When I was suffering in the depths of my trauma, I believed I was broken. I'd really always thought of myself as damaged goods, but more in that sort of sexy or endearing way, like she's-been-through-some-shit-but-it-makes-her-sassy-and-cool. After the trauma, it felt more like a total annihilation of self.
Everything I knew about myself had dissolved into a mess of confusion, the sensations in my body were totally unfamiliar, and my thoughts were all enemies of my healing. My body, while always something of an adversary, became a complete stranger to me. At times, she'd begin shaking so fiercely that I'd fall to the ground in desperation for some rooting; it didn't matter where I was. She'd clench my hands into fists so tightly while I slept that my palms bled where my fingernails dug in all night. She was so suffocated by the grief in her cells that she'd try to force it out as often as possible through a steady stream of salty tears. But the tears seemed endless, and I felt like I was drowning in my despair.
I couldn't trust people for a long time, because I'd been abused but also because I felt I couldn't trust myself. My sense of reality felt distorted so frequently, probably due to a combination of all the pharmaceuticals my doctor had put me on and the deep pit of sadness and shame in my gut. Probably from my difficulty in processing what I'd been through and how to carry on after something like that. Probably because I was manipulated and spied on and a victim of identity fraud. Probably because my abuser pushed some of my closest friends out of my life by feeding them lies.
I lived in a fog. I got through the day - always just barely. I was so afraid, constantly; just drenched in fear. I was so angry that I became hateful at times. I was suicidal.
I fought with myself and for myself -- that changed from day to day, minute to minute. I painted when I couldn't bear to be present in my own experience: this connection to my canvas was the only place I felt safe to create, and actually feel. And I'm not a talented artist, but this was what my soul was called to do whenever it felt like I was completely falling apart.
I painted and painted and painted.
I tried to sit with my breath as long as possible (usually, it was not long before I was shaking and crying.)
I drank to numb the pain (I know I shouldn't have, but I did.)
I let people take advantage of me.
I reverted to harmful eating patterns.
I got a job that seemed awesome at first, but I soon realized these people did not love me, or even like, or want me around. You might think I was simply imagining that because of my fragile mental state, but I assure you, I wasn't: I was fired after an entire year of working there full-time, because I "failed to fit in with the team".
This was a pretty major blow for someone who already felt misunderstood, scrutinized and just generally not accepted. I had just moved out of my apartment and my landlord chose to keep my damage deposit because she assumed I was too weak to fight for it (I wasn't - it took 6 months and was a massive pain in the ass, but I eventually recovered my deposit from her.) My employers knew this as well. They didn't care. They gave me two weeks of pay and told me to get out.
I then took a job working for a woman who was very intense, demanding, hypercritical, and would make passive aggressive remarks to patients about people not lasting long there and firing me, if I screwed up. (I guess that was more aggressive-aggressive...either way, I couldn't handle it). When I told her it wasn't the right fit for me, she sent long, cruel text messages about what a disappointment I was to her and her team, but not to worry, because they were strong enough without me to get through it.
I was in a relatively new relationship that I didn't feel fully secure in yet. Every aspect of my life seemed unstable and unsafe. And this was almost a full year after leaving the abusive environment. I felt like such a failure, like I had no ability to heal and move forward. I was so devastated and hopeless that I wrote a little contract to myself, agreeing that I'd have no choice but to end my own life if I still felt this way by the time I was 30. (I shudder telling you this, but I believe we heal, in part, by seeing ourselves in others - please know that you are never alone.)
I remember finding that contract sometime shortly after my 30th birthday. Though it hadn't even been that long ago, I'd totally forgotten that I'd written it. It broke my heart, but it also felt in a way like my heart was breaking wide open. In that moment, I was reminded of my resilience. I was reminded that my spirit was untouched by the abuse and it was my ego that was truly suffering. I was reminded that healing is always possible but never fits a particular mould; it takes different tools and time for all of us. We have ups and downs, just as we do when we're more stable. I was reminded that trauma changes us, but it doesn't need to destroy us.
I mourned the loss of my previous self. I forgave her for everything. I grieved, and then I let her go.
I realized, while reading that awful death promise to myself, that I was in the process of rebirth. I didn't want to die -- all I ever really wanted was my pain to subside. I just wanted to feel human again. But what I didn't realize at the time was that this entire experience would help me to spiritually evolve, and that it would transform me into a different person -- someone who's more sensitive, compassionate, connected, and able to help others through their own trauma. This suffering was a gift; it's just so hard to see it that way while you're in the depths of your pain.
After leaving that last job (and somewhere around the time of writing the suicide contract) I did some really deep soul-searching and realized that I needed to follow my heart's purpose: I needed to start teaching yoga again.
If you've read previous posts about my experiences with trauma, you already know about my fall and the injuries I sustained around 6 months after leaving the abuse (I won't go into detail about that here, as this is already quite a lengthy post!) This added physical trauma to my emotional trauma, and my body was still feeling foreign and like a bit of an enemy at this point.
To teach yoga, you absolutely need a regular, reliable practice first. So I started with maybe 10-20 minutes of asana practice a day. When I couldn't move, I studied. I learned about all the other styles and methods of yoga outside of Bikram and started exploring different ways of practicing and teaching. I ordered yoga books. I completed some online trainings. And when I felt confident enough that I could properly lead others through their own yoga practice, I started my own business, Sarasponda Yoga.
It began solely as private, individualized yoga, and I hadn't really thought about this until now, but I think a large part of that choice came from feeling like an outcast and wanting to connect more deeply to my students, and to people in general. I slowly grew my business and began teaching power and flow classes at a local gym so I could find my footing in this new/different yoga teacher role. A year or so later, I had an incredible opportunity (courtesy of my dear sweet friend, Laura, who I'd met through my classes at the gym) to take a Trauma-Sensitive Yoga training (TCTSY). And now, I have an opportunity to share this special healing practice with others who truly need it.
I learned that in my own healing, my physiological aversion to something I once held so dear was totally normal. And through reading Bessel van der Kolk's book, The Body Keeps the Score, I also learned that trauma changes the nervous system of the affected individual. From the Amazon book description:
"He transforms our understanding of traumatic stress, revealing how it literally rearranges the brain’s wiring—specifically areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust."
We are changed by trauma, but with a devotion to the resilience of your own spirit, you will heal, and you will be stronger for it.
I practice and teach yoga very differently now. I used to be so focused on proper structural alignment and precision of form. Now, I'm far more concerned with teaching others how to love more fully and connect to the truest parts of the Self through simple and gentle movement, breath work and stillness. It doesn't matter to me at all how the practice looks: as long as you feel safe and comfortable, it's perfect. I only care that you've arrived with a willingness to transform something -- this is so beautiful and powerful. This is the true yoga, and where the real work resides.
Five years after being diagnosed with CPTSD, I'm still triggered at times. I still have painful memories here and there, but they no longer own me or devastate me; now I simply watch them, like a loving observer, with an open heart.
My abuser still lives and works near me; I saw him walking through a parking lot the other day.
And guess what?
He doesn't hold any power over me anymore.
I've realized that I desperately feared seeing him without actually knowing how I'd feel in that moment -- I misjudged my power. I'm stronger now, and I'm not afraid. I love myself, and he'll never take that from me again.
Teaching yoga has always given me purpose and the practice itself has helped me heal some deep wounds. Long before I knew that trauma-sensitive yoga (TSY) was a thing, I knew that I had to find a way to bring this healing practice to those who really need it the most. Until now, I’ve only shared TSY in a private setting, so I’m honoured and (very!) excited to bring this practice to my beautiful home studio in downtown Lethbridge: HeartSpace.
WHAT IS TRAUMA-SENSITIVE YOGA?
Trauma-sensitive yoga (or trauma-informed yoga) is a practice that utilizes invitational language, emphasizes choice, and encourages an embodied experience through mindfulness and somatic exercises, gentle yoga asana and heart-based meditation practices. TSY is safe, supportive, needs-adaptive and exploratory. There is a focus on cultivating awareness of present moment experience, taking effective action, making empowered choices and creating stabilizing rhythms.
In his book, Teaching Trauma Sensitive Yoga, Brendon Abram explains, "Yoga helps with trauma in three main ways. First, it takes our awareness away from a past event experience and into an experience of an event that is happening in the present moment. Second, it teaches us how to expand our window of tolerance to regulate physical, emotional and cognitive sensation. Third, it encourages us to explore the concept that we are connected to something greater than ourselves."
I was trained with the Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY 20-hrs) model and I primarily use this methodology and philosophy to frame my classes; however, my approach largely draws upon my own experiences with yoga, trauma and healing from CPTSD. I have been teaching for 8 years and practicing for 11, but my experiences with trauma forever altered my relationship with yoga, I'm incredibly grateful for this opportunity to share the practice in this way at HeartSpace.
THE HEARTSPACE TSY SERIES
Starting May 9 and running for six weeks, we will meet every Thursday evening at 6pm for a gentle 60-minute yoga practice. Our TSY classes are inclusive to any individual who identifies with having experienced trauma, loss or grief, and will be open to both studio members and newcomers. While you are not obligated to attend every class (nor are you expected to share your story), we do ask that you register for these sessions in advance, as space is limited.
The environment and group will be consistent and you are required to do only as much as you are comfortable with. HeartSpace is equipped with bolsters, blankets, blocks and mats, but you are welcome to bring your own props/mat if you'd like to. We respect your privacy; your personal information and participation in this class will be kept confidential.
Trauma is a subjective experience and affects us to varying degrees. If you feel like this is the right class for you, it probably is; however, if you have any questions I'd be happy to chat and help you decide if our TSY offering at HeartSpace Studio is a good fit for you. (*email me: firstname.lastname@example.org*)
If you're ready to join, register HERE
GETTING BACK ON MY MAT
This topic has been difficult for me to even begin writing about because it's just so close to my heart, and I want to ensure I share this experience in the most authentic and open way possible. It was my own experience with trauma that led me to explore trauma-sensitive yoga (TSY), and because of those roots, teaching and sharing about this healing practice will always be very personal to me. However, for the sake of privacy and safety, I don't plan on speaking extensively about my personal experience with domestic abuse; instead, I'll be sharing a bit about my own recovery and journey with yoga for healing.
My hope is that this connects to somebody who needs it and is enough to plant a seed. My intention is to continue sharing about my experience with TSY as I learn and grow as a facilitator, as well as to continue cultivating awareness about the power of yoga as a healing practice. I do want to note that trauma is complex and personal, and I am in no way recommending yoga as a replacement therapy; I'll simply be sharing about this particular healing modality as one tool on the path to recovery.
In his book, Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga, David Emerson explains and clarifies this perfectly:
"Trauma has a deep and long-lasting effect on the entire organism, from chemical and anatomical changes in the brain, to changes in our body's physiological system, to the subjective impact on the experience of the survivor. We believe that treatment for trauma must be equally thorough -- considering the person as a whole and addressing the broad-ranging effects of trauma on an individual. It also needs to meet the intensity of the traumatic sequelae with an equal measure of patience, compassion, and gentleness. If we are to help people recover from the insidious violation of their humanity that is trauma, we must be able to offer a varied array of tools to aid in this task. At the Trauma Center, we are beginning to understand how yoga can serve as one particularly effective tool for helping trauma survivors on their often long and complex path to recovery."
Our bodies are the texts that carry the memories and therefore remembering is no less than reincarnation.
- Katie Cannon
Even with time, trauma can have a serious impact in the present. Some memories will actually manifest as real physical sensations; trauma makes itself at home in the body, like an unwelcome guest shaking up your peace and calm. As Bessel Van der Kolk puts it in his book, The Body Keeps the Score, "After trauma, the world is experienced with a different nervous system." In my experience, everything felt different. I was trying to survive and reorient myself in a world that no longer felt safe or worth engaging in. My body felt foreign to me, and my mind was like a battlefield keeping me trapped by the painful memory of what I'd been through.
I thought that leaving the abusive environment would be enough to begin and really make progress in my healing journey, that removing myself would mean I was fine now, and able to move forward. But this was not at all how things unfolded for me. I moved into a new apartment with almost nothing and I slowly tried to rebuild a home - and a life - for myself there. I felt isolated, and I was afraid of what all the aloneness would bring me. At first, my mom was there to help get me settled and keep an eye on me. She took me to see my doctor and helped me explain what had happened when I wasn't able to speak. I was diagnosed with CPTSD (complex post traumatic stress disorder) and was prescribed anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds and sleeping pills. The memory of those initial months still brings me deep sorrow. I'd have random flashbacks that would send me to the floor, shaking and crying in a fetal position until the intensity had subsided enough for me to pick myself up again. I tried to practice yoga, but my body wasn't ready and it would always end as quickly as it begun: with me sobbing into my mat. At first (and for a while), the only way I felt safe to express what was going on in my inner landscape was through painting.
When I took my trauma-sensitive yoga training in 2017 (Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga, 20-hr program), this was one of the first things I wanted to ask -- What about those people who physically cannot manage a yoga practice without becoming triggered? What do you do when the pain is still too fresh? (The short answer was that the physical yoga practice isn't really for those people yet, unfortunately.)
In my first year of recovery, just noticing that I had a body and bringing my awareness to my breath was excruciating. I felt broken, and I didn't want to spend time investigating a body that no longer felt like my own and a mind I couldn't trust. This made me even more frustrated, because I felt sure that yoga could help me but I just couldn't seem to get my body on board. I felt like a failure even as a survivor, like I was compromising my healing because I just simply wasn't strong enough. I'd used yoga to heal other injuries and past trauma, so why wasn't I able to get back to my practice when I needed it most?
Before this trauma, I'd been practicing yoga for about 5 years and had been travelling and teaching yoga for a couple of years. It was the most important thing in my life and formed a huge part of my identity, but my abuser mocked and criticized my practice (and yoga in general) so much that I lost all confidence in it (and myself) and eventually stopped teaching and practicing all together.
And then, when I was just beginning to feel ready to revisit my yoga practice, I had an accident that set me back, again.
About 6 months after leaving my abuser, I had a fairly serious fall that resulted in a cracked skull and concussion, a broken wrist and a broken tailbone. Lying in the hospital bed that night, drifting in and out of consciousness, I felt completely lost and disconnected from my body. I couldn't feel my legs, my back and wrist were throbbing and I was bleeding from my head. Strangely enough, though, it felt all too familiar, like a representation of the emotional trauma I'd been living with for almost two years. Eventually, they sent me home, but advised me to have someone keep an eye on me for a while. I didn't have anyone, though, and I remember hoping that I'd simply fall asleep and not wake up.
Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.
Recovery, at it's core, is a journey of self-awareness and mindfulness, and of course, so is yoga; this makes TSY a natural fit and incredibly interesting to me as a healing tool. I've always deeply believed in the healing power of yoga, and because of the work of people like Bessel Van der Kolk and David Emerson, we're now able to put some scientific merit behind this belief. I can't adequately express my gratitude that there are individuals and organizations out there dedicating their lives to helping others heal, and I truly don't know where I'd be had I not found my way back to these influences. After my diagnosis of CPTSD, I needed something concrete and tangible to give me hope in my own ability to heal, and while it took me a while to get there, TSY serendipitously found it's way into my life over three years later. (I'll get back to this in a future post!)
My own return to yoga practice came prior to my discovery of TSY, and it was the most difficult thing I've ever done. My healing process has been gritty, unpredictable, and long; a true blood-sweat-and-tears mission. I spent about six months building up my home practice, starting out at only 10 minutes or so -- just as much as I could handle. I'd lost all of my strength and flexibility from both emotional and physical trauma and was still dealing with excruciating pain in my tailbone and sacrum. I cried through most practices, either because of my pain or the thoughts and feelings that would arise as I journeyed inward. I was meeting myself again, but a damaged, vulnerable, terrified version of myself I wasn't familiar with; it took a long time to befriend my shadow side and truly invite all parts of myself to the mat.
But this journey reminded me that there was someone in there worth saving, worth fighting for and showing up for every day. I still work on seeing the beauty of my experience with trauma in a broader sense, recognizing the growth it's brought me, and the beautiful relationships that would never have existed without it. Healing is a process, and a daily practice, but I made a vow to myself a few years ago that I would not give up, no matter how dark things got, and that determination has been the driving force of my recovery.
We can hardly bear to look. The shadow may carry the best of the life we have not lived. Go into the basement, the attic, the refuse bin. Find gold there. Find an animal who has not been fed or watered. It is you! This neglected, exiled animal, hungry for attention, is a part of yourself.
Fast forward a few years later (if you're still with me, bless your patient heart!), and I'm looking out into a room of beautiful yogis, eyes closed with a soft expression on their faces, light-beams pouring into the studio and dancing across their mats, the calm but palpable energy surrounding us -- and I'm overcome with gratitude and love.
Somehow, I've survived. Somehow, I've returned to this sacred practice, not only as a student but also as a teacher - I get to simultaneously be an explorer and a guide. And I'm here because I want to show you that there is hope. I want to remind you that for as many reasons that you can find to give up there are always more for holding on. I still cry, like, every day, but more often than not, they're tears of joy. I'm astounded by the resilience of the human spirit, and I will never stop sharing this message:
HEALING IS POSSIBLE & EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY
As I embark on this new journey as a TSY facilitator, I will continue to share about my experiences and observations. If this resonates with you in some way, I hope that you'll continue to follow along with this series and reach out if you have any questions or feel compelled to connect.