[Editors note: This is an excerpt from the new book “Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for Those Healing from Trauma” by Becky Thompson. The book “skillfully draws connections between yoga and social-justice activism, demonstrating how a trauma-sensitive approach to yoga makes room for all of us—across race, class, gender, religion and nationality.”]
I believe that by changing ourselves we change the world, that traveling El Mundo Zurdo path is the path of a two-way movement—a going deep into the self and an expanding out into the world, a simultaneous re-creation of the self and a reconstruction of society.
Sometimes when the phrase trauma survivor is mentioned, there is such heaviness in the air, such hesitation and deliberate conversation that I just want to shout—”Don’t be afraid of survivors; don’t back away. They might be you and you might be them.” So instead of starting with what is challenging, stressful, and complicated about working with survivors, I want to celebrate our strengths:
• Survivors do much emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental work to stay in the world, to be present. That takes guts.
• Many survivors need to talk about what we feel, think, experience, are surprised by, and learn. Many of us need regular conversation about what is going on, what it takes to be fully present. So does everyone. Imagine if we made time for that kind of intimacy in our everyday lives.
• People who have lived through trauma often strike me as a kind of left-handed people, living in what Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa calls “el mundo zurdo” (a left-handed world). People who live a left-handed life bring originality to yoga classes. Who wants a yoga class where everyone is doing postures exactly the same, coming in and out of poses on the same breath, able to fling themselves into all kinds of postures without much struggle? The most interesting classes are often the quirky ones, where people’s responses are unique, unexpected, surprising. You can often count on survivors to bring that left-handed reality to classes.
• The hypervigilance that many survivors have makes us a particularly stimulating bunch. Another, more positive way we might talk about hypervigilance is having a heightened awareness, a self-consciousness that creates a certain kind of insight and sensitivity. It is as if survivors have an additional chamber of consciousness. We are always watching on many levels, every day Geiger counters for what is going on.
• Many survivors are really good listeners. They bring this ability to the yoga studio. They are ones you can count on not to talk over other people’s experiences, who know that being a witness for people does not necessarily mean filling the space with talk. In fact, sometimes just the opposite is crucial—sitting, with no words, all compassion.
• Survivors often recognize others in distress. That is why we can get exhausted, because our sensors are always on. In yoga classes we can be helpful not only to fellow canaries but for other birds as well—wrens, hummingbirds, storks, even kiwis.
• Survivors on a healing path are often gifted healers as well. Having lived through an experience can make all the difference in deeply connecting with others who have struggled. In his gorgeous book, The Heart of Listening, about the spiritual and energetic journey for craniosacral therapists, Hugh Milne writes, “I have known many therapists, many healers. … It is quite apparent to me that the more chaotic the individual’s personal life has been, the more gifted a therapist she becomes. The more pain she has suffered and transcended, the deeper her love and the more supportive her compassion.” There is nothing like the humility and tenderness that comes from living through tragedy or loss to help people know empathy from the inside out, from deep inside.
• Survivors are often at the center of building creative communities—yoga studios with sliding fee scales; yoga classes for people with HIV; meditation classes for genocide survivors; yoga for children and their parents. With trauma, the invulnerability that people may carry with them before they were raped, before they lose a parent to a sudden accident, or before they witness police brutality gets replaced with the knowledge that the world can be dangerous. Trauma survivors know, from experience, that the ground is shaking for many people. That direct knowledge clicks many of us into gear. Makes us activists. Requires us to build communities that can sustain us.
• We may see the world more rather than less accurately than the less traumatized—we have had to. This worldview doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with our own distortions, fears, flashbacks, etc. But when you check out those who are making justice in your communities, chances are they have seen trauma.
• We have a way of keeping hope alive even when that might seem like too much to ask. Recently, I asked my housemate, Desmond, who has been through his share of struggles (including many years living on a shoestring and a mental health issue that took a long time to diagnose), what he would say about trauma survivors. First laughing at my question, he then offered a story with his Jamaican lilt coming through as he spoke. “I was sitting by one of my kindergarten students today who tells me with her small voice that her life is difficult. All of my life experience tells me to say to her, ‘You can overcome anything, even if it is really hard. You can do it.’ It is the meditation and yoga I do that takes me to the place of knowing that there is hope, for her and for me.”
We gravitate toward each other and then build a community of healers by setting up ongoing dialogues. We are special because where there is pain, there is hope. Meditation and yoga teach us that we don’t have to always experience that pain, especially when we stretch together—and listen.
From Survivors on the Yoga Mat by Becky Thompson, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2014 by Becky Thompson. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
Becky Thompson is an anti-racist and feminist, writer, professor, yoga instructor, and activist. She lives in Boston, where she is a Professor of Sociology at Simmons College. Becky’s work centers on embodiment, trauma, memory, and intersections of identity, thinking about creative, collective, cultural, and resistant ways in which people express themselves. http://www.beckythompsonyoga.com/