we were taught to forget

we were taught to forget

“The practice of yoga helps us connect with the part of ourselves
that is always virgin and untouched:
the place within us that can never be damaged.”[1]
Donna Farhi

When I was a child, I was sure I could fly. I flew in my dreams all of the time and thought I could when I was awake too, but I somehow knew not to tell people, thinking that they might not believe me. Not surprisingly, at some point along the way of traumas coming my direction I stopped flying and even forgot that I could until, in my mid 20s, I joined a women’s spirituality group.

In this group, the high priestess would lead us on these guided visualizations where we were asked to go to a safe place as she talked us through the ritual. Most of the time I fell fast asleep during these visualizations, waking only when the leader started beckoning us back into the room. I remember worrying that people would make fun of me for missing out on the whole experience, not yet able to say that closing my eyes and letting my mind wander or settle was entirely too threatening to me, entirely unsafe. Tellingly, the times that I did stay awake, when the leader asked us to visualize a safe space, most of the women in the group went to quiet spaces in nature–the dunes in Provincetown, the Grand Canyon, a forest in Vermont. Meanwhile, I imagined myself in downtown crossing in Boston, one of the busiest urban spaces in Boston, teeming with street venders selling sausage and popcorn, business people grabbing lunch between meetings, pigeons claiming their pecking space on the cobblestones, teenagers running around enjoying a day of skipping school.

In the visualization, I sat right on a bench, absorbing the smells, rhythms, street music, that space a safe one for me since there were so many people there who could be my witness, who reminded me I was alive. I remember feeling defensive about my visualized space of choice, thinking that it revealed my jumbled, skittery consciousness. I was not defensive, however, when, about a year into our meetings, I was able to announce that I had begun flying again in my dreams. I was beginning to find powers of perception lost somewhere between daddy one and daddy two, between incest and parents’drinking, between clenching and dread. I was beginning to know where I was coming from, where I had been.

Trauma can not only make people afraid to look backward (afraid of what we might remember, feel again). It can also make looking forward seem scary too (worried that we might not have the skills, the companionship, the growth we will need in the future). This dual reality ironically keeps us perched in a limbo state disconnected from our past or future. Part of the beauty of yoga and meditation is their ability to help us bypass the tricks that our minds play on us, to get to the expanded consciousness that lived within us before damage was done. The joy of that journey is its ability to be more integrated in the present, to bring to the present the beauty we always knew about ourselves but were taught to forget.


[1] Donna Farhi, Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practices of Enlightened Living. BY: Harper, 2003, 20.
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Salutations

Salutation
 
Stretch to meet my hands
above my head, a church steeple
reaching higher than the bands
of fear. Bow with the man
with railroad pins in his back
a woman running rough-shot
with t-cells, the tattoo artist
whose body brags in full lotus.
Wrap my way past haunting voices
solace in the heat. Reach toward
the mirror, yoga practice together
in early morning weather.

deeper than words, into the marrow

deeper than words, into the marrow

When I was in my late 30s, after being in therapy for a decade in my twenties with an extraordinarily gifted therapist and a shorter stint with a therapist in my mid 30s, I realized that much of the work I still needed to do couldn’t be done with words. The early trauma—sexual abuse, exposure to violence, loss of loved ones, parental alcoholism, constant uprooting—needed to move around my body. I was going to need to find it there in my body, although, at the time, the notion of “finding it in my body” felt so vague to me that stepping out of the land of talk therapy and into the land of movement felt more like a crazy leap of faith than anything else.

I decided that, at 40, I was going to pretend I was 35—that I had lost five of my years. In my mind, five years seemed about right for the extra toll that carrying around trauma and being in graduate school (and on the job market) had exacted. Magical thinking, I know, believing I could assign a time period to the cost of trauma but….I decided that for each year that I built my age back up—36, 37, 38, 39, 40, I would add a new body-based practice, starting with going to the gym (and working with a personal trainer), then adding salsa, then yoga, then, as it turns out more yoga.

Looking back on this now, I can see how each addition was building toward wholeness although at the time I couldn’t yet see the pattern. With the gym and finding a personal trainer, I had someone who, three times a week, would focus on me, only on me, watch, and coach and guide and witness and laugh and encourage me as my lower back got stronger (i.e. I started to be able to stand up for myself better), my arm muscles developed (which means I eventually gained the confidence to wear shirts with no sleeves, for the first time in my life), my abs got stronger (which helped my back to not hurt when needing to sit at the desk for long periods of time). And I loved the music—the early morning Aretha Franklin, Beyonce, Chaka Kahn, Luther, Santana, Nellie—jamming, filling me up with rhythm and melody before 8:00 o’clock in the morning.

Salsa was next, no small thing since I come from a Mormon background which my relatives and I refer to as the “ironing board” culture—hold your body as erect as possible and don’t breathe. No movement, no joy, and certainly no dance. Salsa didn’t come easily to me, especially as many of the 20-something Latinas who came to dance class appeared to have been dancing in the womb, had ballet training since they could walk, along with hip hop, modern dance, etc. They would twirl themselves around me, doing triple turns and back bends that looked like magic to me as I painstakingly practiced my once-around-find-a-point-without-getting-dizzy steps. It helped to have a compassionate Guatemalan dance instructor who, sometimes would whirl me around the dance floor making me temporarily look better than I was. And, over time, especially when I danced with someone I could relax with, I started to get a little bit better.

Yoga got added to this mix alongside the gym and salsa, first as a student of Bikram yoga, a steady practice for seven years and then branching out—to Vinyasa flow, Forrest yoga, Iyengar-based practice and a little Kundalini. Along the way, I began to teach as I started to see a connection between moving my body and memory, between asanas and feeling, between yoga postures and finding ways to be in the world where I wasn’t afraid all of the time, bracing for the next disaster.

My journey has been a feeling one, as vulnerable and resilient as a winter rose. An early, emblematic yoga memory—doing camel (ustrasana) toward the end of a practice, coming up from a backbend and sobbing, the teacher saying in her dialogue that “feelings come up in camel that you might not expect. They are normal. Crying on the mat is okay.” The first time I heard these words, I thought she was saying them just for me—that she saw my tears and was trying to comfort me while teaching. It took me a while to get that her words (except for the reference to crying) are part of the practiced script and that the reaction I was having, others had too. The floor series, especially the postures involving back bends—the physical postures that tapped fears that I thought I had “dealt” with but clearly had not—made me see that memories were lurking around in my body. For survivors of traumas that occur prior to our ability to talk, healing means getting in touch with what the body knew before words, before language. I was starting to realize that healing meant re-finding myself before trauma, finding the self that changed during the trauma and the self that had come out the other side dazed, and often driven. Such healing required, allowed me to start reaching out, to find other people’s glistening eyes, to be willing to go deeper than words, finding others who were struggling on and off the mat but still, sometimes miraculously, were coming back.

1 Amy Weintraub, Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering through Yoga. NY: Broadway Books, 2004, 6.

Welcome

Greetings!

Thank you for visiting my blog, a healing site created for people who are practicing yoga many of whom come–and stay–as a way to heal from a range of traumas–sexual abuse, the terrors of war, illness, loss of loved ones, disaster, incarceration, racism, addictions. While more than twenty million people in the US alone are practicing yoga and way more than that have faced trauma, there is actually very little that has been written yet by survivors who see yoga as a key tool for healing.

So welcome, everybody. The entries—that I am hoping make you laugh, think, feel—are my attempt to create a link among trauma survivors, a place to share about our struggles and accomplishments. I write as a yoga teacher, a scholar who has been working on trauma for a long time, and a trauma survivor myself, hungry to find connection, community in our journeys toward wholeness.

Let me know what you think, what you feel. Namaste. Blessed be. Peace and justice for all.

Becky