Feel to Heal: Yoga for Warriors

Hi Yogis! Today’s post is from Stephani Kolevar. Stephani recently attended a Yoga Warrior Training and wanted to share some of her important takeaways from the powerful weekend regarding working with Veterans and other trauma survivors. This post is geared especially toward other Yoga Teachers, but can be helpful for anyone working with this population.

FEEL TO HEAL! That is my summary from the Yoga Training that I attended last weekend, targeting those brave men and women who are returning from overseas service with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Traditional Western medicine focuses primarily on learning how to manage symptoms of PTSD, usually through prescription drugs. While helpful, many PTSD sufferers are seeking remedies for the cause of PTSD, and not just the effects. Recent neuroscience breakthroughs combined with yoga’s acknowledgement of the energy systems in the body creates a place where healing can begin for these trauma sufferers.
The fundamental belief is that through slower, focused movement, and heightened sensory awareness (sounds like yoga to me!), the individual can go back to the source of the trauma and actually release it where it can no longer do harm. Current research shows that trauma gets stored in the body through the neural pathways, and yoga can help us access those pathways and release the stored trauma over time. Think about following a river from the mouth of its opening, all the way to its source somewhere high up in the mountains. We are trying to find that source of trauma stored somewhere deep in our brain.
Traditional therapies focus mainly on cognitive approaches to healing trauma by examining behaviors from a standpoint of logic. However, during the traumatic event, new research has shown that the person gets “stuck” into a primitive brain processing system of either freezing (parasympathetic), or fight/flight (sympathetic), and often cannot comprehend the higher-level brain processing needed for cognitive therapy. We need to literally, and somatically re-experience the trauma from a feeling standpoint to get the trauma “unstuck” from our neural pathways. For each person, this will be a very personal and intimate re-engagement with their bodies that they need to take at their own pace. As yoga instructors, we can use a 9-step guideline presented by Dr. Peter Levine in his book “In An Unspoken Voice – How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness” to help with these efforts.
The first point that needs to be addressed when working with Warriors, or anyone who has undergone a severe trauma in their lives, is to create a sacred space. We can do that though our voice, the music, the physical environment of the studio, and by our personal connection with the student. We then move into a somatic awakening through simple movements of the body, making that mind/body connection. Also focusing on expansion and contraction of our breath (pranayama) and through the use of physical postures (asanas). Practice the use of titration, bringing in tiny doses of movement. One or two poses might be enough for some people the entire class. Offer alternatives, allowing them a choice in what they feel comfortable doing or not doing. Slow movements and simple cuing will help uncouple the fear from immobility, help discharge and regulate a high arousal state, and allow the person to self-regulate, finding relaxed alertness and dynamic equilibrium. Lastly, re-orient the person into the here and now through a constant stream of words. Prolonged silence often leads to the mind wandering into dangerous territory. Be present on the mat!
The effects of PTSD are like a roadside bomb, random, uncontrollable, and ultimately devastating to those who lie in its path of destruction. If not addressed, these recent long years at war have the power to impact multiple generations. It is only when we shine the light of truth on our own wounds that we can help shine the light on the pathway toward healing our community. FEEL TO HEAL!

About Stephani: Stephani took her first yoga class from Baron Baptiste in the late 1990’s at a local fitness convention, and immediately became hooked on yoga. She quickly incorporated several yoga classes a week into the group exercise schedule where she was working for an employee fitness center in Bethesda. After several years of watching videos and taking multiple classes on her own, she decided to pursue a yoga certification through YogaFit. Two kids, and six years later, she finally completed her 200 hour RYT in 2011, and is currently working toward her 500 hour certification. She enjoys teaching to students of all ages. While living in Michigan for the last three years, she taught yoga camps for young kids, yoga clubs for teens, yoga workshps for couples, and restorative classes for the aging population. Her favorite style is a slow vinyasa, but she has also led power yoga classes, hot yoga classes, and yoga classes with weights. Stephani currently works as a Physical Education Teacher for a local PK-8 school. When she is not playing “taxi driver” to her two kids, she enjoys gardening, reading, and walking her dogs. In addition to a monthly Teens Class, Stephani currently teaches the following classes at Allay:

Yoga for Tweens (Ages 8-11), Wednesdays, 4:30-5:30 PM

Level 1, Thursdays, 8:00-9:00 PM

Open Flow, Fridays, 9:30-10:30 AM

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Recalibration

For the last few weeks (really months) I’ve been feeling the need to recalibrate.  The weight of my needs and those around me have changed and yet I couldn’t figure out how to shift the balance of my time and energy to meet them. As a consequence, I found myself often feeling frustrated, angry, and pessimistic–feelings that don’t translate into a wonderful attitude. I’ve been trying to watch these feelings, have compassion for myself and those at which these feelings would sometimes be aimed at, but in truth, often came up short. I just kept feeling like I didn’t have enough: enough time, enough energy, enough knowledge, enough brain capacity to handle everything that needed handling, enough push to get there (wherever “there” is), enough support. I simply could not get to a place of enough. Have you ever felt that way?

I’ve started and deleted this next paragraph at least three times already. I keep wanting to start writing about how I am now on the other side, some “aha” moment I had where things shifted and my vision became 20/20. The thing is, that’s not what happened. Over time, small shifts have happened. There are moments of clarity and moments of blind fog. The world didn’t exactly slow down so that I could catch up. It turns out that when you own your own business, are the mom of a ridiculously smart, active, headstrong toddler, and the wife of a brilliant, incredibly supportive but busy and hardworking husband, life just doesn’t slow down. What I AM doing is letting go, bit by bit, of my resistance to this crazy time and energy whirlwind that is my life right now.  For a while there, I felt a bit stuck and constrained by the incongruity between everything I felt I should be doing and everything I was able to do. Now, I am looking closely at that incongruity and recalibrating the scale so that they’re a little less uneven.

I first started teaching yoga and then opened Allay because I wanted to help men and women struggling with the demands of home, work, and life in general develop tools for dealing with all of the imbalance. Ironically, I was/am the one deeply in need of these tools. And, I have to let myself build them. I was treating the studio and my role in it as simply work and trying to deal with the competing demands of the workplace and my role as primary caregiver at home. But, then I realized, that’s not what Allay is about. So many people have described Allay as their yoga home. It makes me fill with love and gratitude when they do. Now I realize, how lucky am I? Allay is MY yoga home too. And Drew’s. Sometimes his and my needs will not be in line with those of the studio. And, we’ll have to address those each time they come up, as all parents do. But, there are so many ways that Allay can OPEN doors for us to build community, get support when we need it, find more meaningful and playful time together, and develop the tools we need to thrive instead of simply survive. As a business owner, I’ve striven to be flexible to meet all of our students where they are: shareable passes that never expire, keeping all classes drop-in and most available with any package or membership. Now I need to extend that flexibility to myself. The truth is Allay and I are one. And, that makes me proud. and so grateful. And, so relieved because I can stop searching. There are no magical answers outside of me and my life, they are within. All of the tools I need to tweak and reset my life scale are here. Life is and I suspect will always be shifting and consequently, in need of a little recalibration. It turns out, the tools are at my fingertips. And, that is enough.

Yogi Spotlight: Penny Maza

Hi Yogis! Welcome to our second Yogi Spotlight, organized and written by the fabulous Kathleen Reynolds! Today’s feature yogi is Penny, a dedicated and beautiful student in our weekly Gentle Yoga class!

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What were the circumstances that led you to Yoga?

I am relatively new to Yoga. I began the practice of Yoga because of changes in my life circumstances and in my health. First, I retired six years ago from a very demanding, sedentary job that I loved which required a long commute each day and significant travel. To be honest, I did not take care of myself because I was so engrossed in my work. Second, ten years ago I had a hip replacement. I have learned since then that arthritis does not just strike in one spot. My arthritis now has progressed to my spine and to numerous other joints. My retirement gave me time to try to deal with the stiffness of arthritis.

In the past I had taken both land and water aerobics classes, hiked in the mountains on the weekends, jogged, and took circuit training. Because of the progression of the arthritis, I could not keep up with these types of activities. I had thought that Yoga might be a possibility. I had passed the Allay Yoga studio on my way to do errands in Kensington for a few months after it opened, but I questioned whether or not it would work for me. I was apprehensive because I thought Yoga classes were filled with flexible, skinny, 20 year olds. I just wouldn’t fit in.

What has been your experience with Yoga practice?

One day three years ago I decided to find out if there was a way for me to participate in Yoga. I went to the Allay Yoga website and sent an email describing myself as an arthritic, overweight, senior citizen and asking if there was anyone at the studio who might accept the challenge of working with me. Within a few days, Pam responded in a most welcoming way. She wrote that one of the teachers, Dena Kahn, worked with people with physical challenges and would be in touch with me.

My Yoga practice began with a number of private classes. I could barely do anything, including standing for any period of time due to back spasms. Eventually, I could do enough to move to the Gentle Yoga class where I have remained. Both Dena and Jo Ann Kester, who now teaches the class, have helped me make adjustments to poses so I can do them. I even have a favorite pose, forward fold, because it provides an excellent back stretch for me. Because stairs are challenging, other students in the class have been helpful by bringing me the equipment for the day and returning it after class.

Tell us a little about what is going on in your life outside the Yoga studio. Do you incorporate what you have learned in Yoga into other parts of your life?

I have to admit that I am not entirely retired. I have been doing consulting work during these past six years, but the amount is declining each year. I continue to enjoy traveling, as I did before I retired, and hope to travel more, at least until my next joint replacement. I’m still doing work on the house I have lived for 35 years. It never ends. I have two cats, nine nieces and nephews including spouses and partners, and eight great nieces and nephews who have my attention.

I have incorporated three aspects of Yoga into my daily living. First, Yoga has helped me improve my balance, which is important in fall prevention. Second, it has made me more sensitive to the need for planning how to move in order to avoid falling or to get up after a fall. Finally, I have used the breathing techniques and meditation of Yoga to handle stress.