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.
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.
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.”