By Angela Hale, Firefly-trained yoga teacher and guest blogger for fireflyyoga.org.
It’s a helluva time to be human, isn’t it? We’re living in a period of radical transition. There are days (months!) when the world shifts right out from under my feet, like sand on the beach washing out to sea. It’s wild, and beautiful, and at times utterly disorienting — riding these energetic and emotional tides can feel, frankly, like being tossed about by colossal waves, periodically pulled under, holding my breath and praying for a break to find my bearings. How do we live when we don’t even know which way is up? How do we come into balance in perpetual ebb and flow?
balance |ˈbaləns| (noun):
an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady:slipping in the mud but keeping their balance | she lost her balance before falling.
When we talk about balance in the context of yoga, people often envision holding a perfectly picturesque dancer or a deeply rooted tree pose… but trembles and falls don’t usually happen when we’re standing still and steady in an anchored position. Rather, we wobble in motion as we shift and transition.
There’s no difference, really, between yoga and life. One way or another, aren’t we always in flux? The tide comes in, the tide goes out, the tide comes in, the tide goes out.
“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds' wings.” (Rumi)
The path to building balance and coordination, then, is by way of mastering these transitions, developing our own power, and coming to know that (even as we sway) we are held by something greater than ourselves. It’s the difference between fighting the waves and floundering about until we’re totally exhausted, or trusting our own buoyancy and resilience and the rhythm of the water to float us to its sparkling surface.
Balance is not a perfectly weighted scale. It’s an exquisite dance. A surrender to grace. Whether on or off the mat, balance is a moment-to-moment practice of continually noticing — where we are in space, the truth about our emotional experience, the pattern of our thoughts, the tempo of our lives — and then, when out of balance, finding the breath, feeling the body, resetting the mind, and returning to center. Over and over again. Wave, after wave, after wave.
"Yoga is a balancing factor, a substratum across all of your life, so you do not get shifted in one direction or another. It gives you freshness, gives you light, recharges your batteries. You become a stable person. You realize what balance is, what sukha is, what contentment is, what joy is.” (Birjoo Mehta)
I discovered this for myself nearly ten years ago, when I was just beginning the long road of recovery from a traumatic brain injury. I’d been blindsided, literally, by the corner of the wall that separated my stove from my breakfast nook as it met my skull and knocked me back five feet to the kitchen floor, and figuratively, as this unforeseen passage was not how I had imagined setting sail into my post-collegiate life. I was as off-kilter as I had ever been — an injured brain gives itself entirely to its own healing, and being emotionally well-balanced is very, very low on its list of priorities. I remember lying in bed one evening while my mother, who had flown in from out of state to be with me, washed dishes on the other side of the wall. I reflected on how grateful I was for her love and support, for our close and trusting relationship, and for the circumstances that allowed her to telecommute from my tiny apartment. Simultaneously, I wanted to kill her. Or myself. Or perhaps just burn down the apartment. My brain screeched, “WHY THE F* IS SHE MAKING SO MUCH NOISE AND WHY WON’T SHE JUST STOP?!?!” In those first months, I was uncharacteristically emotionally volatile, constantly cognitively and sensorially overwhelmed, and totally exhausted. I struggled to make sense of it all - why had this happened? How would I ever survive when I couldn’t seem to get through the tiniest challenges or simplest days without a meltdown? Who were these seemingly disparate people living inside my mind and my heart? I was desperate. I was drowning.
… And then I found my way into a yoga studio. I experienced more meaningful recovery in those first two weeks on my mat than I had in two months of physical, cognitive, and talk therapy. My doctors forbade any inversions, including the standard downward-dog, but with the support of my teachers and a whole lot of patience and salty tears, I made it work. I stopped fighting the torrent of thoughts and feelings, surrendered, and set out to meet myself with tender curiosity, and extraordinary compassion and courage, exactly where I was at. I gave myself — body, mind, and spirit — to floating. As I learned the art of being in flow, my wobbles waned, my stormy thoughts slowed, and my emotional tide became more even and gentle. In my practice, I found stillness. I found center. I found my way home to myself. I rose to the surface, and breathed (really breathed) for what felt like the first time.
Yoga - the spiritual, physical, and philosophical practice - is a powerful channel for connecting to the center of the self. It’s a method of deep inquiry, and of learning to meet ourselves (in moments of stillness and moments of struggle alike) with curiosity, compassion, and courage. It’s a perfect mirror of our lives, and what it means to choose tenderness and grace and love as we are adrift in this ever-changing, watery world.
So what might it be like to release resistance to the motion of the ocean and touch the truth of that tender heart of yours? To stay soft, let yourself be moved, and return to breath? To greet the body, mind, and spirit among the waves, with all the love you can muster? To ask yourself, with earnest curiosity: where am I carried now, and what is the dance of balance in this moment? In my own little raft, this practice has brought me peace, freedom, and ease as I rise with the swell, fall, and rise again. And again. And again.
Angela Hale is a writer, spiritual mentor, yoga teacher, and energy healer. She believes that every person is inherently worthy and capable of living with every ounce of their being - whole, wild, and free. You can walk this walk with her on Facebook at Whole, Wild & Free and subscribe to her newsletter here to stay up to date on her latest adventures and offerings. Angela Hale participated in the Firefly Training in trauma-informed yoga in San Francisco, CA in 2016, and is a guest blogger for Firefly Yoga International.
S.L. Rogers is a participant in the Firefly Program in trauma-informed yoga offered at PAVSA (Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault) in Duluth, MN. Read on to learn about Rogers’ experience using trauma-informed yoga to support the healing of her mind, body, and spirit.
"I had done yoga previously for a number of years, Kundalini many years ago and Hatha which I had been participating until about a year prior to finding out about the Firefly Program [at PAVSA].
Having gone through a number of major traumas in my life, I found yoga to help center myself, to get some grounding within the tumult that was and still is my life. Having lost my ability to remain employed in a manner where I could afford to continue any practice at all, I was forced to do without yoga as well as anything else not an immediate need, stripping away so I could afford to simply live. Due to limited space, mobility and other circumstances it was difficult to do much practicing at home.
I found out about Firefly when working with one of the people employed at PAVSA. She was quite excited that it was going to be something that would be offered free of charge for those who have been through trauma. There was information on the trauma-informed methods which I read up on. In the end, it looked like a good fit for me. I was very excited to try it.
When we think of trauma, it takes many shapes and forever changes lives in different ways. There is always a psychological component to trauma, often there are physical reactions as well, from panic attacks to disability and pain. If there is job or income loss due to the trauma, people are forced into positions where the very agencies designed to help them frequently hold prejudice against us who bravely persist in the struggle to survive. We are hit with expectations that are unrealistic and stereotypes that rarely fit who we were or are. I don't think that any of this should be minimized. This adds additional stressors and often more trauma that creates a repetitive cycle, wearing us down psychologically, emotionally and physically as well.
The Firefly Program helps give some of our control back. Mindfulness, focus and intent removes peripheral details repeating within our thoughts that may seem insurmountable. Proper breathing brings our heart rate down, increasing oxygen and clarity, giving hormones comprising our fight/flight system a break. The stretches in poses target muscle groups that have become tight and painful, increasing our elasticity and releasing tension that binds us. Combine this with atmosphere and music geared to relaxation, and an instructor focused on abilities and encouragement for adaptation, and it's a winning combination for which I am grateful.
An added benefit is a small community of women who, although strangers, become a source of support for each other. It is gradual, and while some people attend intermittently, we all know that each has suffered in some way. There is an element of compassion that comes through and the atmosphere is both safe and supportive. Our instructor reinforces this through instruction methods with added benefits of opening and closing readings promoting hope, meditation, visualization and calm. She shares her own experiences and is an easily approachable individual who does so much to create our atmosphere of safety and support. We are given tools for clarity and survival that are learned through repetition that we are able to take with us to use where and when we are able. One can't put a price on mindfulness, clarity and physical well-being that carry over into an individual's daily life, from peaceful moments to chaos that trauma survivors need to release.
I strongly support the Firefly Program. It has made a difference in my life and in the lives of others. I believe every trauma survivor should be offered this program as an option to find tools that create a coping method for their particular situation. The Firefly Program gives back not only to individuals but takes us into our communities with clarity, mindfulness and physical well-being each working in tandem. The multi-faceted return of this program is priceless. Thank you."
-S. L. Rogers, Duluth, MN
Firefly Co-Executive Directors (EDs) interview Sarah Terranova (ST, pictured right), a Firefly Yoga teacher and massage therapist based in Tahoe City, CA.
Since November 2015, Sarah has led the Firefly Program in trauma-informed yoga at Tahoe SAFE Alliance, a domestic violence and sexual assault center in King’s Beach, CA.
EDs: You participated in our Firefly Training in trauma-informed yoga in May 2015. Can you tell us how about that experience and how it prepared you to lead survivors through a practice?
ST: The Firefly Training prepared me to lead trauma survivors in an extremely grounded but also soft way. For me, the focus of the trauma-informed teaching is much different than my original training in Power Vinyasa. With a slower paced teaching style, I learned trauma-informed language and how to use that language to support the survivor in exploring their body and mental state. I also learned how to offer variations more effectively, for poses you might not even think to modify in “regular” studio classes.
Trauma-informed yoga gets back to the pure roots of practicing yoga. It’s not to look more fit, do crazy arm balances, be pushed beyond your limits or any of the other interesting reasons people are drawn to yoga. It’s purely to practice awareness of the body and the breath. To gain a mindful state on the mat in order to take it with you in your life off the mat. The Firefly Training taught me that simplicity was ok, and still a powerful practice of connection to oneself. It gave me the confidence to teach that less really is more.
EDs: You have been leading our Firefly Program at Tahoe SAFE Alliance in King’s Beach since November 2015. What has your overall experience been like there?
ST: The experience has been new and ever-changing. Overall, my feedback on the program is that it is well-received from participants who come regularly, but each week is so different - I never know what to expect. These classes are much different than a studio and the students react differently to the practice than a studio class.
EDs: From your perspective, how has the Firefly Program (trauma-informed classes) been received by the participants? Do you notice any changes in clients before/after class? Do you have any particular anecdotes you’d like to share about your experience?
ST: Those who attend seem to really like it and have recently been inquiring about things like concentration and focus during class. I’ve had a few ask for more or longer relaxation practices, such as the Nidra-based guided relaxation I typically offer at the end of each class. That seems to be almost everyone’s favorite part, and most recently I’ve had a few students drifting off during it, completely relaxed with slow to snoring breaths. Participants seem to have that yoga glow afterwards, seemingly more grounded.
EDs: When you lead trauma-informed classes, what sort of preparation do you enact before teaching, and what self-care efforts do you make after?
ST: It’s quite a drive from my house so usually I ground on the way there, and sometimes hang out in the area prior to class so that I don’t feel rushed. A big self-care technique has been actually doing the post class write-up (teaching journal) to process class and help me make mental notes of what I want to remember, or if something came up during the experience that I want to revisit.
EDs: From your experience, what is the primary difference (from a teaching perspective) in leading trauma-informed classes versus studio classes?
ST: The primary difference for me would be language - not using any Sanskrit (which can make yoga seem even more of a mystery to students) or triggering words, such as “deepen”. The pace of class is definitely slower and I offer more variations and props than many typical studio classes.
EDs: Tell us about your yoga practice and teaching career. How long have you been teaching yoga? What types of classes do you teach?
ST: I have been practicing yoga consistently for seven years and teaching for three and a half. My practice style has mostly been an Ashtanga-inspired vinyasa. Since my first yoga teacher training in the spring of 2013, I have been introduced to many other styles that I enjoy practicing and teaching. I now teach Power Vinyasa yoga, or just Vinyasa yoga, Yin, Hatha Flow, and Yoga Nidra.
Photo: Sarah Terranova (back row, left) participated in the Firefly Training in trauma-informed yoga in spring 2015. She began leading the Firefly Program at Tahoe SAFE Alliance later that year.
EDs: We’d love to hear about your career path in serving/massage therapy. What is the nature of your work? What led you to this line of work?
ST: I do massage therapy part time. My first yoga teacher training, and the desire to help others, led me to my interest in massage therapy. It is a yogic line of work, based on giving healing touch and supporting others. My other current job, possibly not a career but my line of work for now, is serving. Serving was always a way to afford me my tuition costs for college, then yoga training, and then massage school. Simply serving people food and drinks is a job that has helped me afford the time and money for the training's I’ve wanted to do without working 40 hours a week. It was always just a means to an end but living in a tourist area now, it is one of the few jobs available.
EDs: Do you see a connection between yoga and your day job? If so, how?
ST: I definitely see a connection with yoga and massage. Yoga brought me to massage. Both are healing, but I think yoga is a practice to learn how to heal yourself whereas massage is purely receiving a healing touch from others. As a massage therapist, self-care is highly encouraged and yoga is one form of that for me. The teachings of yoga have absolutely spilled into my daily life of serving late at night and waking early for yoga or massage work, in that I am more mindful of my interactions with others. Self-care is now important to me and I am more loving and compassionate towards others in the workplace, customers and co-workers.
Christine Bowden is a yoga teacher and retired combat veteran of the US Army.
In January 2016, Christine traveled from her home in Ohio to Minneapolis, MN to participate in the Firefly Training in Trauma-Informed Yoga. In this blog, Christine reflects on using yoga in the healing process, from her unique view as a veteran and a yogi.
A lot can happen in 12 years… a lot can happen in 24 hours. Truly, things can change within an inhale and exhale. When I reflect on my yoga journey over the last 12 years of my life (10 ½ of which were spent in the US army), I am overwhelmed by a sea of emotions and sensations. On one hand, I recall the profound self-doubt and common internal judgments I made such as “what can yoga do for me?” and “I barely have time to choreograph a dance for my undergrad thesis, much less sit and meditate.” I questioned the stereotypes of what I had assumed yoga to be (at that time), and I was on the fence about making a commitment to bring it into my life (little did I know, it wasn’t going to let go of me very easily).
On the flip side, as weeks turned into months of pondering and researching more on yoga and its benefits, I found myself drawn deeper into the origins of yoga and the ability for an individual to create holistic benefits from within, instead of searching endlessly outside oneself. This realization subsequently led me to a profound sense of freedom and self-acceptance. But the journey itself is rarely a smooth road.
During my 10 ½ years in the U.S. Army in criminal investigation, I initially felt on top of the world. I was living out my dream and on my way to submitting my FBI packet at Quantico for the criminal profiling division. I always had a goal-oriented perspective, which in our culture is highly encouraged. However, what is never mentioned is that this way of life consistently takes the individual out of the present moment. Additionally, our dreams, desires, and actions are viewed as “separate” or external of us when we live in a completely goal-oriented manner.
My life was like this for most of twelve years. For 10 ½ of those years, hyper-vigilance was my “normal”. Often, soldiers do not notice how hyper-vigilance has negatively impacted their lives until they go through a transition, such as from military to civilian life, or a major life event outside of the military. In these experiences, we are often forced to face our perceptions of what is safe or normal. Being a soldier and practicing mindfulness and stillness does not always feel safe. Often in the military, particularly combat zones, reacting to a threat is what keeps one safe. Stillness and mindfulness, in the above context, equates to freezing (i.e., in the stress response) and this can feel profoundly unsafe to military personnel.
To start something new is, in essence, to be completely vulnerable. Sometimes our expectations shade our ability to be mindful of potential opportunities right in front of us. Becoming a trauma sensitive yoga therapist has allowed me to witness the power of healing in moments of stillness.
First, we are all connected on many levels, and at the root of our existence is the innate desire to feel safe. In times of trauma, stress, and uncertainty, our initial reaction is to engage our stress response: fight, flight, or freeze. This is an avoidance tactic. It isn’t comfortable for us to stay in an unsafe moment. Our bodies and minds are profoundly adaptable in creating ways to keep us safe. Unfortunately, in the long run, avoidance is not conducive to our trauma healing. But, then why do we do it? It makes us feel safe. It takes us away from the present moment. It draws us out of our bodies and our minds and aids us in escaping painful emotions and sensations.
One challenge for me when I started offering yoga therapy and trauma-informed classes was to express the profound balance between allowing oneself to remain mindful while also accepting the natural state of our minds. This is no easy task! We are all influenced by many external stimuli and one construct of that is our professional background. As a military veteran, my life was molded by constantly and urgently reacting to unpredictable conditions. This was safe in that given context. Learning mindfulness and allowing my mind and body to remain still in the moment, was foreign and unsafe to me.
A second universal factor that connects us on our yoga journey is breath. Creating a conscious breath practice cultivates a sense of safety within ourselves and the present. Breath work can slow our stress response and produce a greater sense of self-awareness. Additionally, learning to become safe in the world around us is often an aspect many of us take for granted. Acquiring a relationship with our breath can allow us to stay present in moments of chaos, without attaching ourselves to negative experiences.
Within my yoga therapy and trauma sensitive classes, I often remind participants that taking one breath at a time is all that we are physically capable of. In other words, our bodies can only either inhale in a moment, or exhale – we cannot do both. We cannot take in more than one action (e.g., 2 inhales/2 exhales) in any given moment. The same idea can be said for our minds. We should allow ourselves to be grateful for the healing process in any increment of time or size. Meaning, trauma recovery can occur one breath at a time and that is meaningful. During your yoga practice, you are the only one on your mat. Your breath is unique to you. Your trauma recovery does not have to look like anyone else’s. A journey into oneself is never expected to be absent of resistance, but one thing is certain: you can discover safety in one breath at a time.
About Christine Bowden: Christine Bowden is a yoga teacher and US Army retired combat veteran, with over a decade in service. Growing up as a dancer at the age of two, Christine has been immersed in the world of performing arts and athletics for over two decades. Christine received her BS in Dance Education from BGSU in 2007 to continue on to her MFA in Dance Choreography from SHSU in 2010. During her dance career, Christine began her yoga immersion and learning the psycho-social benefits of yoga and meditation. Finding a profound calling, she began to explore yoga as a tool to process mental health trauma, as many of her former fellow soldiers had struggled with this. Currently, Christine, an ERYT-200, continues to present regionally and nationally for Shape America, OAHPERD, and other agencies in the fields of dance, fitness, nutrition, and wellness. In 2014 she received her 115-hour certification in Mindful Yoga Therapy (MYT) and specialized studies on trauma sensitive yoga. Additionally, in 2015 she traveled to Minneapolis and received a 30-hour certificate from Firefly Yoga International in trauma-informed yoga. Christine won a government contract for fiscal year 2016-2017 to conduct trauma sensitive yoga classes on the armed forces base DSCC in Columbus, OH. With her first Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice and Psychological Law, she utilizes this experience when working in a clinical setting with military personnel, trauma survivors, and first responders.