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Damaris Maria Grossmann: From Battle Warrior To Peaceful Warrior

Damaris-Maria-Grossmann-Social-image

This is an interview with Damaris Maria Grossmann, a Registered Nurse, yoga therapist, and wellness educator. I met her at the 2016 World Affairs Conference at the University of Colorado, where she was invited to speak because she was “blessed to find yoga in 2006 when struggling with transitioning from the military of over 5 years in the US Navy during Global War on Terrorism.” She has vowed a life of nonviolence and to make the transition from battle warrior to peaceful warrior of the heart. She teaches veterans with the non-profit organization Team Red White and Blue, and has taught children in lower- income schools in Newark and Paterson, NJ, as well as at the Hackensack Cancer Center with the non-profit organization Kula for Karma. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate at Rutgers University, working on integrative health care for health professionals who want to lessen stress and burnout, and a Certified YogaNurse®.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

I injured my back when I was in the Navy. The injury was the result of a traumatic and emotional situation that was out of my control. I found myself alone, depressed, and living my life in pain, anger, and full of post-traumatic stress. I was introduced to yoga as movement therapy, and I was so surprised it helped. Yoga helped save my life. In my darkest moments, I learned to see the light. My motivation is to teach yoga and integrative health practices to help facilitate others’ healing, now that yoga has helped me. Yoga is whole-body medicine, and should be a part of all medicine.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

I feel rewarded when I see the way my students are able to relax and reset. I’m so thankful to see someone be successful who has struggled to relax. The mat is an opportunity for them to be in present time, and to let go in ways that help them find space to forgive themselves and others. The best part of teaching is watching the moment when a person learns the power of their breath as a way of healing and as a source of unconditional love.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

I’ve learned to be patient, and to listen to the answers within. My students also have helped me to understand the opportunity in the struggles we all face, and that we can find the best part of ourselves.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors facing the veterans you work with? In what ways does it not?

Most of the yoga classes offered in studios across the country may be inaccessible for veterans, either because the approach may be based on assumptions about the clientele that don’t apply to veterans, or simply because they are too expensive. I’m thankful to studios and non-profit organizations like Mindful Yoga Therapy and Kula for Karma that offer free classes for veterans.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

To me, the practice of mindfulness is not just about being aware of the present moment. We can use those moments to make a change in the world, because we become more mindful of the direction in which we would like our action to lead. Connecting with ourselves through mindfulness will bring both calm into our lives, and allows us to make positive change in the world.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach the veterans that you work with? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

When you teach veterans, take time to pause and observe your judgments about what they may have done in their work. Try to accept them where they are, and believe they are our best teachers. I suggest being mindful of your words, and of the transition poses. Be open and genuine, expressing any emotion, or none at all. The breath and quietness of yoga and meditation may be scary moments for veterans. Always reiterate they are here on the mat, in their breath and safe. Take the time to be aware of options and modifications of poses. Always let a group know that any amount or any pose is a beautiful pose; it’s about the time for them to listen within.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I believe yoga is a very important part of American healing! Most all of us suffer in some manner with pain or illness. My hope is that yoga will be available to all populations. Actually, one of my greatest passions is complete integrative health within hospitals, communities, and health clinics. Yoga is a way of facilitating healing for the mind-body and spirit. As a nurse veteran and yogi I have seen the impact it has had on my own health and well-being. I intend to promote yoga and wellness as a necessary part of healing in health care communities worldwide.

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Interested in helping veterans to find a calm body/mind? Learn more about Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans and join a teacher training near you.

Terri Cooper: Connection is the Cure

Terri-Cooper-Featured

TERRI COOPER IMAGE COURTESY OF DEREK KEARNEY PHOTOGRAPHY

This is an interview with Terri Cooper, who told me that in 2003, “yoga saved my life. It had such a profound impact on me. I knew immediately that I needed to share this healing practice, so I jumped into teacher training. I felt called to bring this healing practice to those would wouldn’t normally have access to it, so just three months later I started my first outreach class, and have been doing it ever since.  What started out as just a personal passion soon became Yoga Gangsters a 501c(3) not-for-profit organization, and after 13 years and 15,000 kids served we matured into Connection Coalition (that’s CoCo for short), with trainings in 25 states.  We address the symptoms of trauma and poverty through yoga, meditation, and mindfulness and train our teachers to create connection with youth in schools, jails, shelters, rehabs, and more.” 

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? 

I’ve always been motivated by the lack of access to necessary resources for communities in crisis.  We know that trauma can be healed, and we know how. Yet, there is still an enormous gap between those who need these tools and those who can easily access them. And, for me—that’s just not ok. Unfortunately, racism and classism continue to perpetuate the cycle of trauma through mass incarceration, under-resourced schools, and lack of opportunities, just to name a few.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

The connection is the most rewarding. It’s what we’re all about. Through yoga, people get to cultivate a connection between their movement and the breath. That enables them to connect to themselves in a loving and healing way.  And we all know that when we are in a challenging experience, our crazy human minds start to rip ourselves apart with “not enough-ness.”  The stretching and breathing begin to release tension, and people naturally develop mindfulness around their thoughts, and how these thoughts affect them. In this space we make the connection that ultimately, we’re all very similar and want the same things—to be happy and feel safe.  Yet our access and privilege can be wildly different, causing a major gap between those who have resources and those who don’t.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

They’ve taught me not to judge so quickly. I always ask their name and a bonus question during our sessions. One of the questions I ask is what would be your superpower? At a juvenile detention center, one student responded with shooting bullets from his finger. In that moment I could’ve judged him, but my work has taught me not to react quickly, instead to stay in an inquiry. So, I asked the child why and he responded that he wanted to stop his mom’s boyfriend from raping his little sister.  See how this illustrates that there is a relationship between trauma and violence. This is why our motto is “No blame, No shame, No judgment.”

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with at-risk youth in juvenile detention centers?    

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are proven to regulate the nervous system, and thus lead to practitioners being less reactive and more responsive. These are necessary tools when you’re caught up in a system that is flawed, biased, and sometimes even corrupt. There is an inequality that exists in this system that has created a school-to-prison pipeline, thus continuing the cycle of trauma and poverty.

Often we hear claims of yoga as a means to positively change the world. What in your mind is the relationship between a yoga practice and greater social change?

Greater social change is only possible when people with privilege and power begin to take steps to create this change.  Today, the yoga community is still overwhelmingly white and privileged.  We at CoCo encourage this community to think about how their access and privilege has allowed them to move through life, and how not having those privileges would be devastating – access to quality education, healthy food, safe environments, and the list goes on.

Through yoga, more and more leaders and decision makers are cultivating empathy. They see the systemic separation and inequality that is persistent in this country.  Our CoCo trainings facilitate a conversation around race, privilege, and power, and we weave this delicate conversation into our yoga experiences.  I look forward to the day that this dialogue and awareness will eventually lead to policy change.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

My hope is that there will no longer be a separation of yoga and service yoga. I would love to see yoga, meditation, and mindfulness as part of the normal school curriculum that all students have access to.  I also dream that one day our policy makers will have a mindfulness practice and that self-regulation will be as habitual as brushing our teeth in the morning.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Cat Lauer: How We Serve Those In Recovery

Cat-Lauer

CAT LAUER IMAGE COURTESY OF JOSLYN GRIFFIN OF GATHER IN KIN

I recently met Cat Lauer at the Hanuman Yoga Festival in Boulder, CO. She volunteer teaches free yoga classes to support recovery from addiction, trauma, and mental illness, and she is paid to teach studio classes at Old Town Yoga Studio in the historic downtown of Fort Collins, CO. Her “Yoga For Recovery” classes are designed to complement on-going therapy with physicians and mental-health therapists. Visit: catleaslauer.com/yoga-for-recovery

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work?

During the summer of 2002, I was a seva student at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. There I was exposed to yogic practices and meditation. Years later I sought help for an eating disorder; I pledged that whatever modality best served my recovery, I would work to provide the same opportunity to others. That turned out to be yoga. I began to expand on my home practice with individual sessions with a yoga therapist, then studio classes and workshops, and on to a teacher training program.

Yoga for Recovery is offered to those in recovery from addiction, trauma, and mental illness. While my recovery was from an eating disorder, the class teaches skills that address issues relevant to many recovery paths. I’ve witnessed commonalities among people in recovery, clients I met while working as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, and in my current work at a mental health and substance abuse facility.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

The most rewarding aspect of this work is to see the change in body language during practice. So far, the lesson I learn week after week in class is that all the gifts I’ve experienced while practicing yoga in recovery are also received by others. Yoga may not be the core of everybody’s recovery, but they still benefit from a simple yoga practice. Then they in turn go on to create safer, healthier communities for people who may not otherwise be able to afford a trauma-informed, inclusive studio class.

When I entered my initial yoga teacher training, I was unsure as to whether the program was to deepen my practice and further my recovery, or the first step towards teaching others in recovery. At my first practicum, I felt so very sure that I would continue on to teach others in recovery – but I had a plan consisting of years of training and fundraising to make it happen. Over time my students have taught me that grand plans might not be as important or effective as these: a clear idea of the population I wanted to serve (those in recovery seeking a yoga and/or meditation practice, who may not be able to afford a regular studio class), and how helpful free access to yoga practice is. In essence we are all practicing breathing, and movement, and moments of peace on our mats that will lead to greater compassion towards ourselves and others. In short – recovery!

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people recovering from mental illness/trauma/addiction?

There are a number of brave souls in the world advocating for the end of the social stigmas associated with mental illness, trauma, and addiction. By holding a safe place for any and all to sign in and say, yes – me, I am in recovery, I hope to support acceptance and counteract the isolation and shame surrounding these issues. Recovery is time-consuming and emotionally draining, yet few of us in recovery chat freely about such things, so we bear this burden alone .

Each class I teach is designed to be trauma-informed, includes breath-work and meditation to confront the anxiety, depression, and overwhelm that may be a part of recovery, as well as responses to society’s judgments of people in recovery. These techniques encourage us to listen to our own wise mind, practice acceptance, and move through discomfort and change to forgiveness.

Finally, there is the great healing force of connection; in class together we can celebrate practicing in community.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

My hope is that more yoga teachers will discover that they have gifts to give to others who need free access to the healing power of yoga, so I hope yoga practitioners see their own potential to give back in small ways. All it takes is noticing a need and finding one small part of one’s self that fits that need. And acting on it before one starts to question one’s ability! We all have an ability to serve, and incorporating service into our practice and our work is … exciting! Hopeful! Empowering! Fun! … And important for our communities.

As I’ve said, recovery is time-intensive and expensive. I am so grateful for donations from individuals, the Give Back Yoga Foundation, and Gaiam. My hope is that in the future more organizations—non-profit and for-profit—will continue to donate beautiful mats and props, music, and a clean, safe space easily accessed by bike, foot, public transportation or car.

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Are you interested in adding mindfulness techniques to your teaching toolkit? Explore the ways our yoga therapy and yoga service trainings can prepare you to support people in recovery.

Christine Moore: Sharing Adaptive Yoga

Adaptive Yoga with Christine MooreThis is an interview with Christine Moore, who attended her first yoga teacher training while her son was serving a second tour with the United States Navy in Afghanistan in 2009. She was inspired during that time to teach yoga to veterans, and did so for a few years at the Denver VA hospital. She now teaches yoga to inmates at the county jail in Boulder CO, and adaptive yoga to people with disabilities at Imagine Santa Fe House, a group home. (Her first love being dance, she developed a class she calls “Shimmy~Asana,” where the two ancient arts of belly dance and yoga meet.)

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? 

My motivation to teach veterans came from my desire to grasp what I might be faced with on my son’s return from his tour in Afghanistan. I drove 45 minutes each way to volunteer for an hour, and it was the highlight of my week. I left feeling lifted and inspired by students who made the effort to make it to the mat with challenges too difficult for most of us to conceive. Their passion ignited my own. I never dreamed how deeply the veterans would inspire me and motivate me to continue to learn more about yoga, adaptive yoga, and to dive deep into learning more about myself.

What keeps me motivated is the persistent reminder of how each of us, with all our differences, are really so alike in our shared humanity. I learn every time I’m with my students, not only about yoga, but about life. And I’m motivated by the constant awareness of how fortunate I am to be in the body I inhabit.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

One of my students, who is in her 40s, has Down Syndrome. She has very little use of her arm and an arthritic hand. I watch her hands unfold as she slowly brings them into Namaste. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there; the persistence and determination warms my heart. After much effort, the smile that breaks across her face when her palms touch is priceless.

If I can facilitate a person’s inner ability to have this take place, I feel rewarded and honored to witness this. If I were to describe to you the colors of a sunset, it would never be the same as seeing it with your own eyes. Sharing my yoga in this way is like that, witnessing true beauty. These beautiful people teach me to cherish and be resilient; there is little that is as gratifying as that is to me.

What are some of the things your students have taught you? 

One of my students left me with a challenge to question my motivation. She was uncomfortable in her body, and the staff at Imagine told me that she had been screaming nonstop for weeks. She seemed frightened in her wheelchair with her feet dangling in space, unable to stop the world from spinning around her. It resonated with me that this client’s proprioception was challenged. I sat across from her at eye level and grounded her feet by placing them on blocks. I looked in her eyes and gently held her knees. After a few moments she stopped screaming.

One day when I came to teach I was told she had died during the week. My grief unnerved me. I thought that I should be happy for her that she was released from a body in such pain. She had only ever shared two words with me, “yes and no,” and yet our connection felt deep and genuine. I spent several weeks examining myself, and learned a great deal about my ego, my judgments, and even my frailty in this human body.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people with disabilities?

In response to this work I’ve had people say, “How does that work, how can you teach yoga to someone in a wheelchair?” I ask that same person how they find Tadasana (standing mountain pose) in their own body when they are sitting. The sensation is the same. This creates a feeling of connection rather than separateness, as it reveals our similarities and unravels what we see as division. The more people see the abilities in others, the fewer barriers there are between us all. Social misconceptions break down and we all gain from these stories. The practitioners build greater confidence and better ability to participate within society. My hope is that this allows others to see people with disabilities in a new light.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

Mindfulness helps to stimulate the prefrontal cortex (PFC), allowing us to regulate our behavior rather than responding with our primitive and reactive fight-or-flight reaction. If we can respond to others in a mindful way, we may be able to recognize the commonality between us and “the Other,” enhancing our ability to accept differences. This perception of difference was crucial to our survival in primitive times. Mindfulness enhances our ability to slow down and notice that we are safe. Empowering ourselves this way can create a huge transition in consciousness and enable social change.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach people with disabilities? What would be the most important thing for them to carry? 

Expect that everything will be different from what you imagine. Be comfortable with critical thinking. Be compassionate and patient with others, but first with yourself. Things move very slowly, so results of any kind might be subtle or unnoticeable. Have a tool box of yoga skills to dive into at any moment with confidence.

Attend workshops to learn specific techniques for adaptive yoga and trauma. Matthew Sanford’s book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence is a must-read for anyone considering this work. His teachings have been a huge inspiration for me.

We are never fully healed, yet our work supporting others comes from having processed the things that drive us to do the work. It is possible to transform judgment, fear, and loss into compassion and the enthusiasm to be present with others.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope to see yoga become more available to children and youth, and to those who do not have the financial means to easily access yoga. I hope that within the next decade it will become a required and regular practice for healing.

I have a friend who walked into her daughter’s 3rd grade class of 75 children and they were having their daily quiet meditation practice. Imagine 75 children sitting in silence. Those children’s lives and relationships will be transformed by this simple practice. The transformation has a ripple effect that can help dissipate hatred and fear. I want that for everyone! The outcome would benefit us all.

We are living in tumultuous times, and my biggest hope is that yoga will help us re-vision our relationships with self and with others.

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 Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn more about our nationwide initiative this November to give back yoga.

Susan Lovett: Yoga for Those Living With Poverty & Trauma

Susan LovettThis is an interview with Susan Lovett, a licensed social worker, K-8 teacher, and a registered yoga teacher who has worked with urban low-income youth and families in the greater Boston area for over 25 years. During her yoga teacher training in 2013 she offered yoga classes and workshops for students at the high-poverty urban school where she works as a clinical social worker, providing therapeutic interventions and programs for youth with trauma. The students enjoyed their yoga and mindfulness practices, and Susan began receiving many requests from teachers and other social workers to provide yoga for their students. Through word of mouth, staff members at local community-based social service agencies heard about her yoga teaching, and requests for classes came in from those sites too. 

Hands to Heart Center (HTHC) – Yoga for the People —is a non-profit yoga service organization Susan founded in 2014 that provides free yoga classes for people living with poverty and trauma in Boston. It orchestrates a pool of over 140 yoga teacher volunteers, who have taught more than 700 free yoga classes in branch libraries, community centers, detention units, domestic violence shelters, high-poverty schools, homeless shelters, public housing developments, and residential treatment programs in Boston.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

In my social work career, I’ve always served low-income youth and families with trauma and am constantly seeking effective resources for my clients. When I read Damien Echols’ book Life After Death, I learned that he believes his yoga and mindfulness practice saved his life when he was wrongly imprisoned on death row. I realized that yoga was the resource I was looking for. It requires no equipment, no specific skills or physical abilities, and can be practiced by anyone, in any condition, in any location. Yoga can be practiced by a prisoner on death row, by a young person who lives with their abuser, by a student in a challenging school environment. and by a client in a residential treatment program for substance abuse disorder.

I continue to be motivated by the gratitude consistently expressed by HTHC’s yoga teacher volunteers and students, and by the large numbers of people living with poverty and trauma in Boston who don’t have access to yoga.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Being allowed into people’s lives for moments of grace while we’re all on our mats. I love the peaceful silence of savasana, especially in settings that are rarely associated with serenity and softness. When we’re all breathing together in those spaces, I feel more connected to the other people in the room, regardless of all of our lived experiences, and the external conditions that separate us from each other.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

That yoga practice doesn’t have to be so serious! That we can laugh and talk to each other on our mats. They’ve also taught me to expect the unexpected, and to go with the flow!

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play for people living in poverty?

Yoga is effective in alleviating anxiety, depression, and stress and trauma, but yoga classes are expensive. There are no yoga studios in low-income neighborhoods. Regular yoga practice promotes health and wellness, increases capacity and builds resilience. Hands to Heart Center exists to share this powerful and effective resource with those who need it most.

For people living with the chronic stress of poverty, yoga provides many benefits, including an hour to 75 minutes with no demands, other than to breathe. Yoga class is a time when people with overwhelming stress can be nourished and supported. HTHC yoga classes provide community and connection among a wide range of people, connections that may not happen outside of yoga class. The message of HTHC is that yoga is effective and practical, and needs to be accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic status. HTHC calls on yoga teachers, many of whom benefit from great privilege, to leverage their privilege, their education, and their skills on behalf of others.

In order to address the inequities in access to yoga, HTHC has implemented a Yoga Coach program, a 20-hour free training for HTHC students and staff of our community partners. Upon completion of the program, HTHC Yoga Coaches will be able to teach a safe, one-hour class with eight simple postures. To participate in the HTHC Yoga Coach program, students commit to providing a minimum of six free HTHC yoga classes in their communities. Thus the HTHC Yoga Coach program fosters a larger, more culturally, racially, and socioeconomically diverse group of people who can lead yoga classes. Graduates of the HTHC Yoga Coach program are connected with scholarships to local 200-hour yoga teacher training programs if they’re interested in continuing their yoga teaching education.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

I believe that individuals who cultivate a practice of mindfulness have increased capacity to actively participate in social change efforts. I don’t think mindfulness alone positively affects income inequality, health disparities, racism, and violence in society, but I do think that people who develop mindfulness practice often seek out others who do the same. Collectively, the organized actions of mindfulness practitioners who focus on social justice can be powerful.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope that yoga service organizations will become commonplace in the next 10 years, and that the concept of yoga service will be integrated into more yoga teacher training programs. I believe that the scientific evidence about how a regular yoga practice can decrease anxiety, depression, stress, and trauma, and increase resilience will be more well-known, and that yoga will be part of the organizational culture in detention units, health centers, and schools.

I’d definitely like to see more federal and state funding available for yoga service organizations so that trauma-informed yoga teachers can be appropriately compensated for their skills. I believe that more and more yoga teachers are becoming interested in, and excited about, yoga service, and that the general public is becoming more informed about the many benefits of yoga, along with the important and effective work that’s being done in the yoga service field.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn more about our nationwide initiative this November to give back yoga.

Yoga and Trauma

By Rob Schware, Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation

Originally published on Gaia.com

Yoga and Trauma

The benefits of a yoga practice include building flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and concentration. However, a regular yoga practice can help anyone dealing with the stress of facing military deployment, being homeless, being in prison or recovering from alcohol and substance abuse.

It is tempting for me to write a book about each of these worthy people. Instead, over the past four years, I’ve interviewed many of them for a Huffington Post blog series called Yoga: How We Serve.

In their interviews, these women and men shared the unique needs of survivors of trauma, lessons learned in doing this work and how existing resources and treatments generally do not adequately address the needs of these populations. Here is just one of many extraordinary comments from a Vietnam War veteran in a program called Mindful Yoga Therapy:

 

“As I started to practice daily, I noticed several things happening. First, I began to sleep better. Next, I was getting to know myself, for the first time ever. Slowly I came off all of my psych meds. That was big! For the first time in over 40 years, I was medication free. Over the years, I’ve been on over 23 different kinds of medications, from Ativan to Xanax! Yoga is now my therapy.”

Vietnam War Veteran

This veteran went on to say he hopes that Yoga will someday be offered to all veterans, and offered to our troops during basic training.

I very much share this hope, because the costs of treating trauma — whether it occurred 40 years ago, or in the past decade –have become a major concern in our society. According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, the economic burden of trauma is more than $585 billion annually in the U.S., including both health care costs and lost productivity.

The CDC also measures “Life Years Lost,” used to account for the age at which deaths occur, which gives greater weight to deaths occurring at younger ages and lower weights to deaths that occur at older ages. It turns out that the impact on life-years lost from trauma is equal to the life-years lost from cancer, heart disease, and HIV combined.

Statistics can’t say much about the personal burdens of individuals and families, of how individual sufferers are impacted, but it’s still instructive to mention one or two more here. For instance, there is an average of 293,066 Victims Of Sexual Assault Or Rape each year in the US, with someone in the United States being sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. And roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day from the effects of PTS symptoms, one every 65 minutes.

WHAT IS TRAUMA?

The word “trauma” comes from the Greek, and means “a wound” resulting from an emotional or psychological injury or experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems, usually for a long time. According to Bessel Van Der Kolk:

“Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds…The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives.”

YOGA FOR RECOVERY

The lives of many trauma survivors revolve around coping with the constant sense of danger they feel in their bodies. It is typically difficult for them to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. As Yoga Of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR) founder Nikki Myers puts it, “Sustainable addiction recovery is about more than the mind…the issues live in our tissues.”

Y12SR is a rich framework for integrating the wisdom of yoga and the practical tools of 12-step programs, with Y12SR meetings available nationwide, and the curriculum quickly becoming a feature of addiction recovery treatment centers across the United States.

SEXUAL ASSAULT

Yoga helps one reconnect with the body, giving the opportunity to discharge accumulated stress and anxiety, and restoring the human organism to safety. Sabrina Seronello’s story paints this picture: she was on active duty in the Air Force from March 2000-March 2006, working as a medic in the emergency department of a Level 1 trauma center at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB. Sabrina deployed to Iraq in January 2005 to the Air Force Theater Hospital, a Level III (injured patients and emergency operations) trauma center. Given what she saw and experienced taking care of the wounded in Iraq, and being a victim of sexual assault while in active duty, she had been suffering anxiety and panic attacks. Upon returning from Iraq she was introduced to yoga and saw how it helped her deal with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. In 2013 she started teaching a regular weekly yoga class to incarcerated veterans at San Quentin State Prison in CA under the Prison Yoga Project.

Trauma-sensitive yoga programs are becoming more available at domestic violence shelters, and universities are offering them for survivors of sexual assault. Caitlin Lanier was sexually assaulted during her freshman year of college. This assault led to issues with anorexia, cutting and otherwise trying to numb her uncomfortable feelings. According to Caitlin:

“Those were just outward manifestations. Inside, I felt broken, ugly, lost, like I couldn’t trust anyone, and so sad.”

Caitlin has recently pioneered several trauma-sensitive yoga programs in the Boise, Idaho, area, including at a domestic violence shelter, and at Boise State and the College of Idaho. She also trains local yoga teachers on the neuroscience of trauma and how to integrate trauma-sensitive practices into their teaching. She has woven breathing techniques and mindfulness into a weekly support group for survivors of domestic violence that she co-leads with a licensed clinical social worker.

COMBAT-RELATED PTS

People with post-traumatic stress (PTS) who practice yoga report better sleep, improved focus and concentration, less anger and irritability, and exhibit an overall greater ability to enjoy life in the present moment. The Mindful Yoga Therapy program has been found to be especially helpful for veterans who are also participating in evidence-based psychotherapy for PTS.

“Yoga is like a gyro that brings me back into equilibrium when dealing with the effects of my disorder,” says Paul, a Vietnam War veteran.

YOGA FOR PRISONERS

Breath work, three extended exhales, is part and parcel of the Prison Yoga Project protocol for addressing symptoms of un-discharged traumatic stress, according to James Fox, Founder and Director. “The extended exhale serves as the body’s built-in release valve to discharge stress and anxiety,” he says. This is confirmed from current and former prisoners at San Quentin State Prison who have been part of the yoga program.

“It was mainly because of the inner peace and trust that I have developed and nurtured through my yoga practice that I was able to respond to a confrontational situation with calm.”—B.B.

“I’m able to stay grounded by getting into my breathing which takes my focus off stressful, traumatic events such as flashbacks. It keeps me mindful mentally and physically and enhances my self control.” –D.B.

YOGA & EATING DISORDERS

Finally, yoga can become a game-changer in combatting eating disorders. An estimated 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating). Chelsea Roff took her first yoga class at the suggestion of a therapist just a few months after getting out of the hospital for eating disorder treatment.

“The short story is that yoga brought me to a place in my recovery that no form of talk therapy or medical treatment ever had before. Downward dog certainly didn’t cure my eating disorder, but the practice did teach me how to relate to my body in a more compassionate way. And more importantly, perhaps, going to yoga introduced me to community–to the people I soon came to consider family – and I suppose that’s exactly what I needed to fully step into recovery,” she says.

HEALTH CARE COSTS

What if the over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys who use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives, were offered regular yoga classes? Regular trauma-sensitive yoga classes for victims of trauma can help reduce our nation’s health care costs on a larger scale, as they address cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated with trauma. But a cultural change is required to make this happen. The current system is broken, because it overly relies on medical therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are very costly without commensurate relief from symptoms.

According to Kantar Media, the heath care industry spent $14 billion on advertising alone in 2014, enough to fund over 215,000 trauma sensitive yoga classes. Especially for PTS, mainstream therapies have resulted in patients remaining significantly symptomatic after treatment, with additional problems including addiction, difficulties maintaining work, and homelessness.

The results are adding up to a national calamity that leaves human lives in ruins, particularly for men and women who have risked their lives to serve our country and need our help. According the Congressional Budget Office’s report on PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury among recent combat veterans, the average cost of treatment in the first year is $8,300 per patient and $4,100 in the following years. The average cost of treating an eating disorder is $1,250 per day, and only 1 in 10 sufferers ever receive treatment. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Such treatment is expensive not only for patients, but for insurance companies, and society at large.

 


FURTHER READING

The evidence base for the effectiveness of yoga in addressing trauma is extensive. Here are some resources for further reading:

The Body Keeps The Score: Memory and Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress – the textbook on trauma and body-mind practices by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

 Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper

The Trauma Toolkit: Healing PTSD From The Inside Out by Susan Pease Banitt

Intelligence In The Flesh by Guy Claxton