Monthly Archives: October 2014

Craters & Volcanoes (Pressure, Change and Opportunity in the Face of Instability): Teaching Yoga for The County of San Luis Obispo Adult Treatment Court Collaborative

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Color-coded relief map of Linné Crater on the Moon

The Ngorongoro Crater is the largest volcanic crater in the world. It teems with life and is home to “the big five:” lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhino. The crater is an UNESCO World Heritage site , not only for its biodiversity but for the “extensive archaeological research [which] has… yielded a long sequence of evidence of human evolution and human-environment dynamics, including early hominid footprints dating back 3.6 million years.” Photographs of this 2,000 foot deep,12 mile wide crater, are stunning.

Back home, nine volcanic peaks stretch twelve miles, from the Pacific Ocean inland, in San Luis Obispo County, California. The Nine Sisters, home to the Chumash Indians before modern man, held religious significance and are revered today as historical and natural landmarks. Though extinct, these volcanic peaks and the African crater may be used as metaphor for transformation, eruption and revolution on all levels.

I will often compare San Luis Obispo to the Ngorongoro crater because, like the crater, SLO is hemmed in on all sides, but by ocean and ranch land. Information and influences move in and out of this area very slowly and selectively.

This is why it still takes me by surprise that I have been hired by The San Luis Obispo County Adult Treatment Court Collaborative (ATCC) as a Yoga instructor. Yoga is an innovative, mind-body therapy in the West. Psychiatry, in particular and substance-abuse recovery services are not necessarily known for their innovation, at least not around these parts. I know, as I have been a client of San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health Services since 1993.

Elisa Leigan, BA, RAS, is the coordinator of the ATCC program, which is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA), a federal agency. In 2011, SAMHSA awarded only eleven grants to Behavioral Health Service Agencies across the U.S. These grants married behavioral health courts (or “mental health court”) and Drug and Alcohol Services (or “drug court”) to streamline the forensic services offered to individuals with co-occurring mental health disorders and diagnosed substance abuse disorders. ATCC is a jail diversion program. ATCC clients have committed a crime, often drug-related, and, through the Treatment Court Collaborative, have been invited to participate in this program to study the effects of alternative treatment methods. A grant was awarded to San Luis Obispo County. When Elisa learned of my services as a Yoga therapist specializing in mental health, she sought me out.

It would be years, however, before she found me.

Meanwhile, I continued to study feverishly on my own about mental health, particularly bipolar disorder, and Yoga’s effects on mood. I moved to northern California to continue training as a Yoga therapist. I returned to SLO County and then a mutual friend and colleague, Anne Kellogg, bridged our gap.

I met Elisa this summer and, together with several County employees, we designed a thirteen-week program to study the effect of Yoga on ATCC clients. The results will be reviewed in December and submitted to SAMHSA in Washington, D.C. This is revolutionary. Volcanic, in my opinion.

Working in the belly of the beast, at the County, where I have suffered so much trouble at the hands of Mental Health Services psychiatrists, psych techs and case managers doing their jobs, has been challenging and eye-opening and redeeming. From this new angle, what I can see is a system, a tangled web of a bureaucracy where kind people, for the most part, are doing their best while ensnared in the trap of “the system.” The System has rules to keep it functioning. The System has A Budget, for which every cent is accounted. The System requires a concensus to approve of innovative programming. The System makes subverting The System a necessity to introduce innovation. This System does not move at a human rate. The System is embarrassingly slow and flawed, as a system. It tries hard.

I’m in.

Let me attempt to describe the beauty of the grown men and women (of my beloved sister, D’Arcy, in different bodies) who participate in Yoga: addicts, mental health diagnoses, survivors of unmentionable or indescribable traumas, surviving the psychiatric trend know as PolyPharm – people on six and eight medications, so many they cannot list them on a medical questionnaire because they can’t remember them all. People so real, unapologetically, people with tremors and sweats, detoxing on the Yoga mat, breathing, trying, paying attention, closing their eyes, resting.

Moms. Senses of humor. Gentlemen. Smokers. Caffeinated. Undernourished. Impoverished. Scared. Homeless. Terrified. Kind. Serviceful. Respectful. Well-intentioned. Alert. Game. Curious. Sweet. Innocent. Childlike. Skeptical. Dehydrated. Exhausted. Nervous. Broken. Whole.

Whole.

Beauty lies in the promise that Yoga holds for this demographic, for those who calm, who relax, who can let the process take them.

There are more in the program who cannot let the process take them than those who can. Post-traumatic stress disorder will fuck a person up. It is disabling and impairing, emotionally, socially and physically. It can make it impossible to come into a Yoga room without a fight, or impossible to stay. PTSD can make it impossible to close the eyes in a room full of people; impossible to have someone – a Yoga teacher – move behind them. My compassion is saturated by these experiences.

The clients at The San Luis Obispo Adult Collaborative aren’t people with whom I usually interface. “They” are the fringiest of our society, the most vulnerable and the most desperate for quality care. These people are my sister who died of a heroin overdose, self-medicating her mental illness. These people are me: traumatized, walking through the rain, looking for sunshine, part of The System, with the potential to teem with life.

My deepest mission is to allow these clients what I have been afforded by the consistent practice of Yoga: the gentle eruption of ego and pain, the reckoning of loss and vulnerability; the transformation of self-protection to self-study; the revolution of all-consuming resistance into observation, non-animosity, self-care and surrender.

This endeavor may certainly help to promote the yielding, like in that African crater, of “a long sequence… of human evolution and human-environment dynamics.”

Be well.

AUM

I Blog for The International Bipolar Foundation

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I am honored to be one of http://www.ibpf.org’s monthly bloggers. As they request original content from their bloggers, anything that you read “over there” will be either much shorter or entirely new content not available on this website.

Check it out!

http://www.ibpf.org/tags/brooke-west

Supreme Gratitude as Antidote

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It has been a tremendous year – well, two – for me, one of those when my friends can actually comfort and encourage me by saying, “You’re being tested.”

We all go through these rites of passage. Sometimes we can attribute these forces of change to a mid-life crisis or name it some other transitional title to try to make sense of it, to stay grounded. Stories of butterflies and metamorphosis…

In the face of such profound change, that I am still standing is, to me, a miracle. I told my therapist this week, “It’s like tidal waves are crashing over and me and all I feel is a light breeze.” I may have exaggerated that last part a little, but I attribute my stability to my Yoga practice.

  • My Yoga practice, like all practices do, has changed over the past decade. Now, instead of logging serious hours in a Bikram studio like I used to, I sit in meditation, Kriya Yoga meditation, specifically, daily. This practice takes me about forty-five minutes every morning, which is a significant time commitment, in my opinion. I have come to crave it.
  • I apply Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga to my life whenever and wherever possible. I am familiar enough with the limbs now to match the principles to my life. I have had to go back to my Yoga Teacher Training binder and check and check and check…
  • I also teach Yoga and Ayurveda on a regular basis. This grounds me. I maintain vigilant awareness of my breath, body and mood synergy. Though I happen to feel that I need more exercise these days, Bikram Yoga isn’t the right fit for me anymore. I move my body gently these days. The extreme environment of Bikram Yoga studios offer an incredible opportunity for gathering, focusing and concentrating mental and physical energies. The evolution of my Yoga practice has exchanged 105’F for a cooling, gentle Kriya practice, rife with opportunities to practice dharana, or intense focus, and is no doubt part of what is keeping me upright during this period of testing.

 Tough

This year, I broke up with my boyfriend and moved back to the central coast after thirteen difficult and heartbreaking months in Northern California. Supreme Gratitude as Antidote: I am grateful for the opportunity to be back home.

My favorite Aunt Joan died last month – complications from lifelong smoking. She was my family mentor in recovery from bipolar disorder and she was very generous with me in spirit. V I am forever grateful for her mentorship.

I was robbed last weekend – ! – but, Supreme Gratitude as Antidote: there was no activity on my credit cards and my car windows weren’t broken, because I had left the car unlocked. (I dropped the cards without realizing they were in my car in my acute dog-loss grief.More about that below.)

As my friend, Sandra, said to me today, “Practicing supreme gratitude is the only thing that will save you from depression.”

Surrender

In my deepest moment of depression, in bed one winter, when I allowed myself to really feel it and to be OK with it, to no longer suffer it, was my turning point, when the Light began to crack through for me in a broad way. Ishwara pranidana, “surrender to God,” according to Patanjali, is how I would describe this very human experience. Supreme Gratitude as Antidote: My life began to change for the better, in fits and starts, but over time, I saw a shift in subtle energy in the the room that was my life.

I surrendered both of my beloved dogs this year, putting them down. Humane, yes, but torturous for the heart. I had Ruby, my white Mexican street dog – who I rescued in Mexico-  for fourteen years. She was my shadow, always beside me. I called her “a Mexican healer” when people asked what kind of dog was she. The extraordinary sense of loss-of-home that I feel with her now that she is in Spirit is a shift of subtle energy to my core. It was time for her to go and her death signifies a transition for me, in lifestyle and potential. I am grateful to that dog in so many ways. She trained me to relax and to have a daily ritual, dinacharya. I ache from the void. I feel unmoored without her tonight, and profoundly grateful for our service to one another.

My big dream has been realized this season: I am teaching Yoga in a jail-diversion setting to clients of The County of San Luis Obispo with co-occurring diagnoses (mental health and substance use disorders, mostly bipolar disorder). The magic of the creation of this project… the story is uncanny and took years to coalesce. Despite the triumph and victory, I have struggled,  having to advocate for myself, for future Yoga teachers and for clients throughout the entire process: for adequate compensation, for access to the research results, for the design of the program to be beneficial for the clients. Governmental agencies tend to wring the creativity out of their employees by virtue of the way bureaucracies are forced to function. Organic creativity, when sublimated,  is often replaced by fear – in the human body, in the manipura chakra and beyond, and in the foundation of the entity: the halls and offices of County employees. Having to work with that energy came as a complete surprise and caught me off-guard. I found it extremely difficult to navigate and, at one point, I almost quit. We were almost there and I was getting hot and frustrated. I am grateful to my girlfriends Toni and Daniela, who pointed out these bureaucratic tendencies to me, because now I can better navigate them, supremely.

I genuinely love to teach the clientele at the County.

I have so many things and people and experiences in my life for which to be grateful: a roof, a car that runs, food, loving family, jobs and opportunities, a purpose, a magnificent place to live, friends, willingness and education to continue recovery and advocacy…

Even so, I need a regular, unshakable practice of Supreme Gratitude. To keep those waves crashing lightly and to move ahead with an attitude that magnetizes goodness into my life, and magnifies it, I must allow myself to feel, in my body, the goodness, even in dark times.

I need the reminder, as an antidote to being not-in-control of much this life.

May Supreme Gratitude become an essential part of my dharana practice, moving me ever closer to a state of Supreme Bliss, mine by Divine right.

AUM