My personal blog is below. What you can expect here: honesty, authenticity, my heart, education, what I’m learning and much more. I felt the desire to begin with a combination of things I’ve learned/continue to learn and a piece of my past. A few pieces of information that might be helpful with reading. I wrote this piece when finishing my yoga teacher training in 2019. I have since edited it slightly but still feel it’s a powerful representation of my growth and vulnerability. Pema Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun and prolific writer on the topic of several types of meditation. I have blended my love of her book - The Places That Scare You with a careful study of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali along with part of my story. I am sharing this in hopes that it will help other complex trauma survivors know that there can be life after whatever your experience has been. Trigger warning // sexual assault and incest.
The Yoga Sutras & The Places that Scare You
Meditation and yoga go together like yin and yang, PB&J, peas and carrots, Sriracha and any food really. From personal experience yoga is something I love, and meditation, an opportunity as some might say. I used to think I would never be able to meditate but yoga I’m good with. I have discovered they both belong to the same wheel, though. They are different spokes on the wheel, but same overarching goal, “stilling the fluctuations of the consciousness” as the yoga sutras say. In The Places that Scare You, Pema Chödrön outlines a clear path to compassion for oneself and others, the release of the ego and ultimately the fact that we are never separated from Bodhichitta, the state of being completely open hearted, enlightened. With practicality, simplicity and humor she relates her humanness and journey to accepting that in life there is no true security, solid ground or predictability. She shares her path and simple instructions for meditational practices that help to calm the anxious mind and bring peace, stillness, and joy.
This exercise is an example of one of my own many personal battles when it comes to yoga.
Parsvottanasana – Pyramid Pose
Begin with your right foot at the top of the mat, step your left foot back 3-3 ½ feet and ground down through your back heel to rotate your hamstring from inward to outward (Is it rotating enough, my leg is already tired and we’re just starting the pose). Press your right big toe mound down and forward to square your hips (I don’t think my hips are square, I feel unbalanced, I don’t think my legs are straight, I don’t think they’ll ever be straight). Travel your navel to your spine to tuck your tailbone (I’m pretty sure it’s not tucked enough). Extend your arms to the sky and hinge at your hips to lengthen forward, hands land on the ground (Where are my blocks, I know it’s not the worst to use props, but it feels like I’ll never be able to touch the ground).
The sutras say that the sādhaka, or practitioner, is influenced by the self and also by things perceived. When they are fixated on things, the mind will vacillate. The goal is then to differentiate oneself from the things observed so that entanglement doesn’t occur. Getting lost in my perceptions of inability block me from experiencing dhyāna, meditation, within the pose as witnessed above. Alternatively, if I slow my breathing, allow my thoughts to pass and find concentration in stillness (dhāranā) then meditation (dhyāna) occurs within asana; “self loses its identity and becomes one with the great Self.” We have the potential to experience the freedom of a butterfly yet we mysteriously prefer the small and fearful cocoon of ego, says Chödrön.
Ardha Chandrasana – Half Moon Pose
Begin in virabhadrasana II (warrior 2) and step your back foot forward about a foot (So far so good, my hip feels tight but I’m going to remain open to possibility). Place your right hand down on the floor or a block about a foot in front of your right foot (My breath is changing, but I will focus on the speck on the floor ahead of me and remain calm). Lift your back leg till it’s parallel with your hip and open your hip to the left side of the room (Things are getting difficult, I’m beginning to shake, but I have this). Stretch your hamstring up and your calf down to straighten your front leg (Still shaky, beginning to doubt, may have to come down). Lift your left arm to the sky and open your torso to the left side of the room as well (I will hold, I’m finding stillness in difficulty).
In the above example of ardha chandrasana I was able to still my mind, take each cue and build the pose without focusing on my inability. This doesn’t happen every time I come to my mat but I’ve had several glimpses as such that create a new pattern, one of compassion and possibility. Pema Chödrön speaks about approaching a meditative practice with the wonder of a child, seeing the world without preconceptions and with curiosity. Suzuki Roshi, a Zen Buddhist who brought teachings to the U.S. also relates: “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few.” As a guideline Chödrön states that in anything we do, we set our intention to be open, flexible and kind (especially to ourselves).
Bodhichitta, open heartedness, also correlates with compassion, our capacity to feel the pain that affects us all. We hide because this pain scares us. “The practices of meditation, compassion, loving-kindness, joy, and equanimity are the tools [to help us] train as a warrior.” By simply following each cue in ardha chandrasana, taking each piece of the pose and reassuring myself as feelings arose, I offered myself compassion. This type of compassion surely resonates with many other students and practitioners who have samskaras, psychological imprints, or stories they tell themselves about their bodies, their capacity, their significance. Chödrön asserts that compassion is more emotionally challenging than loving-kindness because it involves the willingness to feel pain. It requires the training of a warrior. Furthering her point she says that compassion is not a connection between healers and wounded, it’s a relationship between equals; and only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.
Bodhichitta training offers no guarantee of a happy ending. It is not focused on how we escape uncertainty and fear, but how we relate to discomfort. How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day Chödrön posits? One of the most pointed questions Chödrön poses to ask yourself is: do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear? She continues by reassuring that tapping into that shaky and tender place has a transformative effect. Being in that place may feel uncertain and edgy but it’s also a big relief. Just to stay there, even for a moment, feels like a genuine act of kindness to ourselves.
In Patanjali’s Sutra II.43 tapas or self-discipline burns away impurities and kindles the sparks of divinity. Zen Buddhism, through the lens of Chödrön, teaches that we train in mindfulness and maître – being steadfast with our bodies, our emotions, our thoughts. The change internally from this practice has been incredible. There has been a shift from blame and shame and self-hatred to love and curiosity and power. My gaze is forward not down.
Similarly to my yogic experience in asana, I have begun to practice compassionate meditation. Chödrön shares that the way to disrupt our reactions is to (1) acknowledge our neurosis as neurosis, (2) do something different and (3) aspire to continue in this practice. Liberation from confusion doesn’t come without the compassionate recognition that we’re stuck. Letting the story line go and connecting with the underlying energy of what is being experienced vs. partaking in habitual emotional indulgence is the first step. She says anything out of the ordinary will do, running, singing, dancing, engaging in meditative bodhichitta practices, anything to change the pattern of spinning out. This work lasts a lifetime. This isn’t just a once or twice disruption and then “it’s fixed”.
The compassionate practice itself involves seven aspirations. I begin with a period of quiet meditation and then by wishing “may I be free of suffering and the root of suffering.” After I have cultivated compassion for myself I then create a list of those whom I am easily able to feel compassion for: loved ones, doggies, dear friends. I then wish the aspiration for my loved ones, that “they may be free of suffering and the root of suffering”. The process continues as such with friends, neutral folks (maybe the postman, barista, someone I see on the street who is suffering), and then the difficult people in my life. The final two stages are combining all of the previously mentioned people and then extending it to all beings without exception. I’m still practicing with loved ones and friends, but I’ve got my whole life to continue onward.
I used to see the word “yoga” on group exercise schedules and think that’s just not hardcore enough for me, probably a waste of time, but a few of my triathlon teammates recommended it for the tight hamstrings that running so bountifully provides. When trying it for the first time in college I found myself enjoying the bodily benefits but not really picking up on the spiritual aspect at all. I left my faith and my community during that time, ages 19-21, and was so enraged at the church and the thought of anything that mirrored spirituality or religiosity just fed that anger. I arrived to yoga more fully at age 26, bound and broken by my inability to “get over” what happened to me as a child. I was hurt, angry, scared and really sad. I was constantly mourning what my life could’ve and should’ve been like instead of focusing on the fact that I still had a life, my health and the capacity to rebuild. At 26 I had come to face the fact that I had been sexually abused for several years during childhood. I was paralyzed with fear and did nothing to stop it. I know it’s not my fault. I cried a thousand tears and paid thousands of dollars to be able to say that, and it was worth it. However, the after effects still remain, I will never know what it’s like to relate to the world without this experience. I am, however, continuing to get stronger and more loving toward myself and others each time I step or sit onto the mat.
My parents were ill equipped and so utterly horrified and sad and they handled the situation poorly. They brought the entire family into the living room and asked us what had happened, when and to whom. I clammed up, I said I was fine, nothing happened. At this point it had been years since it had happened to me, I was fine I thought, this doesn’t define me I thought, I can just forget it ever happened. I thought.
At 26, while living in San Francisco with my older brother, the perpetrator of the crimes, I felt as though I was losing my mind. I didn’t know why I was living in the couch, I quit going to work, quit showering, and quit talking to anyone and everyone. I lived in the world of Law and Order SVU with Olivia Benson, Lost with Jack and Kate, whatever show I could take part in to not have to think about why what was happening was happening. I ordered food and wine in, I ran up a credit card, I snapped at my brother, I couldn’t even look at him. I was so utterly incapable of being in my body, or even in the world for that matter that I nearly just ceased to exist by slipping deeper and deeper into my couch home that I had created. Soon after this period of months I knew I was spiraling deeply and I needed change. I sought psychotherapy and subsequently began smoking and drinking more to cope with the stirring up of painful memories and experiences. It wasn’t until I decided to come back to Dallas that I rediscovered yoga again. There was so much pain and incredible fear around being present in my body that it took a long time to make my way back.
The first studio I tried when I came back was on a groupon whim. I wanted to tone and train my body and I had practiced yoga in college as a cross training aspect for triathlon training. Throughout my life, including my yoga practice, I have been very hot/cold, all or nothing, feast or famine. This includes my eating/exercise habits, my self-care habits, my relationship with food and alcohol and other substances. I threw myself into American power yoga full force. I went every single day. I’m not really sure what class I took. It was some kind of fast-paced power flow. I stood in the back, the room was dark, and that helped me to stay on my mat and out of the comparison zone. The class was very hard for me physically, but what kept me going back were those 5 minutes at the end. That time that was quiet and my mind had stopped racing and my body was buzzing with exhaustion, energy, and possibility.
At the time, I was still self-medicating with cigarettes and alcohol, I thought I needed them to survive what was my life “after”. I created a set of habits that made me feel better but really just increased my pain and confusion. In The Places that Scare You, becoming familiar with the running away is key. Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well. Chödrön says that no matter how we get trapped, our usual reaction is not to become curious about what’s happening. We do not naturally investigate the strategies of ego. Most of us just blindly reach for something familiar that we associate with relief and then wonder why we stay dissatisfied. I never felt the truth in these words more than when I finally put down these habits and realized that I wouldn’t die without them, exactly the opposite in fact. Chödrön also reminds us that we can dam bodhichitta (the state of being completely open hearted) up, but nevertheless, wherever there’s an opening bodhichitta will always appear; like those weeds and flowers that grow out of the sidewalk as soon as there’s a crack.
Chödrön relates brilliantly that what we struggle against all our lives can be acknowledged as ordinary experience. Life continually goes up and down. People and situations are unpredictable and so is everything else. Everyone knows the pain of getting what we don’t want – we don’t suffer this pain because of our personal inability to set things right. We resist the basic fact that everything is always changing moment to moment. She then offers that staying open weakens our patterns of avoidance. Through continual practice we find out how to cross over the boundary between being stuck and waking up. It depends on our willingness to experience directly feelings we’ve been avoiding for many years. “The “secret” of life that we are all looking for is just this: to develop through sitting and daily life practice the power and courage to return to that which we have spent a lifetime hiding from, to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment – even if it is a feeling of being humiliated, of failing, of abandonment, of unfairness. “ -Charlotte Joko Beck
I can’t say that I’ve arrived because as much as you can learn and train, there will always be more to do. The process, the present is all I have, it is the yoga, the meditation, all of it. I will say that I’ve found peace with the process, though. My breathing is slower, my body is starting to open up as my mind allows for it, and I am remaining present with my energy as it arises, be it anger, sorrow, sadness, fear, joy, gratefulness, love. As Chödrön says, we must be patient with ourselves, learning to relax with the restlessness of our energy – energy of anger, boredom, excitement. Patience takes courage, it is not an ideal state of calm, abiding with the restlessness of our energy and letting things evolve at their own speed.
Hannah Gadsby, a brilliant comedian and trauma survivor, stated very powerfully that nothing is more formidable than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself. From my first time on my mat to now my approach has changed radically: from force to release, from hatred to love, from doing to being. I am constantly and consistently striving to become more present for my life, to show up and learn what it has to teach me: to notice things painful and not, and to use the past to transform my future, not to hold me suspended in fear and pain.
“Confess your hidden faults. Approach what you find repulsive. Help those you think you cannot help. Anything you are attached to, let it go. Go to the places that scare you” – Advice from her teacher to the Tibetan Yogini Machik Labrön.