Richard assisting me in laghu vajrasana in 2011. Photo by Chris Croft
“The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only in the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In her renewed connections with other people, the survivor re-creates the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic capacities for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy. Just as these capabilities are originally formed in relationships with other people, they must be reformed in such relationships.” — Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery
The importance of the therapeutic relationship in psychotherapy has long been recognized. It has been purported to be the single biggest factor (or even the only necessary and sufficient factor) contributing to positive treatment outcomes for a variety of problems and disorders. How many of us feel a bit disempowered and disconnected from others? This is often why we turn to therapy or to yoga. We could all benefit from profound and selfless relationship, which is not so easy to come by in this world.
Such relationships seem to be growing more and more scarce in the yoga world as it becomes less and less “cool” to accept a guru or make any commitment to study with somebody who is truly qualified to teach. In its popularized form yoga is seen as yet another fitness and fashion craze, and its ultimate goal (Self-realization and rediscovery of interconnectedness, the very opposite of disempowerment and disconnection) is forgotten. Considerable disillusionment comes from having watched so many apparently advanced teachers succumb to the basest scandals. However, instead of jumping on board and behaving abhorrently or losing faith altogether, teachers and students might deeply ponder the gravity of the role and do their best to uphold the highest standards.
It is well-established that memories are stored somatically, so when we work with the body in yoga, we have the potential, to a greater or lesser extent, to re-awaken traumatic experiences and relive them to some degree. Even if we consider ourselves to be in the fortunate minority of people who have experienced no dramatic or excruciating trauma, we still carry with us whatever we have encountered throughout our development during at least one lifetime! The choice of who will share this very intimate practice space with us while we undergo these processes is quite a sacred one.
When you fold into that hip-opener and associations with your X or difficult family members bubble up (explicitly or not), it would be ideal if the teacher would not reenact those old pathological scenarios and behavior patterns, reinforcing them in your system! How terrible (and re-traumatizing) is it to feel unsafe, abandoned or subject to compounded injury and negativity in times of vulnerability…?! How incredible would it be to share with somebody who supports you and sees your highest potential and reminds you of it in that moment? A present being can often help us to face difficult feelings with more mindfulness than we can alone. What a gift, to progressively work out ticks and misconceptions that we have adopted strategically in order to survive, but which build up those very barriers that alienate us from what we truly desire! Sharing even one instant in true relationship with a genuinely compassionate being can reconfigure how we respond in analogous cases (or overall) for the rest of our lives (and perhaps beyond)! Then, we learn how to be there for ourselves and others in that same nurturing way.
The necessity and therapeutic-transformative potential of the student-teacher relationship is stressed again and again in the shastras. Through relationship we either drive ourselves further back into our shells or melt away resistances to states of fullness that we generally feel are too nice and therefore not possible for us. I would like to beseech everybody to reconsider what is possible in relationship, whether in the shala or on the street (and hopefully here on this blog)! We can practice this all the time…