Tag Archives: Yoga

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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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!

http://ibpf.org/blog/yoga-philosophy-bipolar-disorder-101-part-2-satya

…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

“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,

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Yoga Philosophy for Bipolar Disorder 101

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

http://www.ibpf.org/blog/yoga-philosophy-bipolar-disorder-101

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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…

Enjoy!

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

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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.


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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

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The Bravest of the Brave – Yoga as Therapy for PTSD in Recovering Combat Veterans

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At every Yoga conference that I have attended, great attention has been paid to Yoga as therapy for military veterans as treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had no point of reference for veterans. I literally turned my body to the side in my seat and resisted the incoming information at these conferences because A) I did not know any veterans and B) I did not care to break my heart over their plight.

Last month, a veteran walked into the Yoga studio.

I want to honor his anonymity and I want to tell his story because it has changed my life. I had seen video of WWI soldiers rattled and lost in their minds, present for Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s moving demonstration of veterans and trauma-sensitive Yoga http://www.traumacenter.org/, but to meet someone scarred by war, during duty for which he had volunteered, and offered very little by way of compensation by the government that had created this situation… I could not turn away.

First of all, this guy is a handsome devil. Young, mid-twenties. He’s got style and he’s got a sparkle and spunk. I am a sucker for young, handsome men with style. Super bright, fervent, and in need of support. Broke his wrist from hitting a wall. Tinnitus, scoliosis, flat feet from military gear. Still, he came to Yoga. But not to a “regular” Yoga class, because of his discomfort around people – to a private class offered to local volunteers. Anxiety. Depression. Unipolar. Bipolar. Insomnia. Rage. Loss of appetite. Disabled and nearly homeless. Lonely and terrified. Fixated on his story and dying to tell it. Suicidal. Suicidal. Suicidal.

Twenty-two veterans of The Wars on Terror committing suicide per day upon their return home drew the attention of The Armed Forces to Yoga and, in some places, Yoga is available to returning soldiers through the Veteran’s Administration. In our tiny seaside community, however, this kid was struggling without resources to back up his efforts to rehabilitate himself. I knew that I did not personally have the resources to offer this young man everything that he needed and I was scared. My thoughts had become restless over the situation, sensing that it was dire.

So, three days after meeting my first veteran, I found myself making phone calls, from my bed, early one morning. The second number that I dialed actually reached a human being. I was surprised, at 7:30 in the morning on a Tuesday, to talk to a very reasonable, like-minded Yogi and veteran named Gail Francisco. I had, miraculously, reached the outreach coordinator for Warriors At Ease http://warriorsatease.com/ and Gail has become both my lifeline and, through me, the lifeline of my veteran. Just as fervent, Gail has pulled out every possible resource available to this young man. When I wondered out loud if we – if I – were in too deep, she said, “It’s people like you helping one veteran at a time.”

This young man and, I feel now, every veteran, is the bravest of the brave. After serving his country selflessly and offering his life for the United States, upon discharge my veteran expressed subsequent feelings of disillusionment and abandonment, deep grief and haunting flashbacks. Trained to kill, he was never untrained. Fight or flight, without the flight. Fight fight fight fight fight. After six years in the service and reprogramming, beginning at the age of seventeen, he was returned to a culture from which he had been awkwardly separated and to which he no longer belonged, mentally. Taught to endure physical and emotional pain, injury, heat, trauma, cold, homesickness and more, he came home unable to control his temper, socialized in the exclusive ways of the military, uncomfortable in his body, mind and soul. Some of our service people have no one to return home to and enlist to escape brutal abuse and socioeconomic circumstances stateside. This, too, is part of my soldier’s broken heart.

So, on Halloween night, we met at the Yoga studio. I did a medical intake and I let that take one hour to help me to gain his trust, to not rush through, and not be too clinical. I asked the studio owner to stick around because I wasn’t sure of my safety. His physical and psychiatric issues were beyond anything I have ever come across personally or professionally, from traumatic brain injury and tinnitus to not being certain which mental health diagnosis was right. He has been prescribed every gnarly medication there is: opiates for pain, anti-anxiety meds, anti-depressants and more. After our intake, he spent the next hour in supported baddha konasana, where I led him through breathing and visualization. He fell asleep for forty minutes. I was glad, since he had mentioned not sleeping much during the previous week. It began to rain and I opened the door to the outside to finally rouse him. I was afraid to touch him to wake him up. I didn’t want to startle him. I was scared to death of him, while drawn to his vulnerability and need.

That night, on the Yoga mat, my approach was was unconventional for Western standards. He wasn’t paying me and I spent much longer with him than I would have ever projected – four hours total. Intuitively, however, I knew that this kid needed help and that I might be the last person that he might trust before taking his life. I know suicide, and once you know it, you always recognize it. Besides, it was Halloween night, it was raining, I like what I do and, underneath it all, he was very likeable, polite, receptive, willing – exceptional, even.

Over the next six weeks I bought him groceries and dog food, birthday presents and housewares. I brought him Yoga blankets and weight bags so that he could practice at home. I called the Veteran’s Administration and spent hours on the phone learning about services available to him locally and around the state. I took him to court, to the hospital, to the VA in the next county. I took him to the beach and to lunch. Some of those days he was calm, subdued and sweet. Some of those days, though, his moods were so severely unreasonable that I said nothing to avoid exacerbating his PTSD rage. He told me of his plans to kill himself. Some days he could not leave the house or even talk to me on the phone. One day, he refused to wear shoes, and went to his appointment wearing socks, in the rain.

Eventually, though, through the efforts of Gail at Warriors At Ease, myself and my veteran, he ate, slept, got a solid cast on his broken wrist and started the process of enrolling into an inpatient rehabilitation program in northern California, The Pathway Home http://thepathwayhome.org/. There, they have individual and group therapy, service dogs, Yoga, arts and crafts and four months of residential training for twelve veterans at a time. Part of the rehabilitation is to send the warriors into the community to interact with shopkeepers to teach them that not everyone is an enemy. My veteran refused to apply until I told him that he would have his own room, that he could maybe bring his dog, and that it was free.

We have also managed to practice Yoga, in some form, every time we see each other and even over the phone. This young man relaxes faster than anyone I have ever seen in the decade that I have been teaching. He melts. It is so rewarding. He loves it. His body hurts. His body hurts and Yoga helps. It also helps him to feel more clear-headed, less anxious and more present. It helps him to sleep. Sleep is imperative for mood management, be it PTSD or bipolar disorder. Good sleep can dull the blade of anxiety and help to rein in the ferris wheel of mood cycles. It does not matter how good looking or charming you are, you still need a good night’s sleep.

If I could devise some sort of structure for him, a regularity of practice for Yoga and breathing and relaxation, he would benefit greatly. As it is, however, biological rhythms like eating and sleeping are not yet firmly in place and those come first. Yoga is still currently a positive adjunct and every little bit helps. Hit it from all angles, I say: Yoga, sleep, quiet time, good nourishing food, altars everywhere, rosewater spray to reduce anger, frankinscence essential oil to cool your jets, coconut oil on the bottoms of your feet plus socks for sleep, regular exercise, avoiding crazy music, getting out into nature, avoiding spicy foods, wearing soothing colors and natural fibers, practicing trust and faith…

I wish I knew better how to mentor. The mentorship that I could offer was beneficial, but time consuming – necessarily so, and I have no regrets, but would not have been affordable to this young man had I billed him. How do we make therapeutic mentorship care affordable and accessible to those who need it, especially to those with mental health issues? One needs more care than one person can give – it takes a village. Hopefully, my veteran will be admitted into The Pathway Home program soon and begin intensive recovery. His recovery will last a lifetime, as does the recovery for anyone with a lifelong illness. Fortunately, Yoga can be a lifelong practice. I am glad to help wherever I can.

I am pursuing further training through Warriors At Ease so that the next soldier who walks into the Yoga studio can be served with greater expertise. Another warrior will walk through the door. We need all the skills we can gather to support these brave souls to live in peace, and to support ourselves as we do so.

I am so very grateful to this young man for teaching me so much in such a short amount of time.

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