October 12, 2011

Using Yoga to Recover from Trauma. ~ Kat Robinson

A traumatic illness or injury can leave you feeling “disconnected” long after the physical has healed.

I’m not a yoga teacher with a long lineage or an impressive pedigree, but what I am is a yoga instructor with life experience and first-hand knowledge of how yoga and meditation can be a useful tool in a complete recovery after an illness or injury.

I was just 17 when a near fatal tick bite changed my life. I was a normal high school senior, had lots of friend and a great boyfriend, was looking forward to my senior prom and graduation, but most of the last days of my senior year were spent in a hospital in complete isolation. For more than 3 weeks I spent my days in a room with people either wearing complete surgical gear (masks, gowns, caps, etc.) or they talked to me through a pane of glass. Not because I was contagious, but because even the slightest cold could have ended my life.

I had been bit by a tick infected with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. My symptoms started off as flu-like symptoms and then moved quickly into blindness, paralysis, renal failure, and eventually coma.

However, fighting the illness was only part of it. I did recover physically; I made it back to school in time to graduate with my class, but when I returned to my life I realized everything had changed AND nothing had changed.

The things I had come to rely on were not a part of my life anymore. I was weak and frail, I still had some vision problems that would hang with me for the rest of my life, I was terribly scarred from the spots, my hair was falling out in handfuls from the stress on my body, and the vivacious, outgoing person I had once been was no longer around. Yet everything around me seemed the same. School functions went on without me and my friends were still going out on the weekends to see movies and go on dates. In essence, life went on without me. It was a difficult thing to go through.

It would be several years of floundering in my life before I would put the pieces together to regain wholeness again.

When this happened to me it was 1979 and we were not as tuned in with the mind-body-spirit connection as we are now. When my “physical body” was healed, I was considered cured. No one thought anything about my emotional, mental, and spiritual bodies. In that respect I was still very sick. What I have learned is that the girl who went to the hospital that day and the girl who was released from the hospital were two different girls. When I would say anything about anger I was feeling or any depression that was happening, well-intentioned family and friends would stop me and “remind” me that I was just lucky to be alive. AND I was, AND I also didn’t feel so lucky, and I didn’t feel completely alive. What I needed at the time was space to mourn the person I had been and to find acceptance and joy in the person I had evolved into.

That “space” would not come for several years.

When a traumatic illness or injury occurs, there is a feeling of being disconnected from yourself. Not just the physical but all of the bodies. Mentally and emotionally I was struggling, and spiritually I was shattered.

I would eventually get married, have children, a home and career, yet there were always feelings of incompleteness. I seemed to flounder in my life for several years, having this anger, depression and loneliness rule every aspect of my life. I smoked, drank, partied, and experimented with drugs to try to control my life. I was actually out of control for many years, but when I took up yoga all of the dots seemed to get connected.

When I first began doing yoga I tried to control every pose, just as I had tried to control everything else in my life since my illness. Then one day I was in Warrior II and I looked down and saw the scars on my legs from the spots and I had this incredible feeling of anguish go through me. I began to cry and cry and cry. After all these years of suppressing everything I had been feeling and eventually suppressing to the point of not feeling, I was beginning to feel again. On my yoga mat, I could only go as far as I could comfortably go and just had to feel what I was feeling. To not judge or control the physical sensations of the poses, or the emotional feelings that would bubble up, but just simply be with them. That was when my healing began.

No one was telling me to “just be thankful I was alive,” no one was stopping me from being where I needed to be. There was no suppression on my mat. I was free to feel without guilt or the shame I was made to feel for being angry about having my life change after my illness.

What I realized was that I had to grieve for the young woman who once was, just as we have to grieve any death or loss. I also eventually learned to rejoice at the birth of who emerged. No easy task, but definitely doable.

The grieving process is 5 steps that take hours or months or years to complete. It is very common to get “stuck” at one of the steps. When this happens we never really heal.

Step 1: Denial and isolation. Pretending nothing has happened, going on as if this were just a little inconvenience in the day. Isolating yourself from any and all memories of it can be very harmful.

Step 2: Anger. Feeling of why did this happen to me? Why am I the one when everybody else is going on with their lives untouched?

Step 3: Bargaining. I will do anything if _____.

Step 4: Depression. Feelings of sadness for the loss of who or what you were.

Step 5: Acceptance of the reality of the loss. This is true healing.

Yoga and meditation can help you get the space in your body to release the tensions associated with these kinds of traumas, and it can also give you the space in your mind to recognize and feel the feelings that going on in you.

Find yourself a quiet comfortable place where your feel safe. If you play music, make it music with no lyrics. I prefer sounds of waterfalls and birds singing. Aromatherapy such as sandalwood and cedar are good choices.

Coming into a comfortable cross legged seat, sit quietly for several minutes. Breathe gently in and out of the nose. Make sure you breathe deeply, filling the lungs on the inhale and emptying the lungs on the exhale. Think of your breathing like the ocean, ebbing and flowing. If any intrusive thoughts come to mind, acknowledge them and then let them go.

As you move into your asanas (yoga poses), take it slowly and listen to your body. Ease into the poses, taking your time, working slowly and deeply into your body. When you get to a point of feeling a stretch with ease, your breathing is still flowing, you are not straining, stop there and breathe. Let your body open. No forcing, no straining.

Heart opening poses such as cat/cow, upward facing dog, camel, and bridge are very good for releasing the emotions that can be bound up in the heart center.

Also, the grounding poses of tadasana (mountain pose), warriors I and II, and triangle can serve you well to regain your footing. Poses that ground the root chakra such at tree pose can help you regain balance and help keep you from feeling scattered and disconnected.

When doing your practice make a mental note of all feelings, even if you think they are irrelevant at the time—they may be very relevant later on. After you have completed your practice take a few moments to write down anything that you felt, as well as where in your body and in which pose you felt it. Knowing where you feel these sensations or feelings can be a hugely valuable piece of the puzzle. For example, feeling it in your stomach can be a sign that it is just too much to “digest” and breaking it down into smaller “bite-sized” pieces may make it easier. Take your practice slowly, increase intensity as you feel your strength improving. Eventually you may feel that poses like plank and side plank can be very empowering. Physical strength, emotional strength, and spiritual strength, the tri-fold path to healing, can be just the thing to emerge from the muddy waters into the beautiful lotus.

Kat Robinson is the owner of Active Kat Yoga and the author of I Almost Died! Reinventing Yourself With Yoga and Meditation After Traumatic Illness or Injury. She and her husband Brett live in the beautiful Missouri Ozarks where they are “reinveinting” a 100 year old hospital into their home and studio. She is an avid embroiderer and is the developer of Sewing Yoga, a therapeutic yoga program for those who sew or work at a desk for extended periods of time. She also self-produced the corresponding DVD Sewing Yoga.

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