Tag Archives: My Story

National Presentation Campaign at ALTCON2015: Bringing Trauma-Informed Yoga-Based Practices to the Top

Yoga, Mental Illness and Summertime Fun

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“Mental illness” is not my favorite term to use as a Yoga therapist or as a peer in recovery. I prefer “behavioral health,” “mental health issues,” “mental health” or “mental wellness.” Affirmations are powerful medicine, and a fundamental pranayama practice. Thoughts are energy, and every little bit adds up.

People identify with the term “mental illness” in our culture, as a label and as something to fear. As I move through the world as an advocate, researcher, teacher and friend, I recognize more and more that mental illnesses are the norm, and that behavioral health issues affect everyone. Values, ethics and relationships define our behavior. We need models, and Yoga and 12-Step Recovery offer structure, community and best practices to improve our health and our lives.

As a presenter at The International Association of Yoga Therapist’s Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research last month, I was moved to receive feedback all weekend on the impact of my twenty-minute talk. Over and over, people approached me and said, “My mother…”, “My son…”, “My father…” Mental health affects us all.

Other take-aways from the conference:

  • Yoga is strong, slow medicine.
  • I will likely be going to India to understand the full context of Yoga Therapy, to continue mental health research for bipolar disorder and personality disorders
  • Even famous Yoga therapists are people, too
  • Friendship happens when vulnerability trumps ego

The name “Genevieve Yellin” kept surfacing at the conference as I spoke of developing a Yoga Therapy for Bipolar Disorder program to other participants. She has spearheaded the Overcome Anxiety Project, incorporating Yoga and mindfulness into an online program accessible to anyone for mental health relief. I was able to speak to Genevieve last week. She was very generous with her experience, with business information on how her programs have achieved success and with encouragement – because pioneering this field is overwhelming due to the sheer need for services. I love my colleagues who run with me in the spirit of collaboration. It takes sincere self-study to not feel threatened by our peers. We must continue our personal practices to be able to embrace one another with integrity for the greatest good of all.

Tomorrow, I leave for Southern California to attend Part 2B of Warriors At Ease Training for Yoga and Meditation Teachers in Military Communities. I will be graciously hosted by the owner of the studio where training is to be held, at jabulaniyoga, Jill Manly. Our trainer and facilitator, founder of Exalted Warrior Foundation Annie Okerlin, and a woman flying over from Okinawa, Japan named Faith will also be boarding at Jill’s. This promises to be a rich weekend.

I continue to teach classes, workshops and individual clients in private practice this summer. Jumping on the momentum post-SYTAR,  I have written the editor of Yoga Therapy Today to summarize my IAYT SYTAR presentation; I am communicating with The County of San Luis Obispo Behavioral Health Program Director, Judy Vick, to promote further Yoga programming for mental illness recovery, behavioral health wellness and research; I applied as a presenter to The Alternatives Conference in Memphis in October, 2015; and I continue to practice self-care in the face of personal health issues and relationships with others who live with and without mental health diagnoses and symptoms.

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The “Fare Thee Well” Grateful Dead concerts this Independence Day week were moving for me. My sister, D’Arcy, and I loved The Grateful Dead and I am sure that she was singing along over the rainbow with hundreds of thousands of Dead fans, here and beyond, who appreciate peace, love, colors, roses and sound therapy. I danced next to a gentleman who works at Atascadero State Hospital, and he gave me names of a psychologist and a psychiatrist interested in mindfulness therapies. You never know who you might meet on Shakedown Street.

AUM

Certified Yoga Therapist! International Presenter! Archangels!

Door to St. Francis Chapel, Crystal Hermitage, Ananda Village, Nevada City, CA. Photo Brooke West

Door to St. Francis Chapel, Crystal Hermitage, Ananda Village, Nevada City, CA. Photo Brooke West

I have been certified as an Ananda Yoga® Therapist, the fifth student of one of only a few schools on the globe accredited by The International Association of Yoga Therapists to train Yoga therapists under strict standards.

I traveled north to teach classes at Dev Prayag Yoga Therapy in Nevada City, California and to visit Ananda and meet with a couple of my teachers, including Mangala Loper-Powers, the Director of Ananda Yoga Therapy program at The Ananda School of Yoga Meditation. I had no idea that I would be certified, but I should have when my car broke down on I-5 on my journey north.

Premonitions told me to buy Jesus stickers from the 50 cent machine at the Mexican restaurant and put them on my eighteen-year old car as protection and prayer for this trip. I had Doreen Virtue’s Archangels and Ascended Masters book on my passenger seat. One thousand yards from the off ramp at Westley, a town where I like to gas up because Sikhs live there and they sparkle at me when I stop in the Chevron, the radio blinked off, then the Check Engine light went out – for the first time in two years, a very bad sign – then the air conditioned turned warm and humid, and my car began to lose power. Then the phone rang. My friend, Francis. He stayed on the phone with me. The hazard button was useless, and I rolled off the highway to the Chevron station. I mindfully kept the engine running, was sent to the Truck Stop Tire place, who’s Sikhs sent me to Precision Diesel, a ramshackle junkyard with a pit bull and a Rott.

There, after getting off the phone with Francis and being first shooed away and then charmed by my Yoga calm, my car was inspected, an alternator was ordered and, for the cost of the part plus thirty bucks labor, my car was served by the dirtiest, oilyest men in the grittiest wind tunnel above Interstate 5 that you have never, ever noticed. Angels work there.

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Hands of Sam, Angel Mechanic. Westley, CA. Photo Brooke West

I have been ushered toward the acts and practices of becoming a Certified Ananda Yoga Therapist in myriad, miracle ways. This latest folly was only a reminder that there is a bigger force working through me to bring healing energy and light by way of Yoga to the world. All I need to do is my part: have faith, keep meditating, and don’t give up.

That was Thursday.

On Sunday morning, I awoke among the pines in Nevada City to an email from The International Association of Yoga Therapists:

Dear Brooke,
One of the presenters in Common Interest Community (CIC), session 2, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Health, is unable to attend the conference. As the second alternate for this session, I would like to offer you the opportunity to present the talk you submitted.

I immediately walked down to the road where cell reception was better, and accepted! I am so thrilled, this is the culmination of four years of efforts. Presenting at The Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research is a privilege and an honor.

Then later that day, Mangala scurried me off to the new St. Francis Yoga Therapy Center at The Expanding Light at Ananda Village, hashed out two hours of my unfinished homeworks and cut me a certificate with modest, but sincere, pomp and circumstance.

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Iris and tulip, Crystal Hermitage. Photo Brooke West

On my way south, I stopped at Precision Diesel. Sam wasn’t around, but I left him a gift: one of those seven-day Jesus votives with the image of Archangel Raphael, protector of travelers, on it and a copy of The Autobiograpy of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda. Sam looked quite like the angel on the candle, actually…

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…may I ask what you experience while teaching?

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Credit Maxfield Parrish

From an email received March 1, 2015:

Yogini Rishi,  much appreciation for illustrating the practice of Ahimsa…My thirst for this practice at an experiential level is being quenched.
I am experiencing cumulative benefits from practicing while you guide your classes,,.As I should be;-)))
…may I ask what you experience while teaching?
I am asking because I have yet to teach an active meditation. (Obviously:-)) I know each of us have unique experiences and the whole of the practice is still unified.
As teachers, we understand and appreciate the vital benefits of regular yogic group practice.Therein lies the pathway for individuals to comfortably integrate deeper levels of consciousness into their unique personal daily activity.
Equally interesting is the exponential effect of group meditation with it’s ability to raise the level of collective consciousness within societies.
When we gather together in a group meditation that practice alone, and in and of itself, contributes to the elevation of collective consciousness. This in turn opens the door for all to play within the field of all possibilities.
  -Om Namaste
-MJB
 ~~~~~
Thank you for your beautiful interpretation from the mat, MJB.

It is difficult – impossible, really, to describe what it is like for me to teach meditation.

You know when you speak to an innocent 5-year old child and they ask, “What does that word mean?” and you are able to give them a very good description of what the word means, from your own heart, knowing that eventually they will come up with their own personal context and interpretation with time and experience? It is from that same wisdom, humility, surrender and joy that I teach meditation.

Without my own teachers and practice, I would not be able to guide students.

There is a releasing effort (which is a paradox) when I teach. Some call it “becoming a channel,” a practice of getting “out of the way” to let the Higher thing through, without attachment, with moderation (bramacharya) while doing my very best, staying focused and wanting to lead people through the Yamas and Niyamas to get to the final Niyama, ishwara pranidana: Surrender to the Divine.

You are Divine. Once you are comfortable, you can remember (smriti) your oneness with Divinity, including peace and wisdom and calmness and joy and love and be that in a state of relaxed awareness of those aspects of God. Ahimsa (non-animosity) and satya (truthfulness) are the foundations to ultimately achieve ishwara pranidana.

My classes have an intended pace. I believe that the way that I speak (my tone and choice of words) and the rhythm with which I instruct affects the heart rate in a therapeutic way. The group becomes unified on a physiological level – much like they would in a more actively physical and synchronized group Yoga class. This style of Yoga that I teach (Raja Yoga) is effective on a more subtle level than the average group Yoga class. This brings us to “meditation,” having withdrawn our senses from the world with the lead-up techniques that I impart.

Teaching Yoga and meditation is a personal practice – though not my sole or primary practice – which I take seriously. My entire lifestyle aims to support the focus that I bring to each class to guide chelas (students) in their own practice. When I eat, what I eat, my sleep hygiene and the quality of my personal relationships all have an effect on how well I can guide students to calmness.

Yoga is fractal experience and everyone benefits from meditation in groups with those less practiced and more practiced than them. In this way, we evolve one another.
This email has encouraged me to pursue teaching healthy meditation more regularly. Thank you for the inspiration!
In Joy

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

Yoga as Medicine for Bipolar Disorder and Substance Abuse Disorders: Twelve Pain Management Suggestions To Practice On and Off The Mat

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I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My sisters and my friends and I grew up in an affluent community in the Hollywood Hills. Most of our parents were a part of the entertainment or fashion industries: creative, educated and driven.

As a college student on the central coast of California, my extensive manic episode offered a clear-cut diagnosis of bipolar disorder. My father and my older sister, D’Arcy, lived with bipolar disorder but both went undiagnosed and untreated.

Though brilliant, all her life my dear sister suffered with terrible depressions, social problems, substance abuse issues that began in her teens, financial issues and low self-worth. Without an obvious manic or suicidal episode in her early twenties, she continued to suffer in her own way until her suicide, by way of a drug overdose, at the age of 30.

~~~~~

Two years after D’Arcy’s crushing death, I somehow found my way to the Yoga mat. I enjoyed greater self-awareness because of my practice. Because of this awareness, I became better able to self-advocate, which was especially important when negotiating with my doctors about which medicine would be best for me. These secondary benefits of my Yoga practice: self-awareness, self-advocacy – beyond strength, heart-rate variability and weight-loss – were key to finding and trusting both a doctor and medication that worked for me. I was then able to thrive while managing and nearly arresting a chronic, progressive and potentially deadly disorder.

My Yoga teachers encouraged me to become a Yoga teacher. They saw a spark in me.

I made my way to Yoga Teacher Training. I surprised myself by becoming a talented and well-liked instructor.

I had not set out to become a teacher.

I naively trusted that, in Yoga Teacher Training, I would learn why Yoga brought my bipolar symptoms back to balance. I was compelled to find others engaged in this conversation. I wanted to talk about what was happening to me, and about how others could be helped through the model of Yoga, people like my sister, who seemed to struggle under every circumstance, despite gifts and talent and beauty… despite access to the best medical care in Los Angeles.

In searching for a salon, my curiosity and courage began to outweigh my shame, my fear and my grief.

Shame, fear and grief began to change their effect on me. They began to feed my courage.

My willingness to explore and to serve tugged at my flexibility. It stretched me in ways that I could not have predicted.

This phenomenon of the secondary benefits of Yoga must be acknowledged by the bipolar wellness community as part of the journey of recovery.

~~~~

A childhood friend from my old L.A. neighborhood passed away last month, the same way that my sister, D’Arcy, died: by a drug-overdose. Both my sister and Susie experienced untreated bipolar disorder-related addiction.

This week, Robin Williams committed suicide. He, too, suffered from bipolar depression and struggled with addiction at the time of his death, which came the day after D’Arcy’s suicide’s fifteenth anniversary. Our family was deeply moved by the loss of Robin Williams.

Susie’s affluent, educated Hollywood friends did not have the language skills to address Susie’s behaviors in the last couple of years when things were escalating. My family was the same when D’Arcy died: baffled and stammering and traumatized by years of suffering and unexplainable behavior. Susie and I had communicated via internet in the last few years but the shame that she and her family felt about the disorder overrode the possibility of Susie seeking treatment. Shame was generationally engrained and, for them, it wasn’t considered polite to discuss mental illness.

Susie is survived by a six-year old daughter.

~~~~

Bipolar disorder knows no bounds. It affects all races, religions, social classes and both genders equally. Bipolar disorder symptoms are ragefully painful. Though street drugs may alleviate the discomfort of symptoms, there are safer alternatives and they must be made widely available to those who suffer.

• Practice Ahimsa or No Animosity, first for yourself and your feelings, for your body and for your mind. This will transfer to your behavior toward others.

• Sit with the pain, stay with the pain, breathe through the pain, and allow the pain to subside. Find a breathing technique that you love, like exhaling longer than your inhale.

• Be mindful of the effects of the disorder, both on and off the mat. Paths to emotional stability and sobriety often merge from several sources.

• Be mindful of the breath in all charged situations, and especially in emotional situations.

• Seek out trauma-informed therapists for self-reflection and to stop emotional and physical gripping. Encourage your vital energy to flow through you, naturally.

• Fill your life with people in whom you can confide.

• Be honest with yourself.

• Strengthen and enliven your body gently.

• Move your breath to nourish and cleanse your organs, glands, bones, blood and brain.

• Let your breath do the subtle, healing work. You do not have to be responsible for everything.

• Remember that your experiences are not your nature.

• Indulge in true rest wherever possible, including in Restorative Yoga poses, time spent in silence and time spent in nature.

To your comfort and serenity on and off the mat~

AUM

A similar article appears on the International Bipolar Foundation website, along with my other original blogposts for IBPF: http://ibpf.org/blog/yoga-medicine-bipolar-disorder-twelve-pain-management-suggestions-practice-and-mat#comment-10032

What Is Yoga Therapy?

Besides teaching non-specialized Restorative Yoga, I also offer private Yoga therapy. These sessions have great value because they are individualized and tailored to each client. Here is where the greatest benefit is derived and, in private sessions, topics including lifestyle, diet, seasonal changes, etc. can be addressed, as can your personal health issues, such as cardiovascular disease or back issues, for example and personal experiences, like trauma or grief, for example, that affect your well-being.

In private Yoga therapy work, I recommend three sessions, including your initial assessment, to begin, because, as you likely know, transformation is a process that obviously takes time. Three sessions spans over three weeks. I charge $150 for the assessment, which takes about two hours, then each following session costs $90 and runs about ninety minutes. In these sessions we determine your needs and create a simple, doable practice for you, including what is most needed, be it physical exercises, breathing techniques, imagery, and other tools, usually in combination. In the next sessions we discuss what worked for you and, more importantly, what didn’t work for you and continue to tailor your personal practice to you. The greatest changes are seen after six weeks, and ten weeks is an ideal cycle of time to create new habits and replace old ones.

Since cost may be a factor for you and the fees I have quoted are for a household income of $100,000, I offer a sliding scale for private sessions based on household income at your request.
Because many people living with bipolar disorder live on a limited income, my feeling is that if you are deeply interested in this self-inquiry and in recovery, we can make it happen with further discussion. I would love to be able to work with you and to offer you some sweetness and relief through the grace of Yoga.

We all know that Yoga works, at least on some level. Very little research (almost none) exists on Yoga therapy and bipolar disorder (yet). I have done some preliminary research and in my study, statistically significant changes in mood occur after the practice of Yoga and greater changes occur over time. Movement, breath, the therapeutic alliance between practitioner and therapist and deepening awareness of oneself within the ecosystem all change one’s perspective, often for a lifetime. Yoga philosophy is beautifully compatible with 12-Step philosophy for those in recovery programs.

*prices have changed