Healing Trauma with Yoga: A Personal Story
“How could a handstand invite so much emotional upheaval?” I thought as I came down softly, with the help of my instructor, resting and sobbing in Child’s Pose. I was back in another yoga teacher training after breaking my neck only 9 months earlier. I had done so much work healing the body and mind after my near-fatal car accident. My upper body was stronger than it was before the accident. I had gone to a therapist to deal with some of the fear and anxiety I felt from the experience. Had even undergone Rapid Eye Therapy to help “unlock” more subconscious levels of the trauma. But here, in a moment of turning my body upside down which I had done hundreds of times in my life, I was pouring tears like a geyser erupting from somewhere unspeakably deep within me. And my teacher was amazing. He was gentle, present, compassionate. I rested and spoke little the remainder of the day while still being with my peers of the teacher training.
In April 2012, I flipped an F250 truck on the back roads of Utah on my way into a week of work as a field instructor for Second Nature Entrada. The vehicle swerved out of control and flipped, landing on its roof, and my head, twice before resting on its tires. I was with three other staff, all of whom survived with barely a scratch. Completely awake and aware through the whole ordeal, I was overcome with intense pain in my head and arms. Upon being air-lifted to Vegas, I underwent surgery at the University Medical Center Hospital for a broken c7 vertebra and displaced discs between c5 and c6 and c6 and c7. The surgeon told my mom I was a miracle and that he had not seen anyone with my degree of spinal cord compression survive. I endured a hospital stay that matched the trauma of the accident itself. Nurses had forgotten my pain meds for 5 hours after waking up from post-op and, to the tune of ignored and ineffectual pleading from my mom at the nurses station, I was left with the most horrific pain I have ever imagined, feelings of complete powerlessness and my breath… only my breath and my ability to breathe through pain. After returning home, I endured weeks of having friends and family help log roll me out of bed to take pain meds and muscle relaxants every four hours. There were nights where the pain and exhaustion were enough to make me contemplate why I had survived and, for a moment, regret that I had. Later my schedule became an endless list of physical therapy appointments, acupuncture, x-rays and doctors telling me that Botox and subsequent fusions of my spine were the best options for my future health. My quiet moments were often interrupted with gripping fear about my future. I had moved to Utah and bought a house by myself, banking on a career as a wilderness instructor. My body was my paycheck and, now, that life looked like it was over. What would I do? What was my worth? What was my identity? How would I survive? That single freak moment driving into the desert I knew and loved had turned into a relentless stampede of deeply felt stress, pain, anxiety, fear, regret, resentment, exhaustion, powerlessness that continued to trample through my daily life.
I worked diligently to quiet all the demons that came from my accident. I had been a part of a therapeutic community for a couple years (working for Second Nature) and knew the value of therapy and responsibility I had to make my life whole again – make me whole again. I did well in my recovery process. However, it wasn’t until I placed myself upside down in that first post-accident handstand, resembling my near-death moment in the truck, that I realized my body continued to hold onto this other level of fear and overwhelm. It was this ineffable piece of traumatic memory that I couldn’t wrap my mind around while frantically “healing.” When I placed myself in a handstand, I gave my body permission to let out that cry of fear, overwhelm, and powerlessness while being strong, breathing deep, present and supported by my kind and caring teacher. This was the piece missing in all the other work I had done to recover! I let my body scream, grieve, cry, revisit, release, sigh, exhale, feel strong, nurtured and in control, express gratitude and relief all in one handstand. Magic!
This was the moment I connected personally and viscerally to the knowing that traumatic experiences are stored in the body and cannot be unlocked and released by the mind alone. Trauma disrupts the mind’s normal perception of the world. What use to make sense, seem safe, and should be easily and competently navigated by the self becomes unsafe, irrational and beyond our ability to manage it successfully. Long after the traumatic event, the mind and nervous system operate according to this new paradigm – hyper-vigilance, fear and anxiety, isolation take over as coping mechanisms. Yoga supports the healing process by first offering tools that help mitigate anxiety – breathing and mindfulness techniques. It then invites a physical experience that reconnects mind to body in a way that is gentle and adaptable to anyone at any level of healing trauma. When inner resources and resiliency are built up and felt by the practitioner, yoga can then challenge someone in a way that engenders greater resiliency and empowerment over difficult situations. Whether it’s a handstand or just breathing from the diaphragm for a full minute, yogic practices are powerful resources for rebuilding self-efficacy and healing trauma.
So today, back in my beloved desert with the students and clients at Entrada, I teach yoga, breath work (pranayama) and meditation informed and backed by an arsenal of research supporting why yoga helps alleviate trauma symptomology. More importantly, I come to teach with this deep understanding that our bodies go through every difficult life experience with us and, like every loyal partnership, the body helps us carry the burden even if we ignore or blame it for our pain. Only our ability to cultivate an open, receptive, and present relationship with our bodies and breath can we completely access and heal the unconscious pieces of trauma that creep through our lives in subtle and subversive ways. I dedicate the work I do to the notion that within us resides the inherent wisdom and ability to heal even the most devastating of wounds.
With so much love and gratitude to all my mentors, teachers, peers, students, doctors, physical therapists, and you reading this article, I invite you to take a deep breath and honor your innate ability to find an ever-deepening sense of peace and well-being. I wish you well in all you do. Thank you.
Posted by Andrea J. Ottley
Posted by Andrea J. Ottley
You just made my week... maybe month... maybe year. It is beyond inspiring to hear from you and know that you are still using the tools, kickin' butt and takin' names! I am forever honored to have been part of your amazing journey. Thank you so much for reaching out! Stay in touch!
Posted by Elise
Posted by Katy williams
You, hearing from you and your glowing comment on this blog are all gifts! Thank you so much for connecting! I hope you continue to build those practices and disciplines that help you shine in that amazing and unique way that you do. I send you my love and support always!
Posted by Elise
I came across your blog while I was looking for jobs in wilderness therapy, and I just want to say thank you for sharing this story and for the work that you do. I am recovering from some severe, albeit unexplainable, pain in my muscles and joints that forced me to leave a job in disaster relief nonprofit work (a job that also relies heavily on my physical fitness and ability), and the anxiety and trauma has been very hard to deal with. A combination of yoga, meditation and nourishing my body with nutrient-dense foods has helped me dig my way out, and I hope to work with others in a role similar to yours, to share my story and help. You are an amazing writer and an incredibly brave and resilient soul. I'd love to cross paths one day or exchange emails to talk about your work at Evoke.
Posted by Andy Vantrease
Thank you so much for reaching out and for your kind compliments. The brief description you gave of your own story rings with affirmation and powerful similarity to my own. I am delighted to hear that you have found your way through your trauma. It would be great to chat further.
My email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted by Elise
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