Tag Archives: recovery

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

Yoga, Mental Illness and Summertime Fun


“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.


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.


International Bipolar Foundation Original Blog: Yoga Philosophy for Bipolar Disorder 101: Part 2, Satya

Please visit The International Bipolar Foundation to read the second installment of my series of blogs on the Yamas and Niyamas.Honesty

Check out World Bipolar Day on March 30 and look for my picture and meme!


The Latest: Testimony and Promise


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I received an email yesterday from a Restorative Yoga group-class student. She survives bipolar disorder and trauma and is in recovery for addiction disorder. She is in her 50’s.

“I recently (in the last few weeks) experienced a panic attack in the middle of the night and woke up with my heart pounding and shallow breathing. For the first few minutes it was very scary and disorienting but for the first time in my life I didn’t reach for medication. I sat up with my legs crossed and tried breathing. It took I don’t know how long but eventually I was able to calm myself down and then go back to sleep. My awareness of what I was experiencing and the little bit of yoga I know about really saved me! I’m a total believer!

” – J.
Out of curiosity, I checked her record of visits on the studio website. She has practiced 36 times total in six months: 29 times with me (ninety minute sessions) and seven times with other teachers (seventy-five minute sessions) since August… on average, six times per month, less than twice per week.

“But in the end, yoga must be personally experienced to be understood.”

Yoga is Confusing

Written by Doug Andrews, E-RYT 500. He is the founder and director of Ananda Scotts Valley in California.

doug-readingIn the exchange of personal information that characterizes first encounters between humans, one of the usual first questions is, “What do you do for a living?” My short answer is that I am a teacher. If the person asking is interested she might pursue my answer to the next level and say, “What do you teach?” At that point I must calculate in the moment whether I am feeling predominantly a science teacher or a yoga teacher? In fact I play both roles. Science is simple, everyone knows what science is. Yoga however is a bit more problematic because most people, even if they’ve never taken a yoga class, have an impression of yoga that is by and large off the mark or, at best, incomplete. And for those who have taken a yoga class the chances are pretty good that they did so in a gym where the only focus was on stretching.

In the beginning…at least for most folks I’ve met…yoga is simple enough. They join a gym, walk the treadmill, take a Zumba class and decide to stay for what is called yoga. After all, stretching is good, right? And so they stretch. Walk, Zumba, Stretch. Repeat regularly until their schedule changes or their will power wanes and they are are left with a memory of feeling good and a recurring whispered thought, “Shouldn’t I get back to the gym?” Maybe even the thought, “I really liked how I felt after the yoga class.” But is stretching all there is to yoga? The short answer to that question is, “Stretching is good but it alone is not yoga.” At least it is not very much of yoga. So if stretching is not yoga then it is easy to become confused. What is yoga?

The confusion around yoga is widespread. Some years ago I attended a performance of Cirque de Soleil with family and friends. The physical flexibility of the acrobats led one of our group to comment, “ Boy, I’ll bet she’s good at yoga!” I replied, diplomatically I hope, that she might indeed be good at yoga. What I did not add at the time is that physical flexibility has next to nothing to do with being good at yoga. But this mis-impression about the nature of yoga is widespread and deeply ingrained in our culture. I remember an article from the foremost yoga magazine, Yoga Journal, in which a reporter who was investigating yoga for his readers, penned a piece entitled, “How Yoga Kicked My Butt.” The article was amusing in its way but unfortunately, it left the reader with the very distinct impression that yoga is a system of exercises that can be very challenging. So if not a system of exercise then the question remains. What is yoga?

Okay, try this. Yoga is:

· A science and an art.
· Union. Of body, mind, breath and Spirit.
· Breathing exercises to control life-force energy.
· Meditation to still the mind and open the heart.
· Training the mind to be supportive or still as required.
· Devotional Chanting, Prayer and Mantra.
· Selfless service to others.
· An inward experience of Joy, Peace, Love or some other Divine quality.
· An expansion of human consciousness beyond ego and into Universal awareness.
· A system of physical exercise that helps accomplish all of the above.

If this were a conversation between you, the reader, and me, the yoga teacher, I might at this point ask, “Is it clear now what Yoga is?” And you might look me clearly in the eye and say, “No. Not one bit.” Okay, fair enough. But here is one challenging thing about yoga: it needs to be experienced. We can read about yoga and that is a good thing to do. We can go to a yoga class and, depending on the quality and consciousness of the instructor, learn bits and pieces about yoga. And that too is a good thing to do. But in the end, yoga must be personally experienced to be understood. And so, when we bring yoga into our lives on a regular basis we call it a yoga practice. We practice bringing our body, mind, breath and awareness into a single, shared moment of experience.

So perhaps it would helpful to ask, “What do I mean by “yoga?” As my friend, Nayaswami Hriman McGilloway writes, “This is a constant and frustrating issue for those who us share the true yoga. The term refers in the common view to the physical exercises, movements and positions of but one branch of yoga: hatha yoga. One might just as properly use the term “meditation” to describe all of the yoga practices and goal. But in fact, the correct term is “yoga!” And “yoga,” which means “yoke” or “union,” refers to both the practice and the goal of that practice: a state of consciousness that is not limited to confinement and identification with the body and ego. It is akin to the state referred to by such words as enlightenment, liberation, moksha, satori, nirvana, samadhi, salvation, cosmic consciousness, oneness, mystical union and on and on. This state is said to be the true state of Being and the only true reality from which all differentiated objects and states of consciousness derive. It is the underlying, primordial “soup” of God-consciousness that wills into manifestation the cosmos and which sustains, maintains, and dissolves the ceaseless flux of thoughts, emotions, and objects.

The practice of yoga includes a wide range of disciplines from the bodily positions of hatha yoga to the advanced meditation techniques of kriya yoga. It is supported by a lifestyle of high ideals, integrity, moderation, and self-control in the form of simple living and includes, by tradition, the practice of vegetarianism. Codified by the sage Patanjali in the renowned Yoga Sutras, yoga is achieved through eight stages of practice and eights levels of ever expanding consciousness.”

If you have a sense that yoga is something that you need in your life, I encourage you to keep your thinking about yoga bigger that just the postures. At Ananda Scotts Valley we offer many classes each week on the practice of Ananda Yoga. On Thursday evenings we offer free meditation instruction. On Sunday mornings we have group meditations and Sunday services to sharing the common yoga teachings of the East and West. We also regularly offer extended and in-depth classes on the various teachings and practices of yoga. So come and join us. Our complete calendar is available at http://www.anandascottsvalley.org.

Blessings and Joy,


Yoga Philosophy for Bipolar Disorder 101

Check out my latest original blog for The International Bipolar Foundation!



The fist of a series of blogs on the Yamas and Niyamas, the “do’s” and “dont’s” of Yoga philosophy.

This one was read by readers in Brazil, New Zealand, Great Britain, Louisiana USA, France…


New, Informed Thoughts on Trauma: Veterans, Parolees, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk and Me


Photo credit unknown

I have begun my seven-week training on Fundamentals of Bringing Yoga and Meditation into Military Communities.

From my experience sharing Yoga with the young combat veteran and from his recent lashing out and defiant withdrawal from me as coping mechanism, I am even more grateful for the scholarship that I was awarded to attend this training. It is part one of three offered for certification through Warriors At Ease. They have guided me through my work with this troubled and promising young man. Help is needed, Rush Order.

I hope that this program offers me more knowledge and wisdom so that I might become even more successful merging Yoga with trauma recovery and working with vulnerable populations. I know that I did good work with him, with integrity and honesty, yet, naturally, l feel a lack of closure. He up and disappeared! I believe that I exposed his vulnerabilities to him in a way that he wasn’t prepared to integrate, in a moment of insensitivity to his mood, via text. I do not take responsibility for his isolating behavior, however. I am moved by his pain. He has been a phenomenal, inspiring teacher to me. I need to learn more.

I miss working with him. Maybe he’ll come around.

My experience establishing a research program and teaching trauma-informed Yoga for San Luis Obispo County Drug and Alcohol Services through the Adult Treatment Court Collaborative to parolees with dual diagnosis (mental health and substance abuse disorders), a thirteen-week pilot program which ended December 22, 2014, was traumatizing to me.

The program showed, through self-reported questionnaires, improved mental health, mindfulness, breath awareness, quality of life, symptoms and medication compliance and adherence – in other words, we met our therapeutic objectives. I am ever-grateful for the experience, though I find that I am still integrating to the point of quiet introspection. From sex-offenders and threatening gang members to a chaotically disintegrating program and bureaucracy that is resistant and dysfunctional… it was an eye-opening and exhausting experience.

Despite the successful outcome, and though I procured all materials through donations (mats, blankets, a stereo, thirty-six eye bags used as weights hand-sewn by another Yoga student), the County has chosen not to resume offering Yoga to it’s clients due to lack of funding.

The financial glitch is in paying the Yoga teacher, apparently.

No real need to express my disillusionment and disappointment… and I have been galvanized once again to continue forging Yoga programs in agencies and organizations, privately and in groups, for mental health, seemingly against all odds. I remain hopeful, because Yoga works, though I am feeling financially strapped for the time being.

As I recover from these two intense experiences – my sense of dismissal by the veteran and the County – I honor the secondary trauma that I incurred in these contexts by spending time with the traumatized, as well as by my primary trauma – my own responses to personal triggers. I have succumbed to this national flu epidemic and have been spending much time in seclusion. It has been a great retreat, despite the illness.

My new copy of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body In The Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van der Kolk, MD came in the mail this week. There are numerous passages that I underlined, navigating not by page but by bibliomancy. I will quote some of the mind-bending concepts below.



From The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body In The Healing of Trauma by the good Doctor Bessel Van der Kolk:

…Emotional intelligence starts with labeling your own feelings and attuning to the emotions of people around you… p 354

…Resilience is the product of agency: knowing that what you do can make a difference… p 355

…Disturbing behaviors started out as frustrated attempts to communicate distress and as misguided attempts to survive… p 352

… Identifying the truth of an experience is essential to healing from trauma… Predictability and clarity of expectations are critical; consistency is essential… p 353

…If you are not aware of your body’s needs, you can’t take care of it. If you don’t feel hunger, you can’t nourish yourself. If you mistake anxiety for hunger, you may eat too much. And if you can’t feel when you’re satiated, you’ll keep eating. This is why cultivating sensory awareness is such a critical aspect of trauma recovery. Most traditional therapies downplay or ignore the moment-to-moment shifts in our inner sensory world. These shifts carry the essence of the organism’s responses: the emotional states that are imprinted in the body’s chemical profile, in the viscera, in the contraction of the striated muscles of the face, throat, trunk and limbs. Traumatized people need to learn that they can tolerate their sensations, befriend their inner experiences, and cultivate new action patterns… p 273

…Safe areas can help [traumatized] kids calm down by providing stimulating sensory awareness: the texture of burlap or velvet; shoe boxes filled with soft brushes and flexible toys. When the child is ready to talk again, he is encouraged to tell someone what is going on before he rejoins the group… p 353


On confidence:

…As long as we feel safely held in the hearts and minds of the people who love us, we will climb mountains and cross deserts and stay up all night to finish projects. Children and adults will do anything for people they trust and whose opinion they value… p 350


Most fascinating to me, on the history of trauma recovery and combat veterans:

…Greek drama may have served as a ritual reintegration for combat veterans.At the time Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia trilogy, Athens was at war on six fronts; the cycle of tragedy is set in motion when the returning warrior king Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, for having sacrificed their daughter before sailing to the Trojan War. Military service was required of every adult citizen of Athens, so audiences were undoubtedly composed of combat veterans and active-duty soldiers on leave. The performers themselves must have been citizen-soldiers…

…Sophocles was a general officer in Athens’s war against the Persians… his play, Ajax, reads like a description of traumatic stress… p 332


On rhythmic rituals instilling hope and courage:

… Roman general Lycurgus had introduced marching in step to the Roman legions and the historian Plutarch had attributed their invincibility to this practice… This collective ritual not only provided his men with a sense of purpose and solidarity; but also made it possible for them to execute complicated maneuvers…to this day the major services of the U.S. military spend liberally on their marching bands, even though fifes and drums no longer accompany troops into battle… p 334

…Traumatized people are afraid of conflict… p 335

…If you want to give them a sense of control, you have to give them power over their destiny rather than intervene on their behalf… You cannot help, fix, or save the young people you are working with. What you can do is work side by side with them, help them to understand their vision, and realize it with them. By doing that you give them back control… p 342

…Learning to experience and tolerate deep emotions is essential for recovery for trauma. p 344

…Because [Shakespeare in the Courts] is committed to not throwing kids out as much as possible… p 344

…People can learn to control and change their behavior, but only if they feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions. p 349

…Attempts to cope with emotions become unbearable because of lack of adequate contact and support… p 349

…Trauma remains a much larger public health issue, arguably the greatest threat to our national well-being… p 348

…Psychiatry’s obtuse refusal to make connection between psychic suffering and social conditions… p 348

…Rampant prescription of painkillers, which now kill more people each year in the United States than guns or car accidents. p 349

…Trauma devastates the social-engagement system and interferes with cooperation, nurturing, and the ability to function as a productive member of the clan… ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up with yours’…  [translation of the Xhosa word and principle of ubuntu]… p 349


On healing, breathing and the importance of heart rate variability:

…To promote reciprocity, we use mirroring exercises, which are the foundation of safe interpersonal communication… imitating facial gestures and sounds and then get up and move in sync. To play well, they have to pay attention to really seeing and hearing one another… trying to keep a beach ball in the air… computer games to help them to focus and improve their heart rate variability … p 354-355

… Heart rate variability measures the relative balance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. When we inhale, we stimulate the SNS, which results in an increase in heart beats. Exhalations stimulate the PNS, which decreases how fast the heart beats. In healthy individuals inhalations and exhalations produce steady, rhythmical fluctuations in heart rate: Good heart rate variability is a measure of basic well-being…. p 267

A good yoga teacher will encourage you to just notice any tension while timing what you feel with the flow of your breath: ‘We’ll be holding this position for ten breaths.’ … Awareness that all experience is transitory changes your perspective on yourself… Intense physical sensations unleashed the demons that had been so carefully kept in check by numbing and inattention. This taught us to go slow, often at a snail’s pace. That approach paid off… p 274

On shock:

…People who are… scared can’t think straight, and any demand to perform will only make them shut down further. If you insist, they’ll run away and you’ll never see them again… p 263

…[The] amygdala… had been rewired to interpret certain situations as harbingers of life-threatening danger and it [sends] urgent signals to [the] survival brain to fight, freeze, or flee… p 265


On cultivating interoception:

…In yoga you focus your attention on your breathing and your sensations moment to moment. You begin to notice the connection between your emotions and your body-perhaps how anxiety about doing a pose actually throws you off balance. You begin to experiment with changing the way you feel. Will taking a deep breath relieve that tension in your shoulder? Will focusing on your exhalations produce a sense of calm?… Simply noticing what you feel fosters emotional regulation… Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than fear, everything shifts… Trauma makes you feel as if you are stuck forever in a helpless state of horror. In yoga you learn that sensations rise to a peak and then fall… Yoga turn[s] out to be a terrific way to (re)gain a relationship with the interior world and with it a caring, loving, sensual relationship to the self… p 273