Remembrance and Reclamation through Yoga
Remembrance and Reclamation through Yoga
“Yoga is the direct experience of your original nature.” ~Richard Freeman
The records of my recovery always seem to surface in the weeks leading up to my anniversary through body aches, animal dreams, escalated emotion and a simultaneous mix of an anxious mind and the lethargy of sorrow’s memory. While not entirely productive, my natural release of endorphin mixed with heartache softens the edges around this waxing phase. I’m reminded of the unconscious way I organize my annual calendar around my anniversary – the remaining 364 days are either all the days leading up to it, or all the days that will follow.
This reflection on the significance of my anniversary has been a work in subconscious progress over the past few years. It has been slowly distilled through my journey on the mat and also captured for a moment in a poem. My attempt to memorialize loss emanates from my explorations with a yoga teacher who unveiled an enlightening approach to philosophy, intuition, energy, meditation and the act of syncing of oneself with the organic animation of the body. She revolutionized my inner experience of myself – in my asana practice, and more importantly in my life. She brought me back, again and again, to my beginner’s mind where everything was possible. This daily practice serves me as a human and particularly as a survivor. There are endless options for how we find the balance required to remain present and simultaneously build the energy required to move forward – no matter how many times we fail, no matter how deep our wound. Yoga refines our ability to recognize our own resilience.
My steady approach to this monumental day shifts with each year and this season of remembrance is often full of surprise. The uneven movement of time in the preceding weeks and especially during the 24 hours of The Day, proves again the endless enigma of physics. Yet, this year is unique. I no longer feel the compass of my healing pointing forward to try and simply get through it, but rather, it begins to curve towards my heart and directs me to go further within. Metaphorically speaking, it feels like I am coming to the ground for a seated forward fold after many years of bending backwards. The western sun setting on my cooling body, the slowing of my heart, the quieting of my mind – now I long to stay here and savor the comfort of this shape.
My healing journey mirrors my yoga practice in the sense that each breakthrough, injury, question, discovery and challenge, returns me to the freshness of starting over – each time with a widening perspective. It isn’t instantaneous, and the space between feeling lost and being found tests me every time. However, knowing that change is intrinsic within both journeys – the practice of healing and the practice of yoga – helps me to get unstuck in almost every way and nearly every single day. Learning to delicately balance on the edge of “just enough effort to create a stable support and nothing extra” as my teacher often reminds, parallels the artful tethering of how we approach and never cease in our healing practice. Directing focused concentration into the process of meaning-making while simultaneously creating space for what will inevitably arise requires an ongoing negotiation both on my mat and in my heart. With practice, it seeps throughout my tissues and settles into my unconscious. Less efforting, more allowing – a concept that is starting to make sense.
For many years, I strongly identified with the physicality of the violence of rape. Its disturbing effects lingered within my shape while grotesque images spontaneously flashed across my forever uncensored brain. Attending to my somatic experience, through movement, touch, sensation and intention became a daily prayer. My investment to take my body back – to protect and nourish it – as if any moment of disregard might cause it to crumble, to escape me, to be destroyed all over again – locked me into a tight hold with the physical realm. Eventually this would inhibit my ability to see all that exists beyond that singular plane. Initially though, I needed the tangible container of the body to provide a counterbalance to the lingering impression of being out of body during my rape. My survival in that moment was dependent on a total body exit and my mending relied on coming back. I would not change the way I chose to initiate my recovery – from the ground up. It wasn’t intellectual, it was innate.
Being invited by my teacher to harmonize my mind with the core essence of my self opened a complicated and important next challenge.
The many year sojourn of fortifying my relationship with my body allowed me to arrive at this current state where I can sense, receive and crave a more subtle experience of all that I am beyond my physical shape. I am re-learning a childlike skill to witness my environment, especially the container I live within, with a less filtered lens. Of course, I first had to land in my primary vessel for discovering the world and myself before I could travel across the borders of flesh into the more intricate currents of my mind. Exploring my body through yoga gave my mind a clear aim and specific actions to achieve it – tension, relaxation, expansion and breath. This was an accessible map to follow. Stretching my mind to encompass a wider view of my self – as a body, a mind and a soul – requires a new level of endurance, a deeper practice of patience and a softening of my grip. Having gained a certain degree of fluency in the language of my body will now assist me in translating the language of my soul.
My primary teacher claims no training in modern day references to trauma-sensitive or trauma-informed yoga. Her teaching is rooted in over 3 decades of inquiry, study and daily application of yoga as a way of interacting with life which has filled her with a rich body of knowledge on how we move through trauma and how we cultivate healing. This is also one of her gifts as a teacher: embodying how the practice naturally works on us and assists in uncovering the wellspring of our own resilience. Her spacious and simultaneously precise delivery of yoga asana, pranayama and meditation has elevated every aspect of my practice. This is not about the external efforts to master complex physical poses, but rather, the delicate and powerful privileging of the subtle realm and the elements of human experience that are unseen yet deeply felt. She wasted no time teaching us how to balance on our hands, when she knew the bounty of healing, and sustainable practice, could be found in learning to sit quietly with oneself instead. She didn’t teach us a sequence of postures designed to “heal trauma”, rather she opened us up to the transformative potential of our own breath.
Importantly, my teacher’s holistic approach has not only catalyzed my healing, but also has steered my teaching in a direction where I recognize the body as the entryway towards the infinite. It is a precious scaffold surrounding the substance of who we truly are, a container of wisdom made progressively more permeable each time we choose to go seeking within.
I realize that all of this posturing and aspirant breath serves to align the most important movement, which for me, many years later, is a yearning for stillness and silence. The structure of the practice now fortifies my inner power to sit fearlessly with the “modifications” of my mind. The residual cobwebs of resistance and skepticism that encircle my survivor identity feel less cumbersome with each attempt. The quieting of thoughts and the spaciousness inside is where my curiosity now lies – even when my ego resists practice. Make no mistake, this is not easy for me, nor does it come naturally or even consistently. I am an analyzer, a story teller, a writer, and hyper-verbal communicator, but I am humbly trying to let listening be my guide. When the next waves of grief, anger and longing surface, I more patiently appreciate the pink rawness of rejuvenation that comes to meet the wound. I trust how my whole organism’s ability to rebound is bolstered by my conscious intention to heal and by the unconscious circulation of fluid and breath. The process is nonlinear, it is organic, and it is ongoing. Our hearts know how to heal and they know what they need to heal if we can slow ourselves to listen.
This is what I learned about yoga for trauma healing from my teacher. This was a yogic environment where asana was deep but not complicated, breathing was intentional but not forced, and meditation was methodical but not technical – that unique combination allowed me to dive further into healing. The recognition of me on my mat as a person with an interconnected mind, body and soul spoke to the layers of my trauma experience and my desire to heal through all those channels of my experience. For me, what made it trauma-informed was that the practice held the possibility that I was more than my body, more than my mind, and that there was a core essence in my heart that rape would never touch. This was the way in which yoga could heal my trauma. This was the way in which yoga informed my recovery. This was also specific to my experience of my trauma, my belief systems, and where I am at in relationship to my healing path and for another survivor, this style of yoga may not be a fit.
Yet, this way of teaching yoga and this way of exploring my practice created a fundamental shift for me – one that became clear on my anniversary. I sensed how the physical bolstering, the deeper listening and the inner trusting translated off the mat when a day that had crushed me for a decade, now approached with a quiet celebration of living. Yoga was a resilience practice for my body, mind and most importantly, my soul.
Our resilience practice, in whatever form it takes, is like an ongoing commitment to befriend ourselves, to remember ourselves and to fully experience ourselves. If we can stay with it, it will afford an elemental hope in all that is still to come. We can refuel ourselves from the embers of our inner fire. We can become stewards of our intimate shadows and our stunning light. In our most private and vulnerable times, we can continue to defy the self-imposed limits of our healing when we remember that the moon shines its brightest on the darkest of nights.
Remembrance and Resilience through Yoga was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, as well as a certified yoga instructor teaching private and group classes for the general public and for survivors of sexual violence. You can read about Molly’s work with survivors via the holistic practice of yoga and the trainings she offers on trauma-informed yoga for yoga instructors and mental health workers by visiting her practitioner page.