Written by Christina Chen, Minneapolis 2016 Trauma-Informed Yoga Training Participant
February 23, 2016
The first homework question that Ivy Katz, the facilitator for Street Yoga’s Trauma-Informed Yoga Training in Minneapolis asked was,“Has yoga helped you survive? Why?” The answer was obvious…yes. Yoga saved my life. Without giving too many details, what I can say is that I was in a very dark place in my life and my only sanctuary was on the four corners of my mat, where deep pranayama helped me transcend the scars that generations of forced displacement had on my family, and asana a tool of healing to my own experiences of racism and sexism as an Asian heritage woman living in America.
I started this article with a personal vignette since it is what led me to this path [of] yoga, especially to my goal of using yoga as service to others. My intent is to focus my energy into making yoga more accessible to low-income communities of color. I work with an agency that provides direct services to refugees and immigrants and I witness the impact that direct, intergenerational, and complex traumas have on individuals and communities. I fully support the idea that yoga maybe one of the most effective methods of healing for those who has embodied some form of trauma in their mind and body. When I heard of the work that Street Yoga does and particularly about this training I quickly registered.
I was very grateful that Ivy Katz, a social worker and yoga instructor for Street Yoga in Portland, was our trainer in Minneapolis for the weekend workshop. She was able to bridge the Western schools of thought about mental health to yogic philosophy and made it accessible and useful material. As the only person who wasn’t white passing in the workshop, I was reminded of the uneasiness that comes whenever I enter a yoga studio. Ivy discussed the concept of transference in therapy, or the unconscious redirection of feelings from one person onto another. As someone who has experienced a lifetime of racial traumas, a predominantly White dominated space such as yoga in the West can be very alienating and activating. White yoga instructors who seem to focus on aligning my body into a “certain” yoga mold reminds me of the surveillance on my body and behavior that I have experienced through white teachers, white doctors, white coaches, and white bosses. Many of the yoga teachers in the room are also social workers or work in schools with low-income people of color. It was useful to discuss how the presence of a white middle-class yoga instructor may impact students in the room who do not share this identity and trigger negative reactions. Ivy called this the process of counter-transference.
The workshop was divided up into a series of practice teaching, small work groups, lecture, and discussion. The metaphysical and physical breakdown of how yoga is useful as a tool to cope with trauma was spelled out during the workshop. Overall the workshop was necessary in not only understanding the complexities of ways the mind and body are impacted by trauma, the different forms of trauma, but also yoga exercises that are accessible to those impacted by trauma.
One important concept that has become apparent to me through my yoga journey is encapsulated by B.K.S. Iyengar quote, “Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” The yogi understands that suffering is a temporary condition of this temporary life. Yoga contrary to Western forms of therapy is not focused on “fixing” an issue. Yoga is not just a form of therapy but a way of viewing our universe and our place in it. Yoga, as a philosophy, is a way to discern reality from myth and the goal is to move towards complete and radical non-judgment. Yoga is an important tool to alleviate symptoms of trauma that is now only starting to gain more momentum in Western clinical research. I believe that groups such as Street Yoga play an essential role in creating a more accessible form of yoga to populations who are typically barred from participating.