Yogi Assignment: A Mindful Response to Trauma
I travel nearly every weekend and I’m often staying in new places. Sometimes I stay in hotels, but sometimes I also stay in private apartments and airbnbs. Last weekend I was staying in an airbnb and, when I was just finishing my evening meditation, I heard a rattling at the door. Whereas normally I would have screamed, my mind was tuned into the meditative state. Much to my shock, I calmly got up, put on some clothes and walked to the door. There, standing in the doorway was a large man who had let himself in the key the apartment. Confused to see me there, he informed me that he had booked a stay in the apartment and was given a key. Since my host booked the accommodation for me I actually didn’t have any answers. We decided to call the airbnb host. As they engaged in conversation a host of possible scenarios ran through my mind, ranging from searching for a hotel room and packing up my stuff to calling for help in case anything fishy went on and he wouldn’t leave. Luckily the airbnb host confirmed my reservation and expressed deep concern that this man had a key and was standing in the doorway asking to come in. The host asked him to leave the key with me and leave, and luckily, he did so without too much protesting. What happened after is the inspiration behind this blog.
I stood there alone, in an apartment that wasn’t my own, in a city that I didn’t know. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the incident delivered a shock to my nervous system. After he left I drank some water, read a few lines in a book, sent a few emails and scrolled through Instagram on my phone. As I closed my eyes to sleep I was rattled awake by the sound of the doors each time the air-air-conditioning kicked in. I woke up the next morning without the feeling of rest that each night of sleep usually delivers. I went through my morning sadhana of meditation and yoga but I still arrived at the venue to teach my class feeling a bit disturbed. During the break between my events I decided to sit again. It was only then, close to 24 hours after the event that I registered the trauma response. My body was shaking and my breathing was short and shallow. I felt like I could hardly breathe. Even when I tried to still my body my hands would shake. I decided to sit in meditation again for another twenty minutes. Having finally tuned into the reality of my nervous system, my body shook, my breath accelerated and then I cried. Throughout the entire time I observed the experience in my body without reacting to it. After the last tears flowed down my cheeks, my body stopped shaking and my breathe deepened. I felt lighter and more free, like the experience has lifted. That night I slept soundly and deeply. In hindsight the first thing I should have done after the incident was to meditate. But in the midst of trauma, the most common responses are fight, flight or freeze.
There are so many layers to this experience that I want to unpack them for you as a lesson from the yoga practice. I credit the meditative mind for giving me the poise not to react immediately when the stranger walked into my airbnb. Without a cultivated attitude of observation and equanimity, I would have operated entirely from a fear response. I startle easily. I always have. My nervous system is wired on a hair-trigger. I’m a childhood trauma survivor, so that might have something to do with it. I surprised myself with how calm I was in the moment. But, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t deeply impacted by the experience. The whole experience reminded me of the deer-in-head-lights response to danger. I initially froze my own emotional response. But then, having survived, started to shake in the aftermath until I finally released everything in tears.
It took a good deal of time for me to register that my body and mind was impacted by the experience of a stranger walking in on me. It wasn’t until I sat with all the sensations that were arising that I was able to be free of it. In the space between the incident and the meditation where I cried and released whatever pent up energy was in my body, I had a host of interactions that were less than ideal. I sent emails with unskillful communication. I taught a less-than-ideal class. In other words, I wasn’t myself. Everything that I did in the space between the incident and when I felt that my own reaction had been processed emanated from a place of fear. It makes reasonable sense that one’s feeling of safety is challenged after a stranger walks in uninvited to your residence. The process of healing and returning the mind to a state of love and trust is a more meandering and personal journey. I am so grateful that I had the tools of yoga and meditation to help me move through my triggers around this experience.
But, it got me thinking. How many of us take the time to process large and small traumatic incidents to the degree that I allowed myself to? It seems more likely that we put up a facade of strength and pretend to be ok when in fact we are not ok. Or, worse yet, we begin to take action from a place of trauma before the trauma has been processed within ourselves. On an average day there are so many things that could illicit a trauma response. Micro-aggressions expressed in casual racist or sexist comments, mean-spirited sarcasm from friends or family, or the negative self-talk that perpetuates cycles of abuse. And, there is the real abuse that many people unfortunately face daily. As a yogi I now have tools to guide me through the inner work of my own process. But I didn’t always have those tools. When I was a little girl and I experienced sexual assault I didn’t have the tools to process what happened. It look me years to realize the extent of the damage done and the boundaries and violations that were perpetrated against me. It’s more often the case that we are ill-ill-equipped to handle and process the hurt that we experience. It’s less the case that we find the support needed to heal. That is, unless we engage in devoted spiritual practice and have access to therapists and other healers that can help lead the way.
If you’re sensitive like I am, you will probably register varying degrees of trauma throughout every single day of your life. There are tools that will help you retain a balanced mind and process your emotions. Whether it’s a cruel word spoken by an anonymous stranger on the internet or a careless done by your partner, the tools outlined below help me and I truly hope they give you some relief from what can sometimes be a stressful, traumatizing world.
Keep a root of your attention grounded on your breath throughout the day. Notice when your breathing accelerates, tightens or drastically changes. As soon as you notice that a shift has happened, pause whatever you’re doing and focus on your breath. If possible come to a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. Count to ten as you breath in through the nose and count to ten as you breath out through the nose. Repeat ten times.
2. Feel all the Feels—
The trauma response of fight, flight or freeze is a response of disembodiment. There is an uncomfortable feeling in the body and instead of sitting with it, the habituated response is to either fight the world, run from the source of pain or freeze and numb out. Choosing to feel everything is a courageous and brave choice. Get quiet and inquisitive. Turn on your creative mind and be receptive to the sensations of the body. Do not judge what you feel. If possible come to a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. If not, simply direct your attention to the body. Scan through the whole body. Start at the top of the head, sweep down towards the toes and then come back up again. Register all the sensations but refrain from assigning value judgements to them. For example, if you notice that your hand is shaking, simply observe that your hand is shaking. If you notice that there is a pressure around your shoulders, simply observe that. Do not try and figure out why the sensation is there or make it go away. Just observe. Keep your mind engaged with scanning the body for at least five minutes, but up to twenty.
Even if you aren’t immediately aware of a trauma response to a difficult situation, give yourself at least a few hours to decompress before you take any action or make any big decisions. It’s very common to displace anger or fear onto the people closest to you or take a bad decision in the period of time after a traumatic event. Pressing pause and practicing patience can be an extremely useful tool in maintaining balance through difficult times.
Sometimes in the midst of traumatic experiences it can be tempting to stay away from your yoga mat. This is exactly the time when you need practice the most. The yoga poses encourage a sense of embodied presence and help you reconnect to all the feelings and sensations in the body. This is exactly what is needed to heal and process trauma. Remember that just five minutes of yoga each day counts as consistent practice.
After the incident has passed you will probably need to work through your grievances and judgements about it. In order to really be honest with yourself, try journaling and allowing yourself to rant uncensored about the experience. You may find that you judge yourself for not responding in the way that you would have liked. You may find that you hold a grudge against the perpetrator and have a hard time letting it go. Once you get honest about your judgements and grievances, you can forgive yourself and everyone and everything else too. Even if you find it hard to say, try writing out the sentence, “Even though I didn’t respond as I would have liked and I caused pain, I forgive myself. Even though I feel violated by this person, I chose to forgive them. They are also wounded imperfect beings and I forgive them.”