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.