“I feel so relaxed. This is better than my meds and my medication is anti-psych meds. Honestly. Wouldn’t it be great to do this every night after a shower then go straight to bed?”
This was a quote from a beautiful indigenous woman after coming out of a trauma-sensitive yoga class, and smiling from ear to ear. The woman has deep trauma stored in her body and was suffering significant toothache, at the time of the class. It was her first yoga class, ever.
This woman’s surprise was an echo of many reactions I have witnessed during my nearly ten years teaching therapeutic yoga to people in crisis – the shock of feeling relaxed. It is the same shock I felt the first time I experienced peace.
Growing up feeling anxiety and fear, and an adult life of chronic illness and crisis, meant that I was constantly in a state of tension. When I finally experienced moments of peace it felt extraordinary and then when I relaxed during a guided relaxation, I remember thinking, “ahhh that’s what everyone’s been talking about.”
It was these experiences that inspired me to become a yoga teacher. I was still in my electric wheelchair and didn’t expect to walk again but I felt compelled to share the power of meditation with other people in crisis. We can transcend our circumstances, even if just for a moment.
Yet it wasn’t until this moment teaching trauma sensitive yoga in Sydney, that my experience and my students’/clients’ experiences all clicked into a deeper understanding of trauma. These women, other students and clients, and myself, we didn’t even know what if felt like to relax, let alone how to achieve relaxation.
We didn’t know it was possible to alleviate our suffering, in a wholesome way. I recognised the look in my students’ eyes that day in Sydney because I had felt the same incredulity – “I didn’t know it was possible to feel like this”.
I feel humbled by the power of this work and the courage of these women and men, who are trying so hard to transform their lives. Just turning up is an act of courage and we need to respond with compassion that includes practical empowerment.
Trauma, regardless of its cause, interferes with the development and function of our brains. Sustained trauma, particularly if experienced as a child, can leave permanent damage to cognitive skills and function.
As an adult, we may forget how to carry out basic functions of living, like budgeting, paying bills, self-organisation and nutrition. And as a child, we may never have learnt these pathways. And regardless of the age of onset, people who are surviving trauma may not know it is even possible to alleviate their own suffering without substances, violence or other addictions.
If somebody has been traumatised they need to learn how to experience happiness, safety and self-worth. These are not skills that come naturally to a victim of trauma and without them, there is the ongoing risk of self-harm.
Fear is the baseline for a person experiencing PTSD, and this creates a permanent state of crisis in their body, emotions and mind. Crisis reduces an individual’s capacity for strategic thought, concentration and perspective, as well contributing to anxiety and depression, feeding into a myriad of physical health problems.
Anecdotal evidence from the work I have been doing with survivors of trauma, suggests that derailing this state of crisis enables individuals to make better decisions about their own lives and their relationships with the people around them.
People who are transitioning into the community, whether it be from prison or trauma or both, need to be supported across a range of skills to prevent recidivism and/or sliding back into drug addiction and/or mental illness. What this means is guiding people through skills for life, which reduces their ongoing dependency on community services.
When we teach people organisational and budgeting skills we teach them how to manage the material aspects of life. When we teach nutritional and cooking skills we teach them how to feed themselves. And when we teach them how to relax through tools like yoga and mindfulness, we are teaching tools to manage their mental health.
Interventions such as budgeting, personal organisation, cooking and yoga empower people to live more functional lives.
And while I’m not naïve enough to suggest that one yoga class will heal the world, it is possible that an ongoing integrated holistic approach to rehabilitating people who have experienced trauma, might change their neurobiology from crisis to love.
Imagine a world where people who are survivors of trauma are taught how to live again, or in some cases for the first time Imagine a world where they are taught how to feel safe, relaxed and loved. A world where they and we all have a place.
This is a world I want to be part of creating.
Lynnette Dickinson is the author of A Journey to Peace through Yoga, and teaches yoga, relaxation and meditation in Canberra and Sydney, and via Skype or phone. Classes, personalised programs and yoga therapy. Visit www.splendouryoga.com. Listen to Lynnette telling her story click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2, and be inspired.