Originally posted January 4, 2016 Trauma-Informed Yoga / Veterans
A couple of years ago, in a New Year’s Eve note to my readers on SemperSarah.com, I encouraged them to be vulnerable. Then, I decided, I was going to walk my talk. First, I shared this note with them. Then, I included an expanded version of it in my book, Just Roll With It: 7 Battle Tested Truths for Building a Resilient Life, which was published this December.
This is what I said:
Having experienced surviving a sexual assault, as well as two combat deployments to Iraq as a United States Marine Corps officer, getting hit by a car, struck by lightening, having a mini-stroke when I was 28 and more than a dozen traumatic brain injuries, I hear a lot about post-traumatic stress. But today, I want us to think about post-traumatic growth, and the places where we do heal.
I believe that one of the most powerful ways that people can heal from trauma is through gaining the tools necessary to exercise meaningful choice.
Growth is possible. You can change your relationship with trauma by choosing to move through it mindfully, versus avoiding it, burying it, checking out of life, or remaining stuck, repeating the story of your trauma to yourself over and over again.
And today, I do want to talk about choices.
Choice is complex, but I assume that if you’re reading this, you are someone who has the ability to choose, who has power, who has responsibility. And I believe every one of us has a choice not only every day, but with every single breath.
I would like to share a story with you that is about the most important choice I’ve made in my life. It was about 8 years ago, in 2007.
I was 26 years old.
I was on a single bed, alone, in my can, my room, in Iraq.
It would be a lie to say that I awoke in bed in these morning moments, as I went days at a time without actually sleeping. I had racing thoughts about the harassment I was dealing with on a daily basis during that deployment. I had nightmares about the threats being made against me. I had nightmares about having been raped by one of my friends, a fellow service member, a few years before. I had nightmares about having lost my marriage at 22. And the physical pain I was in (from scoliosis, arthritis, herniated discs, chronic migraines, digestive problems, and various symptoms from a variety of nearly a dozen Traumatic Brain Injuries) kept me in a constant state of wincing. I was in my 20s, looked like I was in my 30s and felt like I was in my 80s.
As I lay in bed, my eyes opened. The first thing I saw was my pistol. Just a simple, black, standard Marine Corps issue M9 pistol. It was hanging on my bed post, in the brown leather holster that my ex-boyfriend gave me. (Because those are the gifts you give a loved one when you’re in the Marines :-)).
And I saw my $20 yoga mat, beige, almost the same color of the sand I was always surrounded by, rolled up, at the foot of my bed between it and my wall locker.
My room was big enough for a wall locker, a single bed, and a yoga mat to be rolled out on the floor next to it.
It was excruciating to exist.
And I thought to myself it’d just be easier if I just weren’t here.
And I had a choice: The pistol or the yoga mat.
It was life or death.
I could keep inhaling; I could inspire. Or, I could exhale for the last time. I could expire.
Although I never planned to take my own life, I wanted it taken from me. I was done.
I stopped eating, not because I forcefully denied myself nourishment as a form of control or punishment, but because I had lost my appetite. I had lost my will to live.
Like an animal does when it knows it’s time to go, I allowed time to take its own course with me.
I faded. I was an athletic 5’6” young woman, but lost so much weight that my underwear barely stayed perched upon my protruding hips. I basically never slept – nightmares kept me up at night. I felt I had no purpose on this earth. My body assumed a sunken, concave “C” shape when I was alone in my “can” (what we called our rooms in our the trailers in Iraq).
Although I began sporadically practicing yoga in college to deal with overtraining injuries from soccer and ROTC, it was nothing more than creative cross-training to me until I was in Iraq. Without even consciously processing the higher transformation that was taking place within me, when I was emotionally distraught, yoga gave me clarity. The simple, basic union of breath and movement made space for something very important – my soul.
Somehow, when I felt like I was suffocating, my soul had space to breathe. Somehow, in a body experiencing very physical effects of depression, when I practiced yoga, I had less pain. Somehow, in a world that felt like 24-7 chaos, the mat gave me an anchor point. All of my systems integrated in a way that allowed me to keep functioning when simply surviving seemed impossible.
Thank God for that 3 x 6 ft. floorspace because it is where I found a place where I could simply breathe without suffocating. I would get on my yoga mat and things would change. I could breathe. I could think. If I was lucky, things would release. I would stretch, and then I would run and feel free. Stretch. Breathe. Move. Breathe. Live. Breathe. Connect … connect … connect.
If I was lucky, I would connect; first to something beyond myself, then to those around me, for I certainly was not the only one going through what I was going through. When I realized that – that my lack of “specialness” was actually a blessing in this case – the accessibility to healing became greater, deeper, and more diverse. Yoga and faith bridged the gap and paved a path to long-term healing for me. Certainly, different methods work for different people at different times. But yoga can be a unique and powerful approach to comprehensive, holistic healing.
We all have these moments where we have to make big choices.
Where we find ourselves in battlezones feeling completely alone.
And when we feel that we are separate, that we have no purpose, that we have no power, we end up choosing death literally or symbolically. We give up. We quit.
But the biggest lie we believe is that we are alone. We are never alone. And what if we choose life?
Instead of holding your breath, holding back, holding it all in, or waiting, what if you got on your “yoga mat,” and started to breathe? What if your inhales and exhales weren’t things you took for granted but which you used to direct your very essence.
Your intention, attention, and connection.
I had an epiphany then that has stuck with me since: my breath was mine, it was the one thing no one could touch. At a time when I felt like every single aspect of my life had someone else’s hands on it, they couldn’t touch my breath.
The reality is everyone has had a difficult decision to make. Maybe mine was life or death. We have the yoga mat choice we can make, or the pistol choice we can make. Like staying on the couch for another hour of TV, or getting up to go for a walk or a jog? The pistol or the mat? Like having the same argument with our partner over and over again, or choosing to give counseling a try? The pistol or the mat? Like housing a pint of ice cream at midnight, straight from the carton, standing there with the freezer door open, when you are exhausted and not thinking straight, versus having a healthy dinner and then actually going to bed when you’re tired. The pistol or the yoga mat. We always have a choice.
The awareness of my own mind-body connection via yoga gave me a sense of power and increased sensitivity. I was able to sense what was actually happening within me and respond (versus react)… one breath at a time. My breath gave me choice.
I can’t make stress go away. And that’s not really the aim. We actually need stress to live.
What matters is how stress affects our nervous system and how we process it emotionally based on how we perceive its impact. So mindset is pretty important.
The aim is to improve our relationship with feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, ultimately learning to tolerate distress. Maybe this is the other side of the coin for most of us who are goal-oriented and want to eliminate symptoms. But I’ve found that focusing solely on eliminating symptoms can get us either stuck in them, or magnify them. Breathwork helps us smooth the edges of the spikes and dips.
So, the aim is to be resilient in the face of stress. The aim is to be dynamic and responsive, not stagnant and reactive. We must surf the waves, not strive to make them stop. And we need to know how to do that.
Pain is a teacher; we have a choice to respond or react to our teaching. We all have the power to choose the life we want. Recognizing that power can be scary at first. But if we can cultivate curiosity and awareness in our own choices, we’re moving in the right direction.
How do we cultivate the habit of choosing to listen to our intuitive selves? That intuition that lives in our hearts, and our guts? We practice tuning in. Try this: When you are about to make a decision, or potentially mistreat yourself or your body, pause, and ask yourself, “Is this how I would treat a good friend?” Your answer will come. And this is one basic way to begin practicing awareness.
Our bodies are not machines. Celebrate that you have a trusted friend (your body) to accompany you on your journey. Even when it supposedly “breaks,” celebrate the wisdom within your body, injuries and all. Celebrate the messages that you are receiving from it, and its ability to be your greatest ally, because it is the house of your intuition. Our bodies want to faithfully support us. Our bodies help us find power within ourselves, not over ourselves.
Our bodies empower us to choose.
Yes, I’ve been through some tough times, and so have you. So let’s also celebrate the small wins: the daily activities that we can do better because of choice based on intuition, agency, and breath. The more compassionate courses we take with ourselves, and others. The activities we choose, the food we eat, the decisions we make, the paths we walk.
Yes, the yoga saved me, but it was the breath that softened me. The breath gave me the tangible thing to anchor to. Breath was a gateway to believing in my own power again, the power to choose my path, and the power to heal. Breath was a vehicle for choice based on mind-body awareness.
Choose one thing you can do. I chose the mat.
What’s your mat?
Where do you heal?
Because as you heal, you create space for others to heal. As you succeed, you give permission for others to succeed. Never stop trying to bring more light, love, and health into your life and into this world.
You are worth it. And so am I.
You are only one choice away from a new beginning.
So, let’s choose to live!
Sarah Plummer Taylor, MSW* is a dynamic, bold, and humorous motivational speaker, holistic health counselor, and yoga teacher who travels North America and the UK teaching resilience-building and integrative health and wellness. She is the co-owner of a wellness LLC that provides unique, somatic-based stress management workshops both domestically and internationally and is the author of Just Roll With It: 7 Battle Tested Truths for Building a Resilient Life. From Capitol Hill to mainstream media to corporate, academic, and military communities, Sarah’s unique message of resilience has been changing lives since 2012. Sarah can be reached via her website www.SemperSarah.com or via @SemperSarah on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
*MSW expected in 2016.
Please Note: The views expressed in YSC blog posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the YSC, its directors, officers, or members.
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