We have a guest-blogger this week, and I am so grateful to have her voice as a part of the conversation in yoga, healing trauma, and what we are capable of doing in the physiology of resilience. I hope you will take the time to read this powerful piece by Molly Boeder-Harris, and spend some time and energy with the ideas of healing any of your own trauma through yoga and meditation. We have our own Trauma-Informed Yoga Teacher Training coming up November 4-6th, with Molly, and are excited to bring this vital teaching to the table. Thank you for deepening the conversation.
In Love and Service,
No longer does a day go by where I won’t see a story about healing PTSD with yoga, receive an advertisement related to upcoming trauma-informed yoga training and workshops, or be privy to a Facebook conversation among studios and teachers about how to accommodate trauma survivors within the mainstream yoga community. As a yoga student, a yoga teacher, a sexual assault, rape and trauma survivor, and an educator on how we address the impacts of trauma in yoga, I think about yoga, the body-mind-soul connection and the pervasive nature of trauma in our society and our psyches daily. Quietly and internally, I’ve struggled with so many personal questions about the conversation we are having, who is participating, who is left out, how and why we choose to look the other way, and importantly, what it is we are assessing when we are determining “if” and “how” yoga heals trauma.
Nine years after I was raped while running in the largest public park on the continent of South America, I found myself standing in mountain pose when I first heard my teacher say, "Remember that you are in a body and remember that you are not your body". Her message stuck me to my core. For years after my rape, I grappled with a sense of body betrayal and worked hard to befriend my body again, although in some ways, I was seeking a true connection for the first time. I practiced yoga with an interest in physically challenging my body and pushing myself beyond perceived limitations because for me, in order to feel my body, it required much effort and a lot of sensation. I craved the kind of sensation that vinyasa yoga opened up for me, even the kind of sensation, however extreme and sometimes nauseating, that Bikram yoga afforded.
Fluid and intense movements helped me thaw the freeze of rape. Freeze, as in a physiological state where they body becomes numb, where there is temporary paralysis and no capacity to move limbs or make sound through the vocal chords, where the organs quiet and slow, and where tears are stifled in the recesses of the eye sockets. Freeze, as in a subtle body state where life force feels thwarted, where energy is stuck, where there is nothing to feel, and where stagnation leads to whole being depression. Freeze as in a psychological state where the mind dissociates from present the embodied experience in search of safety, in search of refuge, in search of anything other than than intensity of the here and now. And somehow, freeze is still so much more.
For me this thawing, or rather, a completion of my stuck survival responses, took years of daily yoga practice. The ritual of movement was vital to me finding a way to come home to my body and it fortified my sense of resilience. It also unearthed many stuck layers of emotion and somatic memory that wanted and needed to be known to bring about more integrated healing, while carving out space for pleasure, empowerment, and eventually, the blissful yet simple experience of ease.
As I developed my bodily connection on the mat while simultaneously working in other realms to bring my psychological state into greater balance, I began to peer into the deeper layers of my trauma - the wounds living beneath the wounds. My approach to my asana practice began to change with the support and guidance of a teacher who could sense from our work together that the direction I needed to travel on my healing path was changing. What I could feel myself seeking and what I was now ready for was far less physical, far less mental, and far more energetic and spiritual. She came into my life and my healing practice at a critical time. While I knew I had finally met my Teacher, sometimes, I also felt frustrated that the only "cues" she gave me were ones for my subtle body. What about my physical alignment? She'd say “the alignment comes from within.” I would ask her about going into a deeper variation, thinking, aren't I ready yet? Isn't it time to move into new terrain? Shouldn’t I be “advancing” my practice? She'd say “the deeper variation, the deeper advancing, is the work of going further within.” Well, at least give me some help with my bandhas! I thought if I asked for a tangible instruction coded beneath a largely energetic and incredibly subtle component of the practice, I might get what I want – something to hold onto, something to do. Instead, she said, “the bandhas are naturally arising from within, don't overthink them Molly.” And she smiled.
It took me awhile to get used to this approach because I had spent a lot of time exploring around my body, organizing my bones and muscles and breath in a way that made me feel strong on every level. This way of practicing was practical and that served me so well when I was swimming in the confusion of realigning all the elements of myself and my life after trauma. Yet, now that I have grown accustomed to her approach to teaching and practicing, it's often harder for me to receive adjustments from teachers who've only seen my practice in one class or even over a few months, or who don't know the story of trauma I carry just beneath lycra and the sweat on my skin. Don't get me wrong, I love taking lead yoga classes, it is a privilege and a gift. I am so in my head most of the time and these incredible teachers help me tp get out of my own way and my regular patterns. I am so grateful for the opportunity to let go of the reins and to learn from another’s perspective. Taking other teacher’s classes is how I continue to grow and it rejuvenates my love of practice and teaching.
Still, I have become far more interested in the wisdom that is naturally arising from within my own organism. I really like to explore that inner teaching in relationship to the pose or sequence that is being brought to me by the instructor. They invite me to try something new and I always do (unless I know certain physical limitations would make it contraindicated for me) and I might stay on their path for a given amount of time, yet it may also be that I want to honor and answer an inner pull to go slightly off course. I do this with discretion and I try to exude respect for their voice and vision while also trusting my own impulses. It feels rebellious and sometimes uncomfortable to practice this way, however, as I strive to instill in my own students that they own their body, and therefore they own their practice and the way things unfold on the mat, I also want to honor and hone that difficult boundary work on my own mat. I am also keen to notice when it is ego, which is different than my embodied intuition, leading me off the chart the teacher has laid out for me, and to compassionately and very humbly, bring myself back. This is the perfect time to remember how much it helps to bring curiosity to the practice.
Of course, that is just my experience with yoga practice and it cannot ever represent the spectrum of all the ways people will relate to yoga - particularly after trauma, and especially after rape.
Yoga has served me, and it still does. It's a poetry of the body that I get to write and re-write according to my own, evolving experience. It's a language that feels like part of my cellular memory and also one that I learning anew each day. After a decade of identifying myself so intensely as a body, in this specific body - the raped body, the abused body, the wounded body - I also saw how that view could be a factor in some of my ongoing struggles. I surprised myself with this realization, and I almost resisted this realization. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t shame myself for holding this fragmented picture of myself because I know it grew out of an innate drive to reclaim my innate wholeness. I had to know my body in order to fully own my body. Now, I am interested in something more, what comes next. This is my body – it has been raped and abused and as a result, it is highly sensitive to everything and everyone. Although, the practice is a tonic that soothes all kinds of wounds, there is no posture, no sequence, no magical alignment that will ever change my past. Yoga does not erase rape, but it does remind me that I am more than the horror that was done to me. Yoga certainly doesn’t decrease my sensitivity (thank goodness, sensitive people are a gift!), but it shows me how I can use it more skillfully.
When my teacher asked me that day to remember that I was in my body (I remembered my body is my tool and my resource) but also that I was not my body (I remembered that I was so much more!) it rocked my world. I recognized a painful truth in her statement as the memory of my soul leaving my body during rape surfaced in my mind's eye, while I was standing at the top of my yoga mat in mountain pose. At the same time, I felt the liberating quality of this truth - knowing that the parts of me which are beyond the body, parts that I still have yet to meet, remain unscathed by the violence of my rapist. If I am not my body, for me that means that there is an energy inside me that cannot actually be destroyed by trauma, but rather, is a part of me that may be transformed. All of this awareness surfaced in an instant, while I was standing at the top of my yoga mat in mountain pose. We hadn’t even begun moving and a huge and deep unconscious need was being met.
What a gift this practice is with its simultaneously simple yet profound teachings. What a miracle it can feel like when a teaching lands for the first time – in a way you’d never heard or resonated with it. It’s possible she had said this many times before, but that particular day, I was ready to hear it.
Our discussion in the West on healing trauma with yoga is just beginning. We are asking all these questions about yoga, and we are looking everywhere and to everyone - we are looking all around us to find “answers”, to find clarity. Yet, it seems to me that for some reason – maybe it is our own trauma blind spots - that we are still not so much looking within and that this is a loss, or at least, a temporary limitation. At the same time, the embodied knowledge that exists around holistic healing through yoga, using the practice to re-balance body, mind and soul, is thousands of years old. The teachings are living among us in seasoned instructors and in sacred texts. The wisdom we crave is as available to us as the air we breathe. It is, in many ways, contained within our own breath. While clinicians and doctors search for “statistically meaningful” data and develop new studies to "prove" whether or not yoga heals trauma, to determine whether or not we should pay attention (and invest resources) into the groundswell of trauma survivors who are pulsing with new life - I (like millions of other survivors) am already living this truth. This may be the only truth I am certain of at this point in my life: Yoga heals. Yoga heals trauma. Yoga healed my trauma. Yoga continues to heal my trauma.
Yoga is an inherently healing practice, regardless of what it is that brings us to the mat. I believe that we don’t even need to consciously seek healing, and that if we show up for the practice, it will work on us, it will meet our wounds be they physical or mental or energetic, gently, incrementally, and also, quite deeply. Maybe healing with yoga isn’t as complex as our clinical studies and sanitized tests might lead us to think?
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the research that is happening on yoga for trauma (and I am even conducting my own research through my nonprofit organization) and still, on many days, I am bored by how basic some of the research can feel and how obvious the answers truly seem. I am also uninspired by the ways in which the Western mind attempts to codify healing. When we quantify wounds and attempt to scientifically measure their healing, there is an inevitable narrowing of experience and perspective, a constricting around what trauma and healing look and feel like, and I imagine, some experiences that don’t fit will be left out.
I ask myself, if yoga is a practice that we test by filtering it through our own body, our own experience (which is what I was taught), then how can we say any single way of practicing yoga will heal trauma - an experience that is so distinctly personal and personality specific? If trauma is a physiological experience that impacts the body, the mind and also the soul, how can one single way of practicing account for the specific chemistry, the differing physical abilities, the nuanced belief systems of every survivor? If trauma alters and influences our nervous system in complex and nonlinear ways - how can we come to a shared agreement about the kind of yoga, the sequence, the pacing, and the content of our verbal teaching, that could possibly serve all of us knowing that we are each so vastly unique? If freeze, and the event of leaving the physical body during trauma, is reported by over 85% of sexual assault survivors - how come we aren't more curious about the self that leaves the self, the self that lives beyond the self? Why are we failing to respond to that level of trauma and being embodied? That frightening, and yet simultaneously resourcing channel of survival within our experience of trauma? Why aren't we inquiring about what trauma does to the soul? Why aren’t we interested in how the soul works on our trauma? What are we afraid of?
How can we, ourselves, use our own bodies, minds and souls and the teachings they deliver from the inside out in service of nurturing our own healing? In service of creating more space in the yoga community for survivors? In service of accommodating the subtlety, the nuance, and the constant beginning again that begets delivering a person-centered, healing arts practice? What would change in our teaching if we started to trust and engage the innate, and internal teacher of every individual soul who came to us seeking yoga? What would change in our research findings if we asked about yoga's impact on our spirit, on our energy body? If we asked how yoga relates to the existential questions we all face - beyond our symptoms and our diagnosis? What if we asked about how yoga relates to the dreams and the heartbreak that wake us up at night - sometimes for weeks at a time, sometimes decades after we think we have been complete with a healing process? What becomes possible in our bodies, in our communities and in our society when we empower the language of the body, when we translate the wisdom of the psyche, when we place faith in the complex path of the soul? How can we evolve our own healing and the collective healing by deepening the scope of the questions we hold, and simultaneously, widening the space for more voices and more perspectives to be heard? How can we hold space for all that we know, and all that we can never know – and how can yoga bolster the ground beneath those questions?
This is the conversation I am having with myself, in my head, in my dreams, on my mat, when I am in the wilderness hiking – how does yoga help us heal and how can we expand the reach of this incredibly personal, yet equally community-fortifying practice? This is the conversation I want more yoga teachers, more yoga students, more survivors of trauma, more social workers, more anti-violence activists and more conventional health providers, to engage in together. There is an impulse, conscious and unconscious, that has called over 36 million Americans to their yoga mats, whether for Ashtanga yoga or yin yoga, chair yoga or yoga nidra, there is a desire to in many ways, come home to ourselves. There is also a legitimate concern about commodification, corporatization and cultural appropriation that is a result of the growing interest in yoga. Let’s wade into these waters together, let’s uncover what it is we are healing from and what it may be that we seek. Let’s discover together how alignment in asana might pave the way for alignment with our soul, our true Nature. Let’s give trauma survivors a chance to articulate, because they already embody, the powerful journey from being lost to coming home. I want to unpack this specific teaching of yoga, this possibility of yoga - that we are in a body and we are not our body - and what this means for our yoga practice, our social movements, our political future, and the earth we live on, with everyone I know.
About Molly: Boeder-Harris: In addition to teaching public and private alignment-based vinyasa yoga classes, I offer trauma-informed yoga instruction. As someone who found yoga to be one of the essential healing practices in my recovery, I am passionate about opening up this possibility for others. I strive to bring a trauma-informed lens into any class I teach, giving students a clear sense of choice, options and permission to listen and trust the language of their body, even if that includes a departure from my instruction. Related to making yoga increasingly accessible as a trauma healing resource, I love to explore the nuances of creating a trauma-informed environment with other teachers seeking to have more tools for working with students who have survived trauma. You can learn more by visiting my website at: www.mollyboederharris.com.
Molly is the founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, a Portland-based and nationwide non-profit that connects survivors of sexual violence with healing arts practitioners that offer sliding-scale, trauma-informed, holistic support. TBN also provides education and training for professionals in best practices for delivering survivor-centered, trauma-informed care.
Please join Molly in any of her regularly scheduled public yoga classes here on Mondays at 4pm and Thursdays at 5:30pm, as well as these special upcoming Trauma-Informed Yoga Workshops, Series classes and Yoga Teacher Trainings at The Bhaktishop this fall. We are grateful to have her voice as a part of our team.