This weekend I took part in Yorkshire Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Day Of Dance. I chose not to take any of the dance workshops due to being low on spoons and triggered from a week of flashbacks. Instead, I chose a drumming workshop and a restorative Yoga Session.
Yoga is generally acknowledged as helpful in recovering from trauma. There are many types of Yoga, meaning that you can try a class you’re suited to. I think a bikram steam class would be panic attack city for me but I like the sound of Yoga in the park. The beauty of a discipline like Yoga is that there are lots of ways to tailor it to your needs. Yoga classes are available in most areas at cheap prices. The principles of Yoga; breathing, awareness, engaging your muscles to stretch your body and calm your nerves are all ones that appear to apply to trauma recovery.
That said, I can well see why ‘try a Yoga class!’ may not be the helpful advice people intend it to be. Yoga has a lot of spiritual connotations that can form a challenge for survivors of ritual abuse. Typically, ritual abuse is seen as to do with Satanic cults but it can include any kind of faith based rituals used to accompany/mask abuse. Eastern philosophies and guru devotee relationships have been exploited by abusers. So it’s not necessarily true that a survivor of sexual abuse would feel safe in a Yoga class. I myself have difficulties with guided meditation which my abuser liked to use to make me compliant and confused.
As much as physical movement has a role in releasing somatic symptoms, taking an exercise class when I am a PTSD flare up hurts. I feel very vulnerable going in to a class in form fitting clothing and being in close proximity to strangers. Loving ones body is a popular concept in Yoga but there are days when hearing the advice to be kind to my body is incredibly painful to hear, let alone attempt to do. I find being in my body means having to face up to muscular pain, body memories, tight chestedness and my own feelings. The movements that exert someone who is tired or anxious feel like a marathon when I am in a state of PTSD exhaustion. Yes, moving around helps in the medium term. But in the short term, I suffer. So for a Yoga class to feel worth it, I need to feel safe.
Thus I arrived at the Restorative Yoga class feeling apprehensive. Luckily my Mum joined me, which made me feel committed enough to give the class a chance. The class was billed as:
‘ slow paced including some short flow to start and then moving into longer held forward folds, deep hip openers and twists to really help you stretch out the body, unwind your mind from your day’s activities & revitalise you without over stimulating. A great tonic for a restful sleep. This practice will be accessible for all levels of practitioners – a great opportunity to practice a gentle yoga practice and a perfect counter balance to dynamic yoga, a busy day of moving, been sitting static for long periods or been caught up in the chaos of general day to day life!’
The teacher was a calm gentle woman who gave us students ample time to find a space we felt ok about, so I had enough personal space to feel calm. I could pick a spot near the door. She explained clearly what Restorative Yoga is, how it works and what the point of the class was – to try out a few poses (called Asanas) to get a feel for relaxing. Restorative Yoga doesn’t rely on getting into poses via muscular strength. Instead the teacher taught us how to arrange props (cushions, blocks, blankets, straps) so that we could get into a pose and lie there, the props taking our weight. Each pose lasted a good five minutes. The idea was that I could just ‘be’ and notice what my body was feeling vs trying to hold a pose.
I enjoyed this different approach. It was a lot less physically tiring and had I been struggling with injuries – I often have them from dissociation while working out – I could still have participated. None of the poses put any stress on my chest that might have induced panic. Traditional yoga tends to freak me out because I find some bending movements too scary but I didn’t have to do those. The teacher stuck to images of relaxation like letting gravity hold the body, which helped me. The pace of the class gave me time to adjust my body if I found I was uncomfortable. I managed to do an hour and a half without feeling overwhelmed.
After class, I noticed feeling looser and more rested. The poses were simple enough that I’d consider doing a few at home, particularly when I use a self compassion meditation exercise.
If you want to know more about Restorative Yoga, this is a link to the yoga journals articles on it: