News / trauma
Learning to live with a chronic illness involves finding joy in chaos.
I have been experiencing a tricky time recently, with a reactivation of symptoms, including my mental health, and the feeling of impending doom that is carried in the pocket of denial. Then last night I remembered that I wrote a book, in meditation, that was quite useful for people in this kind of crisis.
The chapter I read is called "The Gateway to Living", and describes a path and tools to living not existing that seemed to ease the angst I was feeling. It reminded me that even in times of suffering, we can choose to live rather than survive.
I offer the chapter, in the hope that it also will have some meaning for you.
The Gateway to LIving
Module 5 was the gateway to living rather than existing. It was now July and it was becoming clear my recovery was not going anywhere; in fact to the contrary, my condition was continuing to improve. Now I felt some obligation to do something with it and I had no idea what or how or even why.
However, my psychology was still in the mode of ‘existing’, even though I had given back my power chair and cancelled my disability allowance; in my mind I was still disabled.
In the medical crises of my life I had had an ambiguous relationship with death and through my mentoring with Andrew had discovered I was more afraid of living than dying, a little like the mortality version of being more afraid of success than failure (which I have also experienced). So now I needed to learn how to live, like a crawling baby learns how to walk – I think sometimes I still fall.
The reason module 5 was so integral in this process of learning to walk was twofold: firstly I felt like the practices worked on stimulating and unblocking the centre of dynamism and enthusiasm; and secondly it was the interim assessment: our opportunity to sit an assessment that would allow us to teach classes as student-teachers, if we passed.
The practices included action postures like the eagle, sitting spinal twist, warrior sequence and the cleansing breath, and as I practiced them over the next few months (and still today), they filled me with a strength and a courage to act as I had never experienced before.
The eagle locks at the base of the spine with legs crossed over and the thoracic spine with our arms crossed over, then builds up energy between using breath with the spinal wave and folding over from the hips. A few breaths in this folded, locked position, enables intense focus and stillness. Then in one graceful and powerful motion, unfold and unblock.
It releases energy into the whole body-mind complex, for me focusing on my dynamism centre and my heart.
Andrew demonstrated this posture in the module and I was in the front row. When he did the dynamic version, the unfolding was so potent that the person next to me screamed and jumped backwards a step and we all gasped. I am sure I wasn’t the only person in the room who wanted some of what he had.
The eagle has been with me ever since and whenever I perform this posture I feel such an infusion of power and strength, not to mention clarity and focus.
The sitting spinal twist is a posture I used to do with the television after Romper Room when I was three. I loved twisting my body into knots and still do. I first encountered it as an adult in Bellingen with a lovely yoga teacher who encouraged us to move our internal organs around, getting the twist in the lower back.
Learning the Dru version took the posture to a deeper level as I became aware of the twist as it moved up my spine, releasing tension gradually as each vertebra twisted around and the muscles around my spine released. Finally, to rest with my heart open was and remains beautiful. On return there always seems to be a sucking in at the heart.
This posture never ceases to make me feel energised and generous, while bringing a satisfied smile to my face. I have learnt, practice and teach a version of the Sitting Spinal Twist for anywhere you aren’t doing yoga (see Workplace Sitting Spinal Twist).
The Warrior sequence speaks for itself. Warrior 1, 2 and 3, together or in isolation, never cease to give me courage and strength when I think I have none. Somehow, even if my legs are shaky, I can relax into the warrior and feel strong; and if I am visualising, my posture becomes straighter and my head is held higher.
The cleansing breath just made my brain feel like it was in a brain version of a carwash – I so loved this practice I used to do it all the time when I first learned it (unfortunately perhaps too much as I strained my breathing muscles in the process). However, it did seem to clean my thoughts of some pretty limiting ideas of how I could live.
And, well, the interim assessment was a validation of my practice and my capacity to share this, perhaps more so than approval of my teaching skills.
I arrived at the module realising perhaps I had not done enough technical preparation. I knew the postures intimately and had visualised them, practiced them, read about them and written about them but I hadn’t studied them. And vitally, I hadn’t practiced teaching them.
After a little cramming with my yoga buddy, I decided to just do what I do in my head, but aloud, and hope for the best. For the second time in the yoga course (and possibly my life), I turned myself inside out and spoke what I had only internalised until then.
It was quite bizarre and feels vaguely pretentious, but strangely it felt comfortable; for those moments of teaching my ‘class’, I felt like a yoga teacher even though I was just sharing what I did in my head. I got the first glimpse that maybe I could do this.
Over the next few months, I started a small class and began to teach. I had shared bits with my maths students but now I started to actually teach full hour and a half classes.
- Sitting with your buttocks on the edge of your chair and your spine straight and relaxed.
- Breathe out and engage core stability.
- Breathe in and lengthen through your spine, lifting your breastbone and raising your right arm to shoulder height (or your own comfort level).
- As you breathe out, cross your left hand over to the outside of your right thigh and begin twisting you lower spine then middle spine to the right until your right arm reaches the back of the chair.
- Rest as you breathe in.
- Breathe out and use your arm to lever your upper body around into the twist a little further.
- If it is comfortable, stay in the twist for a few breaths before returning to the centre on an in-breath.
- Repeat to the other side.
This stretches the muscles of the back, and neck, opening the muscles of the chest, while massaging your abdominal organs and improving digestion. Fab on many fronts!A Journey to Peace through Yoga, Lynnette Dickinson
“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.
Trauma is endemic in our society and is a major source of chronic mental and physical health problems, that are not being addressed by our current health policies. We need to look at this growing problem holistically or risk being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of suffering.
Whether from chronic or acute illness, childhood sexual assault, domestic violence, an active career in Defence, Policing or the emergency services, bullying, an accident, violence or a witness to violence, or any sudden change, trauma leaves an individual bereft and disempowered, often incapable of living a functional life.
When a person experiences physical and/or mental trauma, their whole being is impacted, therefore their whole being needs to be rehabilitated. Frequently survivors of trauma experience mental and emotional turmoil, social isolation and inability to integrate into community, as well as any physical consequences of their trauma; severely impacting Their relationships with partners, children, workplaces and the broader community.
In addition, the parasympathetic nervous systems of survivors of trauma are trapped in fight, flight or freeze mode. The consequence is a body that is physiologically always in crisis, ready to respond in a fraction of a second.
Always in fear, the individual becomes hypervigilant and hypersensitive, leading to anger, anxiety and depression. Physiologically, chronically high levels of adrenalin and cortisol increase the risk of diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, heart disease and chronic pain.
This is beyond the scope of Western clinical practice, alone. Medication and cognitive behaviour therapy, while useful, cannot on their own manage the whole being disruption that trauma creates. Therefore, we must address this problem with a range of techniques, including tools that relax the autonomic nervous system.
Every week I work with survivors of trauma, including: childhood sexual abuse, transitioning from prison, chronic illness, grief, acute illness, drug addiction, post & antenatal depression, domestic violence and active duty. The focus of my teaching, therapy and coaching is to gently release the tension held in the tissues of their body, while switching the autonomic nervous system from alert to relax.
The tool I use is trauma-sensitive Dru yoga, which includes gentle stretching sequences, breathing, progressive relaxation, and sometimes mindfulness and meditation. My classes are not aerobic or pretzel yoga but designed to be inclusive and light-hearted, therapeutic tools of healing. Yoga therapy programmes are designed to give clients at least one tool they can use in their everyday lives, to manage their own condition.
Classes are monitored with questionaries at the beginning and end of courses, and yoga therapy clients provide feedback on their progress in each session. What I have seen consistently, across both classes and yoga therapy, is the immediate experience of relief in feeling so relaxed. This is usually followed by a few days of making better choices, being less reactive and feeling less pain or other physical symptoms.
Overtime, students, clients and carers report cumulative effects of recovery and healing. For example, one of my students began with chronic depression related to trauma and severe ankylosing spondylitis. The same student is now regularly exhibiting her artwork, has taken up sailing, been re-employed and gradually reduced all her medication for pain and depression, to zero. For this student, yoga has been the most effective treatment and she is fine if she maintains her yoga practice.
I began yoga teacher training in 2007 because meditation was the only activity that relieved the madness I experienced every day, due to many years of living in a state of crisis. Within three months of daily yoga practice, I had eased myself off the antidepressants that enable my attendance at a meditation weekend in an electric wheelchair and within twelve months I returned the electric wheelchair. Now I teach and write and speak and ski – I am in healthy relationship with the world.
And it is not just my anecdotal evidence. My Dru teacher and his colleagues were funded by the United Nations to teach yoga in war zones in Africa and Europe in the 1980s and 90s, and produced remarkable results. Additionally, an increasing body of academic research suggests modalities such as yoga, massage and tai chi delivered by experienced and qualified therapists, are effective tools in the treatment of PTSD.
We need to invite experienced and qualified professionals from complimentary, clinical and community sectors to the table, so that we can develop effective funding and management strategies and improve therapeutic outcomes. And we must scope our strategies from cradle to grave, across all social, racial and financial divides.
Our society is in crisis, and the increasing rates of chronic mental and physical illness are indicators that our traditional methods and current policies are not working. We desperately need to look beyond our own discipline, beyond what we have always done and collaborate.
Lynnette Dickinson has been delivering therapeutic yoga and meditation since 2009, and is the author of A Journey to Peace through Yoga. If you are interested in therapeutic yoga, yoga therapy, yoga for teens or trauma sensitive yoga, please contact Lynnette at www.splendouryoga.com or email@example.com.
“Peace is not a place you land and unpack.” Petrea King, Quest for Life 2016.
… and neither is Recovery.
“In stages, the impossible becomes possible.” T.V.K. Desikachar