access to ground-breaking discoveries that can only add to the wisdom and skillful means accumulated from the lineage of practitioners in the past. 

Our best selves are needed. How do we want to show up in this world? Have we fallen into a rut of wishful thinking with our spiritual practices or are we truly doing what most touches our hearts and uplifts others? Is it possible that in following a guru or system we have forgotten our powerful ability to lead? We could perpetuate a privileged patriarchal culture or we could look into the truth about the harm it has caused and find out how to aid in the healing process. If our practices do not shed direct light on our interconnectedness and immediately begin to positively impact our interactions with all beings around us, then they contribute to the downward spiral that certainly affects our quality of life and in fact threatens our very survival. Let’s investigate how to prevent future suffering as Patanjali, Buddha and so many others have recommended, and use our talents and intelligence to change the course of history for the better!

200-hr Trauma-Informed Ashtanga Yoga Teacher Trainings in 2019!

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Early bird pricing until April 15th…

In these intensive trainings, we will explore key concepts in trauma healing and apply them directly to our yoga practice. We will study fundamental features of trauma physiology and gain awareness of how culture, philosophy, the practice environment and student-teacher relationships influence the nervous system and perpetuate or alleviate trauma in ourselves and others. Most exciting of all, we will investigate how elements of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (such as bandha, mudra, pranayama, visualization and chanting) can fit in alongside some of the most ground-breaking trauma theories available, potentially enhancing evidence-based yoga interventions for PTSD. While trauma robs us of our capacity for joy, spontaneity, empowerment and connection, rehearsing these in our practice can serve as a potent daily reminder of our nearly unfathomable potential to live and to give. By inquiring deeply into neuroscience, psychology, yoga technology, our own personal circumstances and deepest intentions, we will begin or continue the never-ending journey of constructing a practice that truly serves us and our world.

Information and application here!

Jen’s Mulabandha Workshop in Denver on 11/18/18!

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MULABANDHA

Registration is now open through Ashtanga Yoga Denver:  Mulabandha, the “root bond,” is an essential yet elusive facet of the ashtanga vinyasa system. Yoga scriptures favored by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois describe Mulabandha as a goddess whom we may learn to serve with sensitivity and devotion. Practicing in that spirit, we prepare an altar in our body-heart-minds and constantly invite Mulabandha to manifest if she is so inclined. This requires the fine-tuning and balancing of many opposing patterns throughout the body. In this workshop, we will do a variety of cleansing, breathing and asana exercises that will draw our focus inwards towards delicious detail. Warning: you may be flooded with nectar and fall in love with the goddess! This workshop will not involve acrobatics and is suitable for all levels of inquisitive ashtanga students. Investment: $45 in advance/ $50 at the door (space permitting).

Moving “authentically” in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

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junglespiral

“An authentic movement is in and of the Self at the moment it is done.  Nothing is in it that is not inevitable, simple.  When it is authentic, I can almost tell you what is coming next.  When I see somebody move authentically, it is so real that it is undiluted by any pretense or any appearance or images.  Often, it can be the movement of just one hand turning over, or it can be the whole body.  To get to this authenticity sacrifice is involved.  At first it is a discovery of all of the tricks, needs and demands that separate you from what would be genuine in yourself.  Then after you have discovered what this trick is and what it prevents, it must be sacrificed, as must each subsequent one as it is discovered.  The reality of impulse and movement come from such a different place in oneself that when it is experienced, the person comes to know when it is there and when it isn’t, and then she can stop cheating.  What I call ‘cheating’ would be the personal arrangement of movement on many levels…”  Mary Starks Whitehouse in Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow

MSW is speaking about a therapeutic form in which a client is witnessed as he or she begins to move in whatever manner feels right at that moment, a conscious exploration of sensations and impulses.  The form is thus intended to be completely free and unfabricated, at times highly idiosyncratic and steeped in layers of emotion.  Much more would need to be said to do this kind of practice justice, but what I would like to address here is how much we need this kind of attitude even within a seemingly prescribed movement sequence such as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

The polarity often discussed in Authentic Movement is that of moving and being moved.  Any of us who have tried yoga have worked on the moving part, the purposeful arrangement of the body and use of various techniques and theories.  Only the most elite masters seem to have grasped the being moved part, which is evident when you see them practice, though many of us have no doubt had at least some moments where we become possessed in this way.  Like Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, you are not the Doer.  However, most of us on some level feel we are and we look like we are when we get down on the mat…  No, it is not about looks in the end, however, we can also feel that something is missing when we are not completely attuned to the deepest aspects of our being.

Many Ashtangis will jump to say, “Yes, that is why we have always said Iyengar yoga (focused on alignment) sucks,” but this is not at all what I mean (I love it).  The body actually wants to move in an organic way, yet unless we sense into every split-second of the movement, we lose this flow and replace it with top-down or automated dictatorship.  You cannot really have one side without the other, also talked about in the 2-fold yoga path described by Patanjali as abhyasa-vairagya.  If we do not get the body in the vicinity of brilliant alignment where natural impulses can actually function, they are unable to work efficiently for us, (and these inner impulses seem to involve a great deal more than simply squeezing the anus, which is all the glory internal form is given in some circles…)  Likewise, deity visualizations and anatomical/kinesiological understanding can help our body to start to move in the ways that will feel most liberating.  We may try to understand what it means to allow the pelvic floor or “mula bandha” organize the pose, or let the breath do the work, but in order for this to happen, we need to listen so deeply and carefully (and continuously), setting the stage and sending the invitations, and finally allowing those impulses to direct us or perform for us when they actually show up.

For me, and I think for most of us, this involves relinquishing a great deal of cognitive control.  So many of us are in lock-down, totally wedded to a form we have imagined or seen in a book or another practitioner.  My teacher always jokes that it’s like he’s teaching in a morgue!  Our minds have gotten the body so stuck that the breath and life are choked right out of us.  We are not likely to look for the authentic movement going into poses or staying in poses, where so much magic can take place.  There are infinite numbers of transformations possible for however long we are in a pose.  This might simply involve micro movements and fine tuning, finding more dignity within a contortion, or at times becoming more contorted in order to feel certain other polarities.  Sometimes it might be stillness, which reveals its opposite and background.  It’s a dance, though it might not look like any kind of dance we have ever seen, nor will it ever happen in the same way again.  Just as we are all composed of waves and spirals, so too the body enjoys moving, which is strangely alien to the ego, who wants us to have a solid identity and just stick the pose “right” and move on to the next victory without feeling into the vast and groundless reality that there is no end to any pose, nor to us for that matter.

In asana, as in life, we follow the prescription, do the forms as obedient little students, and miss out on the real juice.  If we managed to tune in for even a few moments, we would start to feel the emotional and archetypal energy in our bodies and simultaneously feel the immense relief and freedom of total embodiment.  My teacher always says that if we could pay attention for even 2 seconds, we would fall into the central channel (Sushumna Nadi) and experience great insight.  It is humbling to truly inquire into whether we have ever managed to pay close attention for any amount of time at all in our practices.

If the central channel opens, it is said that core sensations are unleashed at an intensity our distraction usually keeps at bay.  Our protective ego structure would rather keep us out of this experience of the Self.  It would rather keep us in our reductive stories and limited beliefs and behaviors, which are safer and far less gratifying.  However, somehow we know we are missing something.  We naturally seek out intense experiences that will allow us to get a taste for this true absorption, anything short of which leaves us feeling like phony shells of our true potential.

Later in the same chapter, MSW speaks about simply becoming more aware of our tendencies, constrictions and ways of posturing ourselves, how we sit, shake hands, etc.  All of this will be reflected in our asana practice.  We move as the mass of habits we have become over the years, in most cases far more inhibited than when we came into this world as children.  As soon as we start to truly tune in to whatever we are doing, we will start to feel something asking us to adjust, or leading our attention to some aspect that was previously being kept out of our awareness.  In fact we might be shocked to find that we have been slouching in an incredibly uncomfortable position for hours!  Many of us torture ourselves throughout our practice as well, zoned out to the sensations until they become intolerably excruciating.

Of course, so many spiritual paths converge on the view that future suffering can and should be avoided.  Looking into our being and discovering needless restrictions, rules, layers of conditioning, shame, guilt, whatever else keeps us feeling stuck, allows us moments of relief when we can let go of some of the needless tensions, involuntary recoiling and brainy rigidity that make certain we have to keep striving and struggling rather than just being and actually letting so many things take care of themselves, as they truly will when we are alert enough to get out of the way.  At the same time, when we notice we are suffering and no easy solution appears, we do not take the attitude of whitewashing over it without listening.  We hold it as we would a baby who has begun to cry and needs our tenderness.  We start to discover who we really are, far more capable and vulnerable than we may ever have realized.

I find it extremely helpful personally to do Authentic Movement practices with their apparent lack of form.  They have helped me to begin to see how even within form, there is so much openness and freedom.  (The Heart Sutra comes to mind…)  In addition, allowing the body to go where it wants without censorship quickly throws up in one’s face all kinds of repressed shadow material.  Suddenly I might find myself acting out some kind of sequence that feels highly willful, primitive, seductive, furious or whatever else I might hide from polite society.  Repression will show up in yoga and inhibit everything from the breath to range of motion and might even cause pain and illness.

Making friends with those aspects of myself that nobody else is befriending allows for an experience of unconditional love that we rarely find in our daily life (and it is particularly powerful, not to mention healing, if there is a witness in Authentic Movement or a teacher in yoga who has explored her own depths and who is comfortable with the irreducibility of the self and awesome complexity of the universes, to be there with you as you explore in this intimate way).  The practice has helped me to start to crack my own heart open and have some self-compassion for all of the components that seem to make up “me” at any given time, and to give them what they need when I can and be with them when I can’t.  Slowly I start to see that being with myself this way helps me to be with others.

Shankaracharya has said that true yogis serve (rather than “do”) mula bandha.  On some level, in an Authentic Movement practice or and authentic Ashtanga practice, we are always asking how we can best serve our bodies and other aspects of our being.  In that way, we are continuously confronted with whatever we might have overlooked, be it physical, emotional, or on some other plane.  Ultimately we can see limitless freedom even within the boundaries of a certain yoga pose or transition, and in acknowledging this mystery, we are naturally drawn to look closely again and again and feel into each crevice of our being, allowing very profound feelings and sensations to emerge and meet our warm and kind acceptance.  This is how the practice is becoming increasingly meaningful for me.  It requires a very different attitude than I was used to, so much sensitivity and love, but it’s rewarding immediately, even in the earliest phases of implementation.

Practicing in this way we cannot avoid our humanity, aloneness and interconnectedness.  Sometimes what we feel is not at all pleasant, and sometimes it is pure bliss.  At any rate, it’s prana, and when we feel this pulsation, life becomes more lively.