Reviewer Jessie Horness Holds the Question-&-Answer Pose with Brendon Abram, Author of Teaching Trauma Sensitive Yoga
The East-meets-West thing has been so mislabeled and abused over the years it ought to be retired, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an effective way to describe the bounty of knowledge Asia has bestowed upon Europe and the Americas and vice versa, in addition to the creative fusion of cultural traits between the two spheres. From Buddhism to sushi, the list of benefits shared by Asia is lengthy, but—with twenty million practitioners in the US and many millions more across the Atlantic—can we do better than yoga when searching for the most important gift of all? Especially with numerous studies showing increasing levels of stress disorders affecting young and old alike in Western society, yoga’s ability to deliver periods of tranquility only means the practice will grow in popularity over here.
This week we’re blessed to hear from Brendon Abram, a veteran who discovered yoga during his military years and hasn’t looked back. The author of the recently released Teaching Trauma Sensitive Yoga: A Practical Guide (North Atlantic Books), and a yoga purist with a soldier’s mindset, Abram recognizes that “when it comes to offering yoga, ‘practical’ means to keep it simple, which can be accomplished by sticking to the basics. … By keeping something from becoming too complex, we reduce the opportunity for misunderstanding and misdirection. My intention in the book was to remind readers that it is these basic principles that are the most important.”
Abram now travels the country working with PTSD sufferers and sexual assault victims—perfectly showcasing the East-West “creative fusion” mentioned earlier. Trauma, he reminds us in the book, is an extreme level of stress.
Foreword Reviews is also blessed to have Jessie Horness, an experienced yoga teacher, on our review staff. When her review of Teaching Trauma Sensitive Yoga came back for our July/August issue, we knew the two yogis had much in common, and much to talk about—the exact formula for a Foreword Face Off.
First, I’m wondering if you might expand a bit on your relationship with yoga practice. While it’s clear from your writing that you’ve had direct experience with how powerfully healing yoga practice can be for trauma, I’m curious how you first came to this realization. Could you share a little more about your first experiences with yoga, what inspired you to keep practicing, and, later, teach?
I was still serving with the military when I found yoga in 2006. I was in a situation where I was working and living away from my family and was looking for a healthy pursuit to fill my evenings. I was still in the early stages of recovery from alcoholism, so it was important to me to stay occupied. I was also at a stage in my life where the physical demands of military service were beginning to catch up with me and I was very interested in improving my flexibility. So, initially I was drawn to the physical aspects of yoga. In fact, I had no idea that there was a mindful or spiritual component. The studio I practiced at focused mostly on the physical and breath-related aspects. Nonetheless, I found that after a couple of weeks of three or four yoga classes each week my state of mind was changing for the better. I was experiencing more frequent and deeper moments of relaxation and calmness, and would leave each class with an overall sense of well-being. Many of the cravings and thought processes that accompany recovery from an addiction were silenced. I think this is when I developed an initial appreciation for the healing power of yoga. I also remember that I started to show up to class about 15 minutes early, because the yoga studio had become a safe place for me. I would often fall asleep before the class started. I started to have little insights. Not just understanding something, but knowing it with the whole of my being. The one I remember most is the realization that we only have the present moment in which to live our lives. I am sure that the thought was planted by a teacher, but when it came to me one day during savasana, it came as a major revelation that was only possible because the practice of yoga had quieted my mind.
I became interested in meditation, and started investigating the idea of finding a monastery retreat where I could learn and grow my practice. All this time I did not realize that there was a whole arm of yoga devoted to this pursuit. During my internet research I came across the website for Yandara Yoga School and saw that they were offering the mindful and spiritual experience I was looking for in a yoga setting. When I went to my teacher training I had no desire or intent to teach. I went solely to foster my personal health, and it was here I became certain that yoga has the power to heal. After twenty-six days of living yoga in a yogic community I was profoundly changed. Not only was I much healthier physically (I found my optimal weight and blood pressure), I also found a sense of lasting peace and contentment that stayed with me for quite some time after I came home. I found my ultimate reality. Although the world we have created (conventional reality) makes it difficult to feel this way all the time, I know it is available to me and that by practicing on a regular basis I have access to my ultimate reality when I need it the most.
At Yandara they very much encouraged us to teach and I guess they must have motivated me, because when I came home I started teaching a group of co-workers once a week at lunch time. I received positive feedback and was gratified to see that folks were really benefiting from it. At about the same time I had a young soldier with PTSD working for me who was in a difficult place. He reminded me so much of myself that I thought, “If yoga can help me, maybe it can help people like him.” Although he would not practice, the thought stayed with me, and when I became aware of David Emerson’s TSY (Trauma Sensitive Yoga) offering at Kirpalu, I decided to take it. This time my motivation was both personal and based on a desire to help those living with trauma. When I returned, a psychologist who came to my class asked it I would work with her clients, and that put me on the path of teaching TSY.
I love that you’ve used the subtitle A Practical Guide, as the book so successfully lives up to that title. Sometimes, the Western world of yoga seems to be spiraling on this frenetic creativity wheel, and we end up occasionally losing touch with the powerfully simple practicality of the basic principles of yoga. What inspired you to set out to write a “practical guide,” and what do you think “practical” looks like when it comes to offering yoga?
I think there are two main influences that caused the book to become “practical.” The first is this is how I tend to think, and I expect that it is due largely to my military experience. A huge part of my training and work was to take an idea or concept and put it into practice. That is how we accomplished our assigned mission. I learned that while ideas are the catalyst, the devil is in the details, and before you can implement or practice anything you have to work it through from every angle to see what will work and what won’t work. In yogic terms, we would describe this as the importance of “direct experience.”
The second influence was that the information in the book was originally presented as a study manual for a two-day teacher training that we conduct locally. It was very much intended to provide students with the most important information in the most concise form so they could use it as a reference to help develop their own trauma sensitive yoga offering.
When it comes to offering yoga, “practical” means to keep it simple, which can be accomplished by sticking to the basics. Once again, this was a major theme in the military. By keeping something from becoming too complex, we reduce the opportunity for misunderstanding and misdirection. The frenetic creativity wheel seems to cause people to add unnecessary detail in an effort to make their offering seem different from others. As I mention in the book, the real power of yoga lies in what is the same from offering to offering, not in what is different. My intention in the book was to remind readers that it is these basic principles that are the most important. I am really glad that you find it to be practical!
A kind of perpetual hyperarousal feels like it’s becoming a more and more common experience these days, both for anyone being bombarded by news and for folks belonging to marginalized communities, who are increasingly talking about dealing with what’s been called “insidious trauma.” Do you see a place for the tools of trauma sensitive yoga in helping us navigate this kind of collective fight-or-flight?
YES!!! TSY definitely has a place in helping absolutely everyone navigate through the conventional reality we have created. It seems to me that the line between stress and trauma is getting a bit blurry, and, although many folks may not be diagnosed with trauma, they are living in a state of almost perpetual stress. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a stress disorder, so the effects of a trauma disorder or simply living in a state of stress are very similar. In both cases yoga can help. Not everyone can take twenty-six days to find their ultimate reality, and the fact of the matter is that in order to stay alive in this world we have to spend much, maybe even most, of our time in conventional reality. I like to think that it makes sense to walk the border between the two, so that we can use yoga to keep sight of and step into ultimate reality when we need to. In ultimate reality we have complete clarity. We are not distracted by conventional distractions that cloud our ability to perceive clearly and that create so much stress in our lives. We can derive great benefit from taking time out each day for a few moments of tranquility. It helps us maintain perspective.
The main aspect of TSY that makes it so suitable to help with stress is that it recognizes two really important things. First, to deactivate the flight or fight reaction caused by stress, we need to create an offering that is safe. Secondly, perceptions of what is dangerous and what is safe are subjective and vary from individual to individual—consequently, as much as possible, yoga needs to be needs adaptive. It needs to resonate with the person who is practicing it. Our motto at our studio reflects this concept: “We are not here to teach you our yoga; we are here to help you find yours.” I think that this is how yoga was in the beginning. In its simplest form, yoga is inherently “Trauma Sensitive.” In the contemporary setting we can make it trauma sensitive again by removing the “details” that others have added to forward their own personal or organizational agenda.
The idea of trauma sensitivity as more of a return to root rather than another “new style” of yoga really resonates with me. My teachers very early in my teaching journey began encouraging me pretty heavily to do less, do less, do less. It was harder than I thought; I found it required me to both be able to ignore messages from conventional reality and to examine how my own needs were playing out in the room. Coming from some understanding of this process, I’d be super grateful to hear your expanded thoughts on this a bit.
The idea that trauma sensitive yoga represents a return to the roots is something I think about a lot. In fact, sometimes I ask myself why I wrote a book about trauma sensitive yoga, when yoga in its purest and simplest form is trauma sensitive to begin with and, as I suggest in the book, provides healing benefits that correspond remarkably well with the accepted three-phase trauma recovery model. This thought caused me to further ponder the question: If the basics of yoga are so powerful, why are there so many schools and systems of yoga out there, and, increasingly in the Western world, so many different flavors for specific segments of the population—Yoga for Seniors, Yoga for Round Bodies, Pre-natal Yoga, Yoga for Runners, and the list goes on. I have come to believe that the difference does not lie so much with the “what” or the substance of the yoga, as with the “how” it is presented. When we offer yoga to sub-groups it makes sense to do it in a manner that allows them to feel included and connected. It is really important for folks to feel the “same as.” It makes the whole experience safer and more accessible. If I am practicing with a group of people who I believe are like me, will understand where I am coming from, and will not judge me, I am better able to set aside conventional reality distractions and focus on finding my ultimate reality.
The second part of the question speaks to how we as teachers perceive ourselves relative to those we are teaching. I have come to think of yoga as service to others. And despite the fact that we live in a world where, for service to be valued, it has to be paid for, I think it is still possible to adopt service as one’s primary motivator. So rather than being an occupation, or a profession, or a way of becoming popular or rich, I believe that to be a yoga teacher is a vocation. I like to think that when we make the decision to serve others, we (within reason, of course) place their needs before our own.
For example, adopting the simplest expression of a pose (do less) even though we may be capable of a much more demanding variation of that same pose puts the needs of the student first. It makes the experience accessible to them, even though it denies me the opportunity to demonstrate my prowess as a yoga teacher. It seems to me that some teachers believe that they have to show how accomplished they are to be viewed as credible by their students. When I commit to teaching others, the time I spend with them is about them and I do my best (not always easy) to set my own needs aside—my need to appear competent, my need to be liked, my need to be recognized for teaching a good class, etc. I have witnessed yoga teachers put together remarkably complicated, beautiful, and demanding sequences that quite simply succeeded in leaving some students feeling excluded. Rather than creating a sense of exclusion, yoga should always be inclusive. The simpler it is, the more inclusive it becomes.
When you’re working with students in teacher training, how do you recommend their return to conventional reality (ie, the studio setting)? What advice do you have for teachers looking to offer this vital practice to the general population in a world where simplicity is not seen as “marketable?”
I think this relates to what is motivating the teacher to teach in the first place. If it is service to others, perhaps the marketability of the offering is not so important as making it available to those who need it most. My personal experience is that there are a lot of people out there who value simplicity. This is even more true once they have had an opportunity to experience a back-to-basics style of yoga. They welcome the opportunity to find freedom from complexity and distraction.
My advice to the teacher is always to be your authentic self and do not try to be something or someone you are not. You can still adapt many of the principles in the book to make any yoga offering more trauma sensitive. Simply using invitational language and cueing people to maintain awareness of a present-moment, in-body experience will create a more meaningful (and valuable) experience for their students. I tried it with an Ashtanga class I taught once, and, even though this may not be the first style of yoga that comes to mind when you think trauma sensitive, it is definitely possible to make it so.
In my counseling program, we discuss periodically whether it would be a good idea to require masters-level counseling students to receive therapy before licensing them as therapists themselves. The conversation is always around whether it is dangerous to engage in the work before weeding through your own subconscious, lest we unintentionally do harm out of lack of self-awareness. In your book, you take some time to talk about what it means to step into the role of the teacher of trauma sensitive yoga. Do you have any further recommendations for work on the self in preparation for this role?
I think this is a really important observation. At one of the first workshops we taught it was very obvious that there were some people present who had experienced trauma but had not come to terms with it. That particular workshop went a bit off the rails at one point because some had not regained the resiliency needed to work in an emotionally charged setting. If a teacher has not come to terms with their personal trauma, they definitely run the risk of being triggered and perhaps compromising the welfare of those they are working with. I saw it happen a few times in the peer support setting offered by the AA program, where when those facilitating the group were not sufficiently advanced in their recovery, it became a case of the sick leading the sick, which does not tend to work out that well. Having said that, people who have worked through their own challenges have so much to offer. They have the experience of having recovered, they have empathy, and they can serve as a positive example that recovery is possible.
Finally, and similarly, what recommendations do you have for students on vetting teachers and classes, especially if they’re seeking a trauma-informed setting?
I encourage every student I work with to try other classes with other teachers until they find the situation they are most comfortable with. I balance it out by reminding them that they don’t have to find the perfect situation, just the one that is good enough. I remind them that they never have to do anything that they are not comfortable with. I have recently started teaching a one-hour yoga class at a five-day healing retreat for female survivors of sexual assault. Rather than just doing a TSY class, I do my best to provide them with a perspective that will empower them to approach any yoga class they attend from a TSY perspective. I provide them all with a handout at the end which covers the following, which they can use as a bit of a checklist to determine if the class (and teacher) meets their personal needs.
Mindfulness is awareness and acceptance of present-moment experience. It is a deeply peaceful and relaxing state of mind.
Yoga creates an internal present-moment experience. It is not about external appearance.
Internal experience is created by the objective awareness of sensations that you are feeling in the present moment. These sensations could be physical, emotional, or cognitive (thoughts).
Set aside expectation and self-judgment. They are not relevant when we are observing present-moment experience. It is not necessary to look a certain way, or feel a certain way. Cultivate an attitude of curiosity and interest.
This approach makes yoga a completely subjective and personal experience. There is no right or wrong, there is simply an awareness of what you are experiencing in the moment. You never need do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable for any reason.
We can create an internal experience by focusing our awareness to become grounded and centered in the present moment and creating sensation through movement and breath.
Three aspects of movement we can pay attention to are: range of motion in any direction, the sensation the movement creates in our bodies (location and nature), and the rhythm of the movement.
Some aspects of breath we can pay attention to are: its length and depth, the in-body sensations it creates, and its rhythm.
When you enter the pose, move to create mild to moderate sensation. If it feels like you have more space you can slowly explore your way further. There is no rush to get anywhere. Learn to manage, tolerate, and accept the experience you have created within yourself.
Notice any degree of stillness, peace, or contentment you may be experiencing, no matter how subtle, no matter how fleeting. This is your natural state. The more you pay attention to it through the practice of yoga, the more easily you can connect to and stay with it whenever you wish.