I’ve been teaching yoga for veterans as long as I’ve been teaching yoga. When I started, I was transitioning from a not very successful career as an actor. In all likelihood, you never saw my favorite projects; a little indie film called Love Stalker and years of simulations for the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point. The friendships formed in that latter project probably made some articles I read during yoga teacher training pique my interest; they were about the well-documented healing effects of yoga on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries in military service members and veterans. I did some additional training in yoga for trauma, read David Emerson, and started a yoga program at the Brooklyn Vet Center in 2012.
When I moved to North Carolina later that year, I started teaching at Durham VA Medical Center–a class I teach to this day. A lot has changed for me in those five years; I met and married my abuser, left that relationship, and now have PTSD myself.
I remember re-reading Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score, noting with confusion that I was exhibiting trauma-related symptoms. I was remembering the feelings, but not the circumstances of arguments with my husband. I was hyper-vigilant–particularly in his presence. My sleep was becoming increasingly disturbed. I didn’t understand why, I just noticed and puzzled over it.
I remember lying on the hospital floor with my students at the VA, noting with growing alarm while cueing them to observe the sensations in their bodies that my own body was clenching–and I couldn’t stop it. I began to panic. I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I asked them to lie on their bellies with their foreheads on their hands–a position I’d always noticed this particular class loved. I told them I would be silent for about a minute. I struggled not to cry. I deepened my breathing. I didn’t tell them anything was wrong.
I remember the gratitude they showed clearly the day I finally told them. I don’t remember the words I used, but the weight of my unendurable burden hit me while teaching. I was carrying the secrets of my abuse, the weight of my own shame, my own expectations of having it all together. We were lying on the floor again. I picked my head up and looked at them. I took a deep breath, said I knew a lot of them shared a PTSD diagnosis–and that I have it, too. I put my head down and cried a little and heard a few “thank you”s. I felt relieved.
I started talking in those classes about the body sensations I’d never noticed before my own PTSD started. There were a few months where no amount of effort and none of my skillful body awareness could release the insistent knot at my solar plexus. It felt like I was carrying around a stone there, and I could not draw a full breath–ever. The closest I came to normal was while teaching–and I was tolerating the immense physical discomfort I was always in best while practicing with my students at the hospital.
The most important thing about these trauma conscious yoga classes and workshops isn’t the asana. It’s not my incredible skill as a teacher (although I do like to believe I know what I’m doing). It’s the community. It’s that we’re all bearing our unendurable burden together. Together, we can carry it.