Last night, I shadowed instructor Brianne Murphy of Transformation Yoga Project in West Philly – where the yoga students are also patients in addiction recovery and behavioral health programs. The trauma-informed training I did in December with Liberation Prison Yoga was extremely helpful for preparing me, but there was a lot going on internally as I experienced the class.
After signing in, we set up the mats in a circle in a large gymnasium. It seemed no one would show, so we spent some time discussing the mission of the program and how it’s implemented. Brianne, or “Bri” as she’s known, doesn’t make a class plan, but instead creates a sequence on the fly based on the energy / experience levels in the room, guided by her basic template. She wants students to feel that all the poses are optional, and they let themselves be the “queen of their own mats.”
Two women did finally come; they said it was chaos on their floor and they needed to get away. We started out with a “check in,” where we all said our names and what brings us to yoga. The two women began, and both said something similar about wanting to find some peace, relieve stress. My turn came and I shared that I come to the mat to find peace and calm within (though I’m not always successful with that!) I had some thoughts here about wanting to come across to the women as having been through something difficult myself so that I would be more relatable, gain their trust a bit, not seem like a privileged white girl. Of course I have had my own traumas and suffering but I have not experienced recovery from addiction. At any rate, I observed how ridiculous I can be with wanting to fit in to any group.
The space created by Bri was sacred but not intimidating. First she let us know what the class would be like – some warm up, standing poses, then seated poses and relaxation time. We started by going inward and focusing on breath, setting an intention. My intention for the class was JUST OBSERVE. Our seated warmup was all about spine flexion, and Bri’s language was wonderful. A lot of “maybe you do this, or maybe you do that,” while she modeled everything and was very genuinely present. Then we did some gentle sun salutations excluding the plank/updog/downdog. Our standing poses included some dynamic versions of the classic poses where you’re moving a bit more to bend the knee or bring arms up and down. And then I really liked the balance introduction back to a lunge. At that point Bri asked if they wanted more balance, more standing poses, or to lay down. An immediate answer came from one of the women who was ready to relax.
In our seated positions, we did some forward folding, and some twisting, and some gentle back-bending. Holding the sphinx and then locust was really difficult for me as my back has been hurting, with the herniated discs there and sciatica back in the mix. The effect of the tone of the class combined with the back-bending really caught up with me at this point, and I actually had some difficulty and had to get up and get my water bottle to break the pose. Here’s what was going on: my face got all flushed in locust and I actually began to dissociate for a few moments. Why? It seemed to me that the way that this yoga is presented assumes that you are broken in some way (or at least that was my interpretation and how it made me feel.) There are too many choices, too much thinking. I like to be told what to do so I don’t have to make the choice and find anything too disturbing there. Acknowledging all those opportunities to really check in with your body/mind is a slippery slope towards dissociation and anxiety – for me. But I totally understand that being given a choice is completely empowering and necessary in this setting.
I have trouble surrendering, letting go of control. I like dynamic movement, lots of change, and I don’t want to stay in a pose for a long time while being given too many opportunities to ask myself questions. So I guess I know why I chose vinyasa / ashtanga as my flavor of yoga!
What this means is that while I may not want to practice trauma-informed yoga, I do think I have something to offer in terms of creating a safe space for others to find their yoga practice. Especially from the viewpoint of anxiety. I would like to return and continue observing both my own reactions as well as the beneficial effect the practice has on other students attending the class. I think Bri did an amazing job, especially in relaxation pose, corpse pose, as she talked us through a head to toe observation of self – not leaving you alone with your thoughts. I’m very excited to continue on this journey towards transformation!