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 Vinyasa Yoga (TIAVY), 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. TIAVY 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 as needed. 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. For those of us who do not want to cause ourselves or others continued pain, it is time to question every single one of the traditions and habits we enact, to acknowledge what is not ok with us (for example the sexual, physical and emotional abuse by the founder of this lineage, Pattabhi Jois, in addition to so many other well-known and lesser-known teachers), to come forth in support of survivors of all kinds (many of them perpetrators), and to critically examine our practice and teaching frameworks to be more inclusive and beneficial.
It is up to us to do the difficult yet not impossible integrative personal work that many gurus felt it beneath themselves to do, despite whatever technical prowess or transcendent philosophical clarity they may have possessed. Although many of the practices we have inherited may be enormously valuable, they do not necessarily 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!