By Casey Cashman
Firefly Training attended: Winona, MN - September, 2018
TW/CW: Sexual violence
As the brilliant Brene Brown says, “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do.”
As many do, I came to discover the light of yoga in effort to get through some dark times. I was working as a victim advocate, assisting victims of all types of crime, when suddenly the tables turned. During a weekend trip to my hometown, I was sexually assaulted by one of my oldest friends. With my advocacy background, I knew what I could expect in the aftermath. I knew my options to report or not and was well aware of the free counseling resources available to me. As much as I knew about trauma reactions from working with victims, you can never really prepare for trauma.
I experienced a full range of symptoms and reactions that are known to be common for sexual violence victims. I returned to work as soon as I could in an attempt to re-establish some normalcy in my life. I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol in effort to numb the pain of being violated by someone I had loved and trusted. I disrespected my body and let others do the same. I felt unworthy, damaged, and broken. I got really really angry, and very confused. I startled easily and was afraid to be alone. I also became silent about my assault. I didn’t want to talk about it with my family or friends, as I knew that it caused them pain to talk about it as well. I didn’t want them to know how hopeless I had become. I just threw myself into my work serving others and promised myself that I’d eventually deal with it. I tried EMDR and CBT therapy, which helped me cope with daily triggers, but didn’t address how I was treating my body.
Fortunately, I was invited by a friend to try out a yoga class; something that would become my salvation in this healing process. After being disconnected from my body, I was shown how I could safely explore and reconnect with my body. Yoga taught me to become aware of the space that I physically inhabit, and to be grateful for my body and being alive. It taught me that I was strong, driven, and resilient. Yoga became a regular practice of self-care and healing. A time and space where I could focus on myself and nothing else. I didn’t need to talk about the assault in order to feel the scars on my heart releasing and freeing me from the trauma stored within my body.
In the victim advocacy field, the terms often used in direct service include “victim” and “survivor”. Some believe that the term “survivor” is more empowering and forward-thinking, while others see the validation that comes with the term “victim”. As I deepened my yoga practice and embarked on my teacher training, I began to feel open, light, and worthy once again. I felt as though I was moving from a victim to a survivor. I wanted to help other victims to discover the healing gift of yoga.
I was so excited when I landed my first yoga teaching job. I knew that I would make mistakes and certain aspects would be harder than others, like adapting sequences to experience levels, demonstrating inversions, or music mishaps. I was surprised to find that the most challenging part of my teaching journey has had little to do with actually teaching. The studio asked for a head shot and biography for their website. No problem, I thought, how hard can it be? Over a year into teaching and I found that I still hadn’t given the studio my bio. What seemed like a simple task had transformed into a huge mental roadblock. I realized that even though I had come so far in my healing and felt resolve about what happened, it was still difficult to talk about, especially publicly.
It wasn’t until I went to write my teacher bio that I found difficulty in naming and owning my experience. Choosing a label of “victim” or “survivor” was a challenge. Like a lotus flower blooming in mud, my yoga journey was born out of my victimization. I felt like I couldn’t write an authentic biography without identifying myself as a victim of sexual assault, and so I’m incredibly grateful for the #MeToo movement. Even as a victim advocate, without others speaking up and naming the abuse they’ve endured, it would have been much more difficult to publicly identify as a victim. I’ve learned that identity can be fluid and whether I choose to identify as a victim or survivor can depend on many things, but I still have a choice. I find some comfort in knowing that whatever label I use, I know I’m not alone.
While I found the words to write about my yoga journey, I also felt like I needed something more to connect my practice to my purpose. I was thrilled when I learned about Firefly Yoga International - the trauma-informed yoga teacher training was exactly what I needed to finally blend my yoga teaching with my work in the victim advocacy field.
We are all on our own paths to healing, and just like victim advocates, yoga instructors can play a big part in either helping or harming trauma survivors. I realized during the Firefly Training that much of what I learned to be proper teaching methods through my 200-hour training was actually very directive, judgmental, and [potentially] unsafe for students. I was surprised by the level of attention and preparation that it takes to lead a trauma-informed class, and also realized how often I might be teaching on auto-pilot.
The biggest change in my teaching since Firefly has been integrating the use of invitational language into my classes. My 200-hour training emphasized that teachers should “cue-body part-direction”, such as “reach your right leg high”, which is meant to be a clear, concise direction. This style of teaching however doesn’t invite other options or adapt well to physical limitations or skill levels.
When someone becomes a victim, their sense of agency and control is taken away. An advocate’s role is to help victims to understand their options and let them choose what is best for them. It sounds simple, but is so important to effective advocacy; it’s giving control back to the victim and not choosing for them. I appreciated that Firefly emphasized this key notion of choice, which I think is missing or minimized in other yoga teacher trainings. Giving students permission to choose what works for them is crucial to paving the way towards healing. Victims do not get a choice in what happened to them, but as yoga instructors, we owe it to trauma survivors to give options and empower their individual choices on and off their mat.
When you give someone permission to own the narrative of their personal experiences, and view it for whatever it is to them, you provide permission to heal in their own freely chosen way with liberation from the past, to begin writing a new chapter in their lives. A chapter of healing, love, and freedom, with whatever label or title they choose. While the chapters of your life may have many different labels, you are ultimately the author of your own life story.
What I’ve learned throughout my experience, is that humans are constantly changing. We are powerful beyond belief. We can change. We can heal and overcome. Owning our personal struggles is not a sign of weakness, it is truly a sign of bravery and one that takes takes courage. Like Brene says, "..It's the bravest thing that we'll ever do."