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Leave space for something to change: some thoughts on yoga

I have so much I would like to write about my experiences of healing through yoga and meditation. I don’t have time or energy today to pull everything together and part of blogging for me is learning to let go of perfectionism and ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking, wanting each post to be self-contained and include everything I want to say on a topic in an eloquent and coherent way. So today I will start writing some thoughts on what I gain from yoga, which I wrote after a particularly difficult yoga workshop back in January.

By way of introduction, I suffered years and years of chronic pain and fatigue (a topic for another post for sure as things are so much better in this area (fibromylalgia and CFS) since I did a programme of Mickel Therapy and began daily meditation in 2012) and although it has been a lot better, overall, for the past 5 or 6 years, I still have a very tight body (adverse neural tension or ANT) and quite often have ‘things’ (not much body awareness, even of where large muscle groups are , due to dissociating since I was a baby – something I’m working on) which are pulled out of alignment and very sore – the tightness and mis-alignments move around, depending on which emotional issues are most prominent. All of this means that despite years of regular, almost daily, yoga practice, my body still ‘looks’ like someone who has only just begun and doesn’t practice between classes.

I practice at home daily (aside from the recent hospital visit and emotional crisis which resulted in me not practicing for 3 weeks – unheard of for me in recent years) and I go to a monthly Iyengar workshop, which is 6 very intense hours of hard poses which are built up in sequence to get to the required opening. I love it, and yet I have experienced shame and embarrassment at this workshop because I must come across to others as someone who basically never practices at home, and just rocks up to a really intense workshop once a month and expects to improve their practice. My body never really seems to loosen and become more flexible, or it does, and then everything seems to slam up really tight again due to nightmares and emotional stress. Yoga is not about flexibility, of course, but the physical benefits are still important and being as tight as I am makes the workshop, and getting into the poses at all, even with modifications, quite a challenge.

I was quite distressed the day after one of the workshops earlier this year because I had found it so painful the previous day – my body was so tight it felt tender and like I was bruised all over. At therapy K asked if I was doing the right type of yoga for me, and it got me feeling defensive and thinking about what I am getting from yoga, both generally but also from that specific workshop I had been attending every month since August last year. I think I’ve started to accept that for people with complex-trauma and dissociation, yoga may not ever bring the whole ‘body-mind-soul-spirit at one’ bliss and energy that is found by many yogis (though I have had moments of bliss and joy and connection after practice for sure). All it may ever do is provide me with some space for me and, on bad days, help me survive another day. I also really notice the physical impact of not practicing now, as my body tightens up, my lower back and hips tighten, and my knee joints are pulled out of alignment and I experience very bad pain there, particularly my right knee which is the side of my body which holds the most tension. And so even when I can’t get into a mindful and present state very successfully on particular days due to PTSD-symptoms, I remind myself that even just the physical practice will be hugely beneficial. And my body is improving, I know internally organs and other systems get such beneficial effects from yoga. My yoga teacher says she can see the progress I am making, internally in my mind, and externally in my physical body, even if I can’t see it myself.

So, the following – in italics – is something I wrote in my journal in January after K had questioned what I was getting from yoga and whether I would be better off doing something other than Iyengar. Her partner is a yoga teacher and she practices daily, and I felt attacked (projection, she wasn’t attacking, my Mum would have been) over my choice of teacher and the type of yoga I had chosen for this point in my life. I’ve tried many different classes and teachers and styles over the years, and have struggled to find a balance with my home practice due to my all-or-nothing tendencies. I finally settled on a monthly workshop (10-4 on a Sunday, and my Dad has Nina from Saturday evening to Sunday evening that weekend too, so I get some ‘me time’ before the workshop) and a daily practice at home, of anything from 5 poses to an hour or more, in August last year which I have found settled and which has stopped me striving for balance in my practice after 3 years of never feeling it was quite ‘right’.

Talking to K about yoga has led me to think about what I get from yoga generally, and my monthly Iyengar workshops in particular. It’s easy to note the distress and frustration I feel over my shit body, which is so tight and frequently has stuff pulled out of alignment, and how apparent it is at yoga workshops that my body is different from most other people’s there, but ultimately I am growing and changing a lot through my yoga practice and the Iyengar workshops. I am definitely happy where I am with my practice at the moment, after a couple of years of struggling to find a balance with it time-wise, so never feeling settled in my routine. So now I’ve lost my all-or-nothing approach and just aim to do yoga every day when I’m well enough (emotionally, i.e. not a flashbacking, dissociated mess, or 2, 5, 10 years old…), but even 5 or 6 poses is ‘good’ and I do however long I have time for and feel up to doing. So I’ve lost the set time goal, I go with poses my body needs that day, and I don’t feel I’ve ‘failed’ if I miss a day. And I no longer have that sense that if I’m kind to myself I won’t get anything done, because I’ve seen myself make my way to my mat nearly every evening, and regularly do 30-45 minutes, for years now. I’ve also accepted I HATE doing yoga first thing because my body is so tight and stiff, especially after nights of trauma dreams, which happen basically every night. So I’ve settled into doing it at 9pm and this is working well.

And I like having the monthly workshop that is at a set time, and childcare is sorted, and I know it is there – my time to deepen my practice and tune in to what is going on in my body, and where my mind goes, without trying to fit in a weekly class, which is not possible at the moment with work and single parenting. And I really like Izzy’s teaching of Iyengar. I’ve never felt anxious in her workshops or got triggered. And I’ve never felt shamed by her about my body (this has happened with another teacher). She is so gentle and is teaching me to treat my body with kindness, to make it comfortable, but also to encourage it to open and change. I love it when she says ‘leave space for something to change’ – this can be applied internally and externally and is my favourite quote at the moment. The use of props and supports to encourage opening without strain really helps because then I get the desired opening and strengthening without straining or worrying I’m damaging myself. I feel like I’m finding the edge between backing away from discomfort and pushing myself through and ignoring pain and discomfort in my body. On a physical level, my body needs to change. It needs to release it’s tight hold. ‘Leave space for something to change’ – it’s what I’m doing in all aspects of my life. If I never straighten my legs in yoga they will never learn to straighten. They need to, because physically my central nervous system needs to release. And if I never push myself to go to the places that cause me discomfort and pain then I will stay in this stuck place.

And I’ve become so aware of where I go in my mind and emotions when there is pain, and I’m becoming better able to stay with discomfort, to breathe into it and surrender, not hanging in there gasping for breath, but opening to the experience. And this is clearly so what I need to do, and let the parts do, in therapy this year! But the props, the alignment, Izzy’s knowledge of anatomy, the way she makes each pose as comfortable as possible for each person, her gentle voice talking about all the aspects of yoga, make that such a safe space for me. And I see the struggles I have in my life played out each month in that yoga space: the shame  and distress I feel over my body, which clearly holds all the fucked up stuff that has happened to me;  my desire to be invisible (I want to be the one in yoga class who needs no attention from the teacher, but because of my ANT I need regular assistance); my fear of being too demanding and being asked not to come anymore because I take up too much of Izzy’s time in class; my fear of being misunderstood because people think I am lazy and uncommitted because my body is still how it is, rather than seeing how brave, strong and persistent I am, because my body is how it is because of chronic trauma and abuse as an infant and child, and yet I remain committed to yoga even though it can be a very real, near-constant reminder of the reality of what I’ve been through, and the remnants of life experiences I would rather forget. The shame, the fear, the desire to hide, they all play out on the mat, and my job is to go back and face all that stuff, regularly.

And in the workshops I am finding the balance between total overwhelm and never facing anything hard, and I am learning to stay and observe what happens to me in that place. And I like holding the poses for longer (in Iyengar poses are held for between 2 and 10 minutes, generally) because in doing that I am learning where my mind goes, and getting chance to notice what happens for me. And these workshops are the first time my body has felt more open in the days following an intense class/workshop, rather than tighter and more closed up and painful. And my internal dialogue ends in Izzy’s classes in a way it rarely does in other classes. I am able to stay with my body and internal experience. And in life/therapy I need to connect to what is really going on, instead of pretending all is fine when it’s not, and I am definitely noticing through the workshops more and more of what is not okay for me, and also how to stay with pain and other stuff that is ‘not okay’ but is necessary to take me somewhere better, somewhere different.

So yeah, even though I feel disheartened when my body tightens so much it’s like going back to square one, I can see how much I am benefiting and I feel glad to have reached a non-striving sense of equilibrium with my yoga and meditation practice in the last 5 or 6 months.

There is so much more I could write about yoga, and also mindfulness meditation, and how they have both helped me with pain and fatigue and just living in an energised, content and responsive rather than a reactive way for sustained periods of time over the past 5 or 6 years. I will definitely at some point write about my journey into it all, and the barriers and challenged I faced, and continue to face, because of complex trauma and dissociation. I want to challenge the assumption that ‘being in our bodies’ is always calming, as for trauma survivors this is often not the case as the body is where the emotions we are trying to dissociate from live and they can be anything but calming, whilst at the same time challenging many assumptions made by trauma survivors (myself included) that yoga and meditation can’t be any use to them. I am looking into 121 sessions with a woman who incorporates trauma work and myofascial release into her teachings, which I am hugely excited about (one of the benefits of not having therapy next year, if that is what I decide, is that I will have a lot more money and as well as avoiding accruing even more debt for therapy, I will also be able to try out some of the other things that I am drawn to for my own healing), so I’ll write more about all of this when I get time.

Thank you for reading!

5 thoughts on “Leave space for something to change: some thoughts on yoga”

    1. My main experience with yoga since this time has been to do it on my own, at home, where I don’t get triggered by other people in my space (perhaps naively I didn’t used to realise that having relational trauma means PEOPLE are my biggest trigger and they unsettle and trigger and over-stimulate me just by being there… so I used to keep trying to do yoga in group spaces or with new people in my home – like the woman I mentioned at the end here – and getting triggered). Now I do it for half an hour a day at home by myself and that is best for me in my life right now. I’ve also struggled to find a teacher who I feel safe with, since K’s partner moved to Portugal (he is a yoga teacher and I did some 1-to-1 sessions with him) as this is important for me as well. I saw you’ve started an MBSR course – I did one at the start of 2013 and it was amazing – meditating and yoga are definitely huge parts of my healing journey! Hope this explains a bit xx

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      1. Hmm. I was asking because someone suggested yoga and I often see it suggested but I only tried it twice online but both times freaked out after a few minutes.
        Yes, I’m grateful for the course!!! It’s zoom this time which I’m surprisingly okay with and hope to do it face to face when they start, too. So it’ll be doing the course twice. The best part of it is that I’m remembering more to check in with myself, as in like right moe I’m sitting on a bed and feel my back to the wall. That’s really what I want from it anyways, so it’s good. I love that you can really do it as many times as you want.

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      2. I think in some ways I’d prefer Zoom for something like that – I struggle absorbing other’s energies in group situations and find that happens less online. But it is nice to meditate in a group, there is no doubt of that. I would consider doing another one as I think I’d get a lot of different things from it a second time all these years later. Sorry to hear you freaked out doing yoga. I have to say when I first tried yoga and meditating I had no awareness of what happened to me as an infant/child/teen (other than knowing it was ‘bad’ and had left me with a lot of physical symptoms) and so connecting with my body didn’t trigger me. Later on, after my friend took her life and I had so many trauma memories come back and began therapy it did begin to trigger me and cause emotional flashbacks when I came in to my body, but I knew the peaceful and still place was underneath that. So I’m not sure how it would have been had I not had experience of it before then, if that makes sense. It is definitely a huge part of my healing journey and I wouldn’t be where I am without it, but I don’t know how you get there if it is triggering in the first instance. Maybe one-to-one with a trauma-informed teacher…. x

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