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How Understanding Trauma Re-Informed My Teaching

I have always been intrigued by how the mind-body connection works when confronted with an overwhelming situation such as trauma. Human beings are paradoxically both resilient and fragile creatures. Sometimes we encounter experiences that invade upon our sense of safety, structure, predictability and morality. It can be so paralysing that for some of us, the inability to escape in that historical moment can live on as a legacy of threat in our bodies.

Yoga has been used as an adjunctive form of treatment that can deal with the ways in which trauma is held in the body. Its process of connecting with the body can be an effective tool for acknowledging and tolerating as opposed to intellectualising the painful reality of that past trauma. In the 17th Century, Dutch philosopher Spinzoa challenged Descarte's rationalist theory of the mind as a purely reasoning machine, "I think therefore I am." Spinoza believed that reason is shaped by emotion, that our thoughts and feelings aren't just responses to external events but in fact, to our body. Neuroscience research is still an unfolding story that is relaying the critical role these deep inward feelings play in ensuring our survival, in addition to forming the basis of a sentient self. If we agree with Spinoza's doctrine, "I feel therefore I am", then learning to re-inhabit the body can help relinquish the visceral self and re-engage the pathways that lead to awareness of hunger, thirst, fatigue or pain, that may have switched off in the attempt to navigate and cope with danger.

Because trauma involves a threat to our physical, emotional and psychological well-being and sense of safety, the body's (and brain's) alarm systems turn on and then never quite turn off. This is why the body itself is often perceived as an enemy to be avoided. In this case, facilitating a somatic practice for someone who might be struggling to befriend one's bodily sensations to overcome the imprints of trauma would be about establishing a space of safety so that whatever sensorial feelings arise, the individual may feel at ease enough to allow those sensations to surface in order to make informed choices on how they want to move and be.

There's a fundamental lesson to be learned from this trauma-sensitive methodology and applied to our day-to-day teaching and interactions: non-attachment or vairagya, as highlighted in Patanjali's Sutras (1:15). Rather than working towards a desired postural outcome, can we encourage an individual's subjective experience to emerge? As teachers or facilitators, it is not our place to impose our experiences of the practice onto our students or worse, pathologise those who might respond to the medium differently. Can we shy away from instructing or correcting what our students should do i.e. when to breathe, where to align their limbs and instead invite them to make the ultimate decision on what feels right for them so that they may develop their own approach to the practice? Our work is to present opportunities for experience, but not to dictate what the experience should be.

We often hear the hackneyed phrase "holding the space" uttered in almost every class, but what does this really mean? Perhaps it is to cultivate enough safety that a student has agency to challenge oneself when ready and back away when overstepping one's limits when necessary, to approach one's body as you would a loved one or a friend. More so, perhaps it is to make room for what it is to be human, to be embodied, to be validated and empowered, to be connected with oneself and others, and foster true inclusivity.

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