A Yogic Perspective on the Natural Intelligence of Healing
A Yogic Perspective on the Natural Intelligence of Healing
An Interview with Kristin Laak
In the last few decades, our country is increasingly accepting of the wisdom that trauma lands not solely in the mind, yet may also permeate throughout the entire physical body – and for some, create a wound on the soul. For survivors of sexual violence, who know too well the pervasive nature of its reach, having access to embodied approaches to healing can be vital for accommodating nervous system responses in the aftermath of crisis, reducing the onset of trauma’s potential collateral impacts, and importantly, engaging people in healing methods that offer them long-term sustainability. Yoga is one of those practices in which survivors of trauma (and all people) have the opportunity to access a kind of healing that is inherently holistic and supports the re-balancing of body, mind and spirit. As yoga’s popularity rises in the West, alongside Western scientists finding “proof” of its therapeutic effects, more individuals are being directed to explore yoga to treat the invisible wounds of trauma. Yet, there remains some mystery and perhaps some confusion around how we might implement the practice in a way that best serves survivors. Is there a set way that we should deliver the practice for the purposes of trauma healing, or is yoga already aligned to meet the specific and often changing needs of each individual survivor?
The benefits of yoga for healing have been known within the Indian lineage from which this living, breathing, holistic system has emerged for thousands of years. While the overt imagery in our society often reduces the healing power of yoga to muscular efforting that strengthens the body, much of what makes it an ideal resource for survivors of sexual violence and trauma is embedded deep within the movement practice, the philosophy and sacred texts and the way we can directly apply yoga within the fabric of our lives. Yoga, as Kristin Laak, describes in our conversation, is a “living system” and one that is intrinsically designed to facilitate growth, resilience, self-awareness, presence and sensing into that which is beyond language, sight and sometimes, casual cognition. Within my own process of recovery, I have experienced an ongoing curiosity, both conscious and unconscious, about how I might integrate the larger insights of how trauma has changed, and continues to change my life – from a physical, emotional, spiritual, energetic and relational perspective. In the last dozen years navigating a variety of holistic healing avenues, I discovered that yoga was able to encompass the vast terrain of my personal inquiry within the loving safety of a non-judgmental, metaphorical container.
While utilizing the practice of yoga for healing trauma is not a modern invention, it is part of a recently evolving realm within Western medicine where practitioners of various health and wellness backgrounds now intentionally prescribe it for this purpose. Yet, since our experiences of living in our bodies, prior to, during and after trauma are so vastly diverse, it can be difficult to determine among so many options, approaches and schools of yoga, which practice will best serve us and our specific needs – be they physical, emotional, energetic or spiritual. Fortunately, there are many ways to enter the practice, and there are many techniques and yogic teachings that can provide the necessary scaffolding to support a survivor of sexual violence as they embark on the complex, yet transformational work of trauma resolution.
Many of our conversations about yoga for healing sexual trauma have been very much tethered to styles, sequences, or the countless details of creating a trauma-informed space, and while I am invested in that dialogue, I have become increasingly interested in exploring a perhaps, more expansive and more historical framing of how yoga might serve this population. I was inspired to reach out to my teacher, Kristin Laak, who brings over 3 decades of yogic study to her teaching and has encountered a vast array of students on her path and has most certainly encountered and worked with survivors of trauma and sexual violence (myself included) along the way. I wondered if she might shed light on the topic from the perspective of someone who has been entrenched in the practice of yoga for nearly as long as I have been on the planet. I was searching for someone who was steeped in an understanding of yoga that went far beyond the physical posturing and Western attachment to defining the ideal sequencing. Having been on this voyage for some time, I imagined Kristin would be able to share from the depths of personal yogic inquiry, both on and often off the mat, to reveal where we as survivors, might learn to tap into a personal sense of purpose and meaning, even in the midst of our questioning and grieving.
What unfolded within our conversation were some of the more seemingly simple, yet incredibly profound truths that the practice can awaken and grow inside of us. As well, the myriad resources, both tangible and sometimes extremely subtle, that yoga as a holistic system of healing can deliver to any survivor of sexual violence (or human on the planet) seeking to re-establish balance through this practice. As Kristin describes so eloquently, “healing has its own intelligence” and the practice of yoga is a method that allows us to trust this non-linear, organic process happening so naturally, and in many ways, so effortlessly inside.
In this interview, “A Yogic Perspective on the Natural Intelligence of Healing” we learn more about Kristin’s perspective on healing the trauma of sexual violence through the practice of yoga and suggestions she offers as it relates to working with the practice beyond the body, addressing symptoms like sleeplessness and nightmares and additional resources for further support.
Molly Boeder Harris: I would like to dive right into the topic of healing, whether we are considering past or present crisis – how does yoga work to help people find balance?
Kristin Laak: Yoga recognizes that the Eternal luminous core of each of us can be directly experienced. With this experience, which is available when the mind is totally quiet, we open to our inherent inner wealth, our True wealth – which then supports our fullest well-being. Practicing yoga, and here I am speaking about more than just asana or postures, I’m speaking of mouna sadhana, the practice of silence or meditation, paves the way for profound healing and balance throughout our entire system – the body, the mind and the soul. This inner experience is available to anyone through regular practice at a time when nature itself supports the human system to be quiet, such as sunrise and sunset. Through consistent practice, over time, there will be an experience of inner joy. So if one actually applies the technique, sitting in the asana of meditation, calming and quiet the mind, at some point, and it may take a long time – it could take years – they will experience what inherently lives within, one’s True nature. A pure joy. Yoga states that this joy is always with us, always flowing, we are simply too focused on the external material world to recognize it or to experience it. In truth, we’ve forgotten this part of our nature, yet it is our true nature.
Yoga understands that all disorders, whether emotional or physical, have their root in the mind. Through yoga’s in depth understanding of how the human system works, it recognizes our inbuilt capacity to grow, to transform and to heal, or become whole. So in turning the mind towards our inner wealth and well-being, we simultaneously support all other levels of healing whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual healing.
When my daughter was small, I used to tell her that as soon as she would get a cut or if she suddenly had a cold – that was the system’s indication that she was healing. The pain from the cut tells you, “Oh, you are healing.” The cold tells you, “Oh, I’ve got something I’m healing.” Here we find something profound in terms of understanding healing. Yoga states that all of life’s ups and downs, no matter how intense they might be, are a process of growing us. They are meant to grow our inner most soul. And that, I feel, relates to this concept that as soon as we cut ourselves or become sick, we are already healing. The healing process begins instantly. It has its own intelligence.
MBH: Have you had direct experience applying these techniques to a person who is navigating healing and seen its impacts?
KL: I feel that on one level we are all living this process. Everybody has some trauma. From our beginning, from birth. There is a slightly different view in yoga regarding birth. At a certain period in the womb, the baby experiences union with the eternal truth, with the Source, the source of the individual soul. They’re in union, they are not separated.
Yoga understands that babies cry when they’re born because they are removed from that experience. Suddenly, they are no longer in a state of union. So on one level, each of us has experienced this trauma of not being connected to our source any longer. The word yoga itself, which means union, implies that there is a separation.
I have witnessed, including myself, many, many people who are finding great contentment and peace through calming and quieting the mind, while also gaining some understanding of the mind along with the whole human system in relation to the universe. An example of understanding the mind; when we experience love from someone in a relationship, whatever kind of relationship, we have this incredible inner feeling of joy. What’s happening is that the mind is quieting. Hence, we can actually experience that joy that is always within us at the heart center due to the calmness of the mind.
MBH: When you are working with people, are you tailoring a practice specific to the way their trauma/s happened or are you taking a bigger framework and approaching it from the perspective that we are all navigating healing?
KL: Both. We are all navigating healing and it takes a great deal of compassion and insight to work with anyone. To work with people’s inner lives, their emotional lives, their physical lives, you have to be very sensitive. One of the things that living a yogic lifestyle does is that it creates the conditions in the practitioner such that they have clearer insight. There may be less conditioning of the mind, so one can receive an experience, just as it is. One can receive another individual, just as they are. Yoga states that each of us is meant to identify noble qualities, both ourselves and in others, and to support those qualities. We all have that duty to each other. This further supports the growth of our own noble qualities and better support others in that way also.
MBH: One of my curiosities has been to help people connect with the healing that is available through yoga beyond just the physical practice – because not everybody can do the kinds of practices that happen in a public studio, or maybe they have a physical disability that prevents them from certain types of mobility. It sounds like you’re saying that if somebody had experienced some form of trauma or crisis that they could still access a lot of the healing that yoga has to offer through the meditation practice?
KL: Yes, a meditation practice is very powerful. The mind is the most powerful tool in the universe. And in understanding the mind and knowing how to work with the mind, anything is possible. Literally! Even if somebody doesn’t feel ready to take up meditation, just begin by noticing when the mind is quiet and calm. Taking time to let the mind relax and become calm, going into nature and letting the mind settle, this will all deeply support one’s entire system towards balance, and healing is a process of re-establishing balance. We come out of balance, we want to re-enter balance. There are direct and indirect ways, and they are all supportive. In our busy lives these days, people don’t take that time. We don’t even notice the rhythm of the mind or our system. We are constantly doing things or bringing things in. Consuming information, consuming imagery, consuming sound, consuming food. Constantly consuming. Whereas, it is important to let the system rest and let the mind settle.
Modern science understands that the greatest healing happens in sleep. In deep sleep the mind is empty, quiet. As we become more externally oriented, our sleep suffers. When sleep suffers, the system becomes more out of balance and the mind suffers. The mind needs rest. In fact, the mind needs deep sleep because that’s the most restful state outside of the state of “yoga” or Samadhi – that intensely joyful, blissful, inner state. To support deep sleep the mind also needs some opportunities for calm and quiet during the waking state. Meditation is the most direct support.
MBH: One of the big challenges that I hear from people who have been sexually assaulted, and I experienced this too, is major sleep disturbance, including nightmares. So, a lot of people are going through this intense experience and they are not sleeping well, or they might be afraid to fall asleep because of what they fear they will “see”. What would you recommend to someone who is going through that kind of sleep disruption? How could yoga help them with this issue?
KL: First off, to recognize that the one constant we have is change. That it will change. To open that space up inside to recognize that one wants this to change, and that it will inevitably change. Also, pranayama is a very powerful technique for helping to settle the mind. In pranayama the mind is linked more intentionally to the breath, although the mind and the breath are always linked. Using pranayama to help calm and quiet the mind is very powerful and very direct. Though to start a pranayama practice one should have a teacher to guide them. However, anybody can practice deep breathing and bringing the mind to the breath. If there are sleep disorders or disturbances, sitting in an upright posture in bed, and doing some conscious deep breathing is surprisingly effective. Sit up for 5 – 15 minutes to breathe deeply and calm the mind, then lay back down. Because, ultimately, it is the mind that’s disturbed. There might be more one would inquire into, it could be food related, or using caffeine can also over-stimulate the mind and disturb sleep.
A beautiful insight of yoga is that dreams have a purpose, one being to help balance the emotions, we need not view nightmares as a bad thing. Being able to witness that “this is the experience I am having now and it will change” and inviting in other dreamscapes simply through the waking state is useful. Introducing, for example, “I would love to dream about creeks and rivers and lakes and nature” yet not being attached if that doesn’t happen immediately. A kind of disinterest is important, because then, the nightmares may not have anything to hook into within the system.
MBH: This is a really different way of thinking about it. To think to some degree you have a certain level of control. Of course stuff is going to come, but giving people the possibility that they could invite something different and it will come at some point – perhaps when it is ready to emerge?
KL: Yes, that is very important because intention is the most powerful energy the mind can tap into. Our Intention has more power to move energy than anything else. However strong our intention is, it creates a deeper groove, so to speak. For intention to be effective, it must be coupled with non-attachment to the result. Take it easy with the result. Maintain the intention, but don’t be attached if it doesn’t show up right away, nor even attached to how it might show up.
MBH: There are a lot of people who are maybe living somewhere remote or cannot access a studio where they’d find a teacher to support them, yet want to try yoga for healing. Do you think it is necessary to have a teacher to heal trauma with yoga?
KL: If somebody doesn’t have access to a teacher it is better that they simply do what they can. Yoga understands that nature is ultimately the teacher. Nature can teach us everything. “Nature” meaning the entire nature of the Universe, not just Mother Nature. But rather our nature, our system as nature, everything as nature. Working without a teacher requires tremendous inner reflection and honesty. If somebody runs into difficulties working alone, it is always good to seek guidance. It is a simple practice to sit and quiet the mind, however it might be beneficial to have some guidance. This is the modern age, we can have a conversation online so support is available to most people.
MBH: Are there any yogic texts that you would recommend to someone who had experienced sexual violence/trauma and was asking some of the larger existential questions about perhaps why this happened to them, what their purpose was, and how and if they could ever heal?
MBH: Anything else you’d like to share about yoga for healing trauma?
KL: I think a couple of things. The understanding that whatever we experience in our lives, ultimately – it is to enable our soul to grow. And that this growth eventually leads us to our true inner wealth, it leads us to union. This is the case for all of us, trauma or not.
MBH: I know what you mean. It can be tricky to talk about the possibility that this horrible thing happened and there is a deeper “purpose”, or that it might ultimately be a necessary catalyst for something amazing. Yet, I think people can connect with the idea of re-framing their relationship to past trauma, whether or not they buy into the idea that it has a “purpose”. They can consider “Well, what is most useful now for me to keep going and living?” and that might be to re-frame the event/s and figure out “What will I do with this? What will I do with this life I have?” Even if someone never agrees that trauma had its “purpose” or that it was a “good” thing for them on some level – shifting our perspective to how we might grow through it can create a possibility for something more, something meaningful and life-affirming.
KL: Yes, opening up the vista and just getting out of the way. People can spend their whole lives getting in their own way. Just being in the way of what is really inside of them, that which is dying to be seen and to be experienced. Also, one of the great things in yoga is the concept of non-attachment, which ironically, will open us up to the fuller depths of love, the true depth of love. And love has no owner. That is what the divine simply is, and that is actually what we are all made of.
MBH: Thank you so much Kristin for taking the time to share your insights about the innate capacity for healing that can be discovered and bolstered through the holistic practice of yoga. It is empowering to know that there are ways of accessing this manner of re-establishing balance, whether though physical movement, meditation or even studying certain texts and considering the possibility that they might can bring about new insights and ways of relating to our “story” and to ourselves.
You can learn more about our many practitioners that offer yoga for healing trauma and sexual violence by exploring this page here and see more information about Kristin’s teaching and also her mentoring of yoga students and teachers below or by visiting her practitioner page.
Kristin Laak has dedicated the last 30 years to the practice and study of Yoga. Being devoted to the work of Dr. Shankaranarayana Jois, her teacher since 1994, she has tapped deep insight and knowledge of yoga. Her studies in India, with Dr. Jois, focus on Traditional Indian Philosophy, Ayurveda, Pranayama, Meditation, and the impact of lifestyle choices within a yogic context. Kristin teaches Jivana Yoga, a holistic system based in the ancient traditions of India. Through her heartfelt commitment towards truly understanding human nature and many years of personal practice, Kristin is known for helping others to realize their own authentic connection to the yoga path. Learn more about Kristin’s teaching, workshops and mentoring of teachers and students, in person and via Skype, by visiting her website at www.kristinlaak.com