When I signed up for the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind teacher training, I did so because the ideologies of both Julian and Hala’s teaching deeply resonated within me. Tired of the persistent “yoga as workout” mentality that I was seeing everywhere, and acutely aware of the positive psychological benefits of the practice, I realized that it was here, amongst these teachers and unbeknownst to me, this group, that I had found a place to nourish my roots. For years, yoga was an enigma of sorts, one that I would engage in from time to time then abandon because of time constraints, or fear: my ex-husband would watch me practice and narrate with overt sexual commentary. My practice became unsafe; it was abandoned.
That same relationship was fraught with abuse: emotional and sexual. After 10 years, it culminated in a significant disconnection with my body and a deep-seated fear of going inward. I finally left, broken and internally twisted and confused. I obsessively started to run 3 miles a day. I ran like I was being chased by monsters. I ran to get out of my body, and out of my head. I stopped eating, and effortlessly slipped back into my eating disorder, losing 35 pounds in a month. I wanted to disappear. My desire for detachment was visceral because going inward had become truly terrifying. I had been left with PTSD and a persistent sense of panic. Running was all I had–until I ran myself into sickness. My autoimmune system was sending me a very loud message: Slow Down! Unfortunately, I was so consumed with the PTSD, slowing down seemed an impossible feat. Panic attacks were a daily occurrence and often culminated in some kind of self-harm. Regardless of the fact that I was physically sober (12 years!), I was sinking into one of the lowest emotional bottoms of my life. It still surprises me that I didn’t relapse.
At some point, I was introduced to meditation. In the beginning, I used the visualization of imagining I was breathing in love and breathing out my fear. It was one of the only things that make me settle, but I was still disconnected from my body. I know now that my parasympathetic nervous system was kicking in, but at the time, all I knew was that I wasn’t choking on my breath. I think I lived under a dark cloud for a good year. I parented my son, I provided for my family, but in private, I was bereft. My suffering was tangible and debilitating. It was going to be a long road and a lot of work to get out of that mess, but one thing I had was a searing internal fire that propelled me forward every single day. Somehow, despite my despair, I understood that I was not my trauma. I had and still have a phenomenal therapist that helped me see that and recognize it was always in me, thrusting me forward despite the internal tapes telling me to stop.
Fast forward to a couple of years later and I found myself in more formal meditation settings at Against the Stream. I was getting deeper into a practice, and engaged to a man that was the antithesis of what I was married to before. I started to have some difficulty in my meditations and so my husband Joseph (who teaches meditation) suggested I dedicate a year to metta practice, only sending lovingkindness to myself. There were a lot of tears. At the same time, I went back to yoga and began to safely reconnect with my body. It was what I needed. I discovered I could practice without harassment. I felt like I had come home. At some point, I started having PTSD flashbacks during my meditations. I would often get “stuck” inside, frozen in the dark. I decided to take refuge on my mat; what I found there was freedom. I started to truly heal and to find some equanimity. I found myself seeking more truth and more light, feeling less fear and panic, and discovered I was hungry to share what I had found with others. I was once told I should have been “road kill” because of my history. I regularly defy that state.
This training in particular fostered the growth of more and more of that same freedom. To have been presented with an opportunity to consciously go inward with the intent of safely dancing with my shadows was profound. To now know that I can safely share that with others is liberating. I showed up each morning, hungry for knowledge and practice, fearlessly investigating my own darkness because I finally understood that my breath is my light. It was something that I peripherally understood, but with this training, it became a visceral reality.
The required readings are unique to AHEM, but this is no surprise to me, seeing the uniqueness in the training itself. “A Path With Heart” felt like coming home. Joseph and I often have long, in depth discussions about Buddhist practice and meditation. “A Path With Heart” felt like those conversations combined and bound in a book. When Kornfield talks about the “muscular armor” we’ve created in our bodies, I am reminded of the shedding of the “jack-boots” around my neck during the training. When he talks about kind attention, I am reminded of my sits with Vinny Ferraro whose teaching is deeply informed by kind awareness. This kind attention/kind awareness: That is something that I intend to always take into my teaching. To facilitate and nurture the process of developing that awareness is inspiring to me, particularly because I have a visceral understanding of how it works and how transformative it is.
Kornfield says, “The basic principle of spiritual life is that our problems become the very place to discover wisdom and love.” Knowing and understanding that yoga is more than the asanas, more than overly priced stretchy pants, more than an Om sticker on a Prius or the contents of a $12 green juice, but instead, a keen opportunity to peel back the layers of suffering and learn to be present. With each forward fold, there is an opportunity to look inward; with each conscious breath, one is provided with a chance to hold discomfort and suffering with kindness– not to create the delusion of perfection or to make things “go away,” but rather to provide the doorway to changing one’s relationship to their difficulties. My intention is to teach that awareness and provide a sacred space in which one can investigate their suffering. Hala often says something to the effect of, “The way you are on your mat is how you are in your life.” How true. And how powerful to name it and allow people to work with that.
I sometimes think I am not going to be able to teach, or that I have nothing to offer; that is my trauma talking and my fear. Here’s where “A Path With Heart” resonates deeply with me. It reminds me that my own difficulties are opportunities to change my perception so I can sit with the discomfort and give it the internal space to move and flow. “No amount of yoga, meditation, and reflection will make our problems go away,” Kornfield says. He’s right. No I won’t be teaching with the intent to make things go away; I want to teach with the goal of facilitating awareness. Change will happen organically if the person is willing to do the work. I hope I can one day be the teacher that creates an environment safe and open enough for students to pursue their healing process.
On the flipside of “A Path With Heart” was “Buddha’s Brain.” I fought it at first, because I have some resistance to the current mindfulness movement. I find it lacking in depth and missing huge pieces of the process: wisdom practice, concentration practice, compassion practices, et cetera. At the same time, I am a firm believer that mindfulness affects change. Still, I read on. Interestingly enough, the information I gleaned in “Buddha’s Brain” is often what comes out of my mouth when I am working with someone who is clearly dysregulated. I have a far clearer understanding of the nervous system and neuroscience than I ever thought possible. The other day, I went to support a friend who was having an IV put in to help treat her Lyme disease. I was there to help her get grounded and to stay present—her husband was swirling around the house, unable to sit for even a minute, and she was doing the same thing. I found myself having a real awareness of what was happening internally with her nervous system and was able to help her to successfully self-regulate. For me, it was important that I was grounded first, and in maintaining my own self-regulation, I facilitated a short practice for her to do the same. Her energy softened, her face relaxed, and her energy was calmer. I had her focus on her feet and hands that were touching the earth, using her breath and visualization to connect everything. She was able to maintain that during the procedure as well. It was a beautiful blending of Hanson and Kornfield, to be frank.
Where Kornfield spoke to my practice and Hanson spoke to my brain, Levine spoke to my shadows. “In an Unspoken Voice” provided deep insight to the nuts and bolts of trauma, both in recognizing it in myself and being able to recognize it in others. His conclusion that PTSD is an injury and not a disease was liberating. How trapped we are by our diagnoses and labels, and what a disservice those labels do to our recovery from our pain and suffering. Levine’s work has been integrated into my system on a very visceral level. I notice shaking and honor it; I celebrate it when I see it happening in others. I have a better understanding of what is happening internally when I have a PTSD episode. I can recognize it when it is happening to my son, and when it is happening to my husband. The profound shift in the nervous system, the body language, breathing, et cetera, is remarkable. I go back to “In an Unspoken Voice” time and time again and feel inspired by that work in particular. The human condition is traumatizing, but to have the opportunity to hold space for that trauma and allow it to breath and move freely means there is room for peace. Levine’s work deeply influences my personal practice and the way I want to teach. Creating a safe, nurturing space will be foundational in everything I do.
As I look at my part in this teaching process, I have to be honest: I have a vague feeling of not having enough to offer. This isn’t because I didn’t glean enough information or have enough support in the training, quite the opposite. I just want more: More time in intensive training, more repetition, more support. (500 hours??) The internet is rife with opinion, particularly in regard to the bevy of 200-hour trainings out there and the loose description of the term “teacher.” Perhaps this is why I am hemming and hawing in completing my requirements. There’s a little bit of fear there and I have to honor that for what it is. I don’t want to fall into the bucket of bad teachers, and while I know I will screw up and fall down, I am committed to being true to myself and in my ability to honor those on this path with me. I have to say, observing classes and taking classes with teachers I don’t know has left me feeling more secure in what I like and want to teach and disillusioned to what’s available to the masses.
I believe that we teach each other, and my goal is to maintain the ability to “teach” with an open mind while recognizing that the little or big yogis looking up to me are, in fact, my teachers too. I have a responsibility to be forthcoming and trustworthy, consistent and honest. I know that my Achilles heel is my voice, or lack thereof. Where it goes, nobody knows. There’s a lot connected to my ability to speak with confidence. Growing up and then later in my last marriage, I was always told that I was “intense,” “loud,” “ridiculous,” and on and on. I am intense, I am passionate, I am silly, and I am full of heart, but having those qualities squashed and minimized had the negative effect of embedding a long-lasting muting of my voice. The work for me is and will always be shushing those internal, abusive voices and owning my own voice that resonates in real time. I need to sing more, speak out more, have more dance parties, and find that inner strength to “speak, even if my voice shakes.” (Maggie Kuhn) I have to begin to believe for myself that what I say has value. These books, particularly “A Path With Heart” and “In An Unspoken Voice” will continue to be sources of support and encouragement, literary places to go to rejuvenate my mind. The only way out is through, and no matter the difficulty, my voice will ring true. I am determined to make it so.
I’ll be teaching a yoga elective to the teens at my son Jakob’s school at the end of January. I don’t have the hubris to walk in with an air of arrogance or the idea that “I’ve got this,” and I certainly don’t have any wild expectations. Teens have a natural distrust for adults, and I understand that my initial and persistent job will be to earn their trust and yet honor their mistrust. They need freedom within boundaries. Tweens and teens: I often refer to them as empathic sociopaths. Their innate kindness is so often met with zero remorse about their actions. I am nervous (I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t) and excited. It is my way of giving back to a population and age group that I feel need yoga the most. The utter disconnection with their bodies, their attachment to things, and the natural individuation process makes them easily dysregulated. Couple that with neglect, trauma, and who knows what else, and well, you have a dearth of self-esteem and an innate inability for self-care. If they can learn to breathe with some awareness, no matter how fleeting, I will have done my job. And hey, maybe I will garner one hell of a voice when all is said and done.