trauma healing

More Yoga, Less Spinning

This isn’t the first time some of you have heard me say this phrase, and it certainly won’t be the last! I have sort of a mantra for 2015: More Yoga, Less Spinning. I have to give credit for this phrase to my dear friend, Kelly Martin, who coined it while we shared with each other our intentions for this year.

Picture it. Have you ever been part of or peeked into a spinning class at the gym? In my opinion, it is the definition of intense. It’s like marine bootcamp on stationary bicycles. You hardly stop the whole class. You’re spinning from the beginning until the bitter end. And then the next day you pretty much immediately become a puddle on the floor when you try to step out of bed. I’m not saying spinning is all bad. I have a lot of respect for it – for those who choose to take part in it. But I feel like in many ways what I’ve been doing most of my life is spinning (metaphorically speaking). I am really good at pushing myself, not letting myself rest, feeling the burn, as it were. I haven’t been very good at resting, closing my eyes, and breathing.

In 2013, something in me changed and it’s really grown over the last year. As a mental health counselor, I began hearing clients & colleagues tell me personal stories of how mindfulness and intentionality had given them a significantly different perspective on life, and in turn markedly decreased their anxiety and mental & emotional pain. The proof was in the pudding. I didn’t love it first then saw it prove its worth, I saw its obvious worth and I grew to love it.

I’ve committed to doing a lot of yoga in the last several months. I have a teacher who I admire, respect, and adore. Yoga is–among many things–about being intentional. Every move you make is on purpose. You’re listening, smelling, thinking, realizing, observing the entire time. You move slowly and carefully. My favorite phrase my teacher Jake uses (especially after a challenging pose) is, “Let it go and feel what you feel.” That phrase is how I might sum up yoga and sum up the importance of mindfulness – and it’s the complete opposite of what I always thought “letting go” meant.

I grew up with the belief (for reasons I still don’t fully know) that “letting go” meant you have to shut out what happened to you, ignore its impact on your whole self, pretend that something didn't change you when it obviously did. This is (thankfully) completely untrue, so I've learned. It is a too-common belief that it’s impossible to hold two opposing truths together in the same space at the same time, but I’m here to tell you that just isn’t true. Something incredibly painful can happen to you, you can feel it cut you to your core and be speak very realistically about that experience...AND you can release it (after due process) so that you are empowered over it, not the other way around. One crucial step to this kind of release (however paradoxical it may seem) is to acknowledge and say out-loud/write, “This is how these experiences and people impacted me, made me who I am. This is how deeply I felt them and still feel them, how much they hurt me and heal me.” And release comes when you realize that saying those things out-loud somehow frees you into a place where you no longer need to control the outcome of things, that you are bigger than the experiences you’ve had, and that for better or worse, they are all quite important. And part of their importance is that in spite of them – maybe even BECAUSE of them! – you go on living, breathing in and breathing out.

Just tonight during my class’s Savasana (rest pose, complete stillness & release – one’s reward at the end of a yoga practice) I was visualizing two roads. I was thinking, “I wish I could see how two separate paths differ and how they will impact me before I make a choice about which one I will take.” As I thought about that and visualized it, I clearly saw that walking down one road necessitates releasing the other – that choosing one automatically means I can never know what happens on the other road, because choosing one means the second can never be. For so long I believed it impossible to choose one road and release the other. But now I see that this is absolutely the way it is. And that it's okay to not have both.

Making choices without knowing how it’s going to turn out and growing toward acceptance of things in our past are two of our most difficult yet important human jobs. No matter which paths we choose, there will be innumerable things we will get to experience that we have never heard, seen, smelled, or tasted before, and we have the privilege of experiencing them and absorbing them. And we get to enjoy these things without the pain of fruitlessly struggling for things we can never grasp or have. It's okay to feel sad or grieved about that. It's okay to also feel joy about what we chose. We are blessed to be allowed the freedom to both let it go and feel what we feel.

So whether or not you’re into “new years resolutions,” toward what are you more naturally bent: spinning or yoga? Do you like this about your life, about yourself? What are the barriers around intentional stillness in your life? What are the things in your story that you feel most fearful of releasing? Why?

Remembering for the 20th Time

This-coming Tuesday – January 7, 2014 – Rwandans will launch a Memorial Center in Kigali to commemorate the 20th year passing since the life-shattering genocide. Complete with the lighting of the torch of KWIBUKA (the remembrance torch), survivors will gather with country leaders, members of the media, members of Ibuka (Rwanda's organization for survivors), friends, and fellow country-people to remember what was surely "one of the world's worst massacres" (quoted in this article). The ceremony itself is called "KWIBUKA 20" – that is "remembering for the 20th time." ((You can read more about Tuesday's ceremony here. You can read more about the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 here – but please be cautioned as this was one of the most profound displays of human darkness.))

One of the myriad things I've learned from listening deeply and carefully to the genocide for a mere 1 year now is that while my life presses on, people in Rwanda live with a "normal" that involves memories of a trauma so profound that they have to detach themselves from it just to survive.

photo found  here

photo found here

Many don't experience relief. Many do, against all odds. But everyone who survived it has at least one thing in common: they remember. And, unlike this ceremony's name suggests, this is far more than the 20th time.

But thank God, beautiful things are happening in Rwanda. Nationals are stepping up and committing their resources, time, and lives to giving voice to the memories and paths of healing to survivors. It's amazing how much power the act of bearing witness to trauma has on survivors. (For two great books on this concept, see  Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery and Diane Langberg's Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse).

The concept of helping trauma survivors can be overwhelming. A common question I've asked myself on my own journey is, "How can someone like me make any difference? This feels too big." There are lots of good answers to this question, but one way to start is remembering that the path to healing is a long jagged line in the same direction and every seemingly-small step matters.

What is one small step you could take this month to actively love someone who has survived trauma?