Many people seem to find it interesting that a military man ended up teaching Yoga. At workshops and retreats, I am often asked how this came to be. The credit for my foray into Yoga belongs to my ego and my toes. A long career in the military, where exercise most often involved running or marching with a pack, had made it impossible for me to come anywhere close to touching my toes. As a 40-something male who was starting to feel his age, but was not ready to accept it, this was a bit bothersome. One day as I was walking past a Yoga studio my ego’s intense need to correct this grave personal inadequacy overcame my inhibitions, and after looking both ways to make sure nobody I knew could see me, I stepped inside. This was the beginning of a personal practice that has convinced me that Yoga has a place in everyone’s life.
Within a couple weeks of sneaking into the studio, and long before I could touch my toes, I began to notice some unexpected and pleasant side effects. I was experiencing my first taste of the calm abiding and contentment that naturally arise from a regular Yoga practice.
It could not have happened at a better time in my life. I was a few years into my recovery from alcoholism. My military duties had put me in a situation where I was living away from friends and family and I really needed a healthy activity to keep me out of the bars at night. I needed a place where I could feed safe, supported, and connected. Yoga became that place.
One of the defining aspects of an alcoholic mind is the idea that if a little bit of something is good, more can only be better. Although this mindset caused a lot of suffering when I was drinking, it became something of an asset when applied to Yoga. I began to look for an opportunity to go deeper, to spend more time pursuing the practice of Yoga. I decided to go to a teacher training and from that point forward serendipity took over. Looking back I find it amazing how that initial decision inspired me to find the path I follow today. I certainly did not have a plan; I simply followed the cues the universe provided. This is what happened:
I randomly picked a Yoga teacher training at Yandara Yoga Institute in Baja Mexico. Today, with many Yoga experiences under my belt, I have come to treasure my formative Yoga experience at Yandara. I could not have asked for a more balanced, comprehensive, and authentic introduction to what Yoga truly is.
Yandara changed my life. I returned home, retired from the military and made a personal choice to follow the path of Yoga. Shortly thereafter I visited a soldier struggling with PTSD whom I had taken a personal interest in when I was his supervisor in the military. At some point I had naively come to see myself as his savior and made it my personal mission to help him get better. During the visit he threatened to harm himself in a dramatic and (for me) terrifying way. The incident left me shaken and caused me to question my ability to help others. I learned an important lesson. We cannot fix another person, we can only hope to set the conditions for them to fix themselves.
Influenced by this event, I noticed that trauma-sensitive Yoga training was being offered by David Emerson and Bessel Van der Kolk at Kripalu. I attended and serendipity spoke again. A former military colleague was in the same training. He was a retired General who was helping to spearhead a study with Queens University to assess the benefits that Yoga could have for soldiers recovering from PTSD. I became part of that study and was inspired by the idea of helping veterans help themselves through the practice of Yoga.
After my return from Kripalu, a student in my class approached me. She is a psychologist in the local area who treats military veterans with PTSD. She believed that the trauma-sensitive style of Yoga I was teaching would be beneficial to her clients. We established a program that incorporated weekly Yoga into her client’s treatment plan and I gained much of the practical experience that I endeavor to share in my book.
It is unlikely that what I learned would have become a book if my friends and fellow yogis, Tiffany and Kristof of Living in the Self Yoga had not asked me to conduct a day long workshop as part of the 300-hour teacher training they offer. This request caused me to create a workshop manual and to conduct more workshops. Over time the manual evolved until it became a book and here we are.
Upon reflection, I am humbled by how seemingly disparate experiences, events, and people came together to create Teaching Trauma-Sensitive Yoga — A Practical Guide. I never planned to become a Yoga teacher much less write a book. It was an outcome that resulted from taking the path proffered, by focusing on the journey instead of striving for a destination. I am really grateful that Yoga blessed me with the awareness to allow it to happen.
I have learned a lot from my investigation of trauma-sensitive Yoga. Perhaps the most important lesson is that when reduced to its basic components, Yoga is inherently trauma-sensitive. Mindful movement, mindful breathing practices, and focused awareness are the essential elements of a trauma-sensitive style of Yoga. Taking the time to make the Yoga safe is the most important thing a teacher can do to make it trauma-sensitive. From this perspective, any style of Yoga, or Yoga derivative, that is not rigidly dogmatic can be trauma-sensitive if it is offered in a way that is safe, adaptive, and respects the needs of the person it is intended to help. As I note in my book, in today’s high stress world where one in three people who come to a Yoga studio have experienced some degree of trauma in their life, this can be an important and empowering revelation for Yoga teachers.
Margaret Howard, who has graciously provided the afterword in my book, maintains that every Yoga teacher should receive trauma-sensitive training. Mark Stephens, an experienced and renowned Yoga teacher trainer, suggests in the foreword that if one believes it important to understand the counter-indications for pregnancy, they should consider it important to understand trauma because it is just as likely that Yoga teachers will encounter either condition among their students.
Fortunately, there is increasing acceptance of the need for a trauma-sensitive approach to Yoga. More often 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings are incorporating trauma-sensitive modules into their programs and there are numerous stand-alone trainings, such as the one I attended at Kripalu, available to teachers who want to include these concepts as part of their personal offerings.
I have learned that trauma-sensitive Yoga training need not be restricted to Yoga teachers. As David Emerson asserts in his book Trauma-sensitive Yoga in Therapy: Bringing The Body Into Treatment, clinical therapists can undertake this practice with their clients. My own experience has shown me that anyone who can move, breathe, and concentrate can learn how to share the practice with others. I have seen this assertion borne out on numerous occasions when I have delivered trauma-sensitive Yoga training to psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, school teachers, and general practitioners who have gone on to incorporate mindful movement, breath, and focused awareness into their respective practices.
I have also learned that Yoga can have therapeutic value. We find ourselves living in a world that values evidence-based interventions when helping people recover from conditions such as trauma or other stress related disorders. And while I completely accept the need for scientific rigor, I also believe that direct anecdotal experience is invaluable. It is by collecting and examining anecdotal experiences in an organized way that we create evidence. I am very heartened by recent research that validates what yogi(inis) have been anecdotally and directly experiencing for millennia. I recently read a review paper from McMaster University entitled “Mindfulness-based treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder: a review of the treatment literature and neurobiological evidence.” I was very encouraged by the degree of convergence between Yogic wisdom and contemporary science. It made me think of some of the amazing transformations I have personally witnessed.
I have seen individuals who, formerly isolated—some spending most of their time alone in their basement using drugs, alcohol, video games, or other mood-altering behaviors—develop the capacity, through the practice of Yoga, to not only find themselves, but to reconnect to others. First within the safe and supportive environment of small group settings in a clinical environment, then eventually to move more comfortably and confidently through the world at large.
In The Heart of Yoga, TKV Desikachar noted that one of the definitions of Yoga is “to attain that which was previously unattainable.” This certainly holds true when a trauma-sensitive style of Yoga is offered to those who are recovering from a trauma condition. They learn, through the practice of self-observation and acceptance of present moment experience to tolerate that which was previously intolerable. They learn they are not defined by what has happened to them, but by how they choose to define their worldview. They learn to live their lives in ways that bring some measure of peace and contentment.
So I am very grateful to my ego—especially since Yoga has taught me how to live in harmony with it. I ended up finding so much more than the tips of my toes, which I can now touch whenever I need to.
About the Author:
Brendon Abram, E-RYT 500, is a 30-year veteran of the Canadian Forces who served with the United Nations in El Salvador and NATO in Bosnia. He trained with David Emerson, is certified by the Trauma Centre in Boston to teach trauma-sensitive Yoga, and has taught Yoga to United States Military veterans with PTSD. He was also an instructor for a research study that examined the effects of Yoga on people recovering from operational trauma. As an associate at Trent View Counselling in Trenton, Ontario, Abram has worked under the direct supervision of a clinical psychologist for the past three years to teach Yoga-based self-regulation practices to those living with trauma and other stress related disorders. He has worked with military veterans, first responders, and survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. Applying what he has learned in the clinic, Abram frequently teaches trauma sensitive Yoga at teacher trainings and Yoga Alliance certified workshops to Yoga teachers and mental health care professionals. More info: http://getyoga.ca