When Yoga Doesn't Work

Years ago I got it in my mind that yoga would solve everyones issues. Specifically I simply knew that anyone recovering from an eating disorder would benefit from a yoga class. And specifically a type of yoga that was boundary enough in its alignment technique and completely unabashedly heart-affirming in its philosophy. I assumed this because in large part it worked for me. So I set out to develop a Yoga for Eating Disorders program I entitled Amaryllis. (Named because after my complete neglect and forgetting this bulb was buried in my car it bloomed anyway. So the metaphor seemed rather catching). I pitched this to a local out-patient network I was volunteering for and we set sail. A few folks came. And returned for more.

But here is what I saw happen.

Firstly, as I suspected, their emotions rose to the surface. They got angry and sad and would shake sometimes. But what I had under estimated was myself. I thought I had it all worked out and dialed in. Wrong. I didn't know what to do with all these emotions flying around in yoga class. I didn't know what to do as I felt myself pulled into someone else emotions. I stuck to the yoga and the philosophy as a crutch. Hobbling along insisting it was enough for these students.


As time went on, some of the students symptoms and disordered eating habits reared their ugly heads even worse. They were slipping. The yoga was so eliciting it was triggering a return to the old and familiar shores of self harm behaviors masked as self soothing, I-am-in-control behaviors. I was devastated, ashamed and leveled as I witnessed my teaching technique fail me. And then, I noticed my symptoms and behaviors were creeping back in. Years of hard work could not stop the binge and purge. I felt like such a royal sham. I remember distinctly thinking to myself and knowing deep inside that I could never be the kind of yoga teacher I wanted to be if I did not gain more ground and more skills specifically around shock and trauma and even more so in how to deal with everything else other than just asanas.

I needed relational skills. I needed healing skills. I needed regulation skills. So I set out on a mission. I decided to go back to graduate school. Now mind you I was completely adamant about not taking the GRE so part of my mission was to find a school where avoiding that dreaded standardized test would be acceptable.

Flash forward I found myself at Naropa University in Boulder, CO. Now, Naropa is its own story for another day. Upon moving to Boulder I also met one of my most important teachers and mentors still, Melissa Michaels. I became intricately involved and apprentice to the teachings of Somatic Psychology and Psychotherapy via my studies at Naropa with amazing teachers like Leah D'Abate, Ryan Kennedy, Chrisitne Caldwell, Wendy Allen and Arielle Schwartz. Simultaneously I became deeply apprentice to the teachings Melissa provided through 5 Rhythms dance, Earth Based Spirituality and Rites of Passage. I learned and began to embody the understanding of how activation and shock runs through one's body and how one can find healthy ways of moving it. I learned what resourcing truly looked like in my own system and in hundreds of other people. I learned Trauma first aid and movement-based ways of working with big emotions and stuck emotions in the body--in my own--and in others.

I continued to watch, observe and listen to my yoga community and to the students who came to classes. Little by little I began implementing my studies and experiences into my classes and privates. I watched and listened to how it landed and what result followed. I experimented more. I watched and listened more. Over time I refined this 'method' into a kind of trauma sensitive yoga class that was not so much or even at all specifically "Yoga for Trauma" or "Yoga for PTSD". I simply formulated for myself some ways of seeing, being and working through yoga that no matter what anyones story was, the class was safe and effective.  I took to heart the teachings of yoga in a new light that yielded effective results so that students could be themselves more fully and experience their own bodies in ways I know are in the long term far more useful than simply "feeling better after yoga". 

No one needed to self-select themselves to go to trauma sensitive yoga. They could just come to yoga class. Because let's face it, we are all wounded. We are all traumatized at some level and "We are all in shock" as Stephanie Mines writes. 

I do not believe what I am up to in this manner is rocket science. Nor do I believe it is yoga therapy or yoga psychotherapy (Although I did write a paper on that very blending-- a yoga based psychotherapy which was published a few years ago). I believe this is Psychologically Sound Yoga. I believe this is a yoga that capitalizes on the therapeutic and even psychotherapeutic benefits yoga inherently yields sans the mystery and seeming magic of it just being "better than therapy". I believe this is Re-Sourced yoga. I believe this is a yoga that asks the teacher to be the greatest healing of all. It is a tall order I know. But frankly, the world is pretty messed up. The yoga industry is to what it used to be and we have work to do.

Having watched and studied hundreds of people moving their bodies at the same time, I know that when one person is disregulated in their nervous system, the entire field is altered. Similarly, when the leader or teacher of a group is deeply rested in their system they are far more capable to be dynamic, spontaneous and gregarious in their ability help regulate others. That very ability can heal at the non verbal level by setting in motion a host of feelings and sensations towards greater health and wholeness. 

So I ask you: Have you realized you needed a few more skills to get the job done in a way you truly wanted? Have you ever felt so pulled into your students crisis you cannot see straight. Have you ever felt like a student in your class took the psychic and energetic reigns before your could do anything? Have you ever seen students eyes rolling back in their head? Have you had a student who could not stop crying? or talking? or laughing? Have you ever had a student whose eyes were so wide they looked a little vacant but you really weren't totally sure what was going on? Have you ever found yourself preaching the yoga is going to work and to your dismay (but of course you won't admit it) it isn't totally jiving?

These gaps became intolerable to me. So I went out and sought an education and an experience to close the gap in my own body and in my own teaching --hoping somehow and in someway-- maybe in a far a way land and in some distant future, I could just maybe change the industry of yoga. 

Born from my own frustration, shame and grief. Born from my own longing. Born from my own being completely leveled by the work of teaching more times than one. Born from deep study in this realm. And born from the understanding that not every yoga teacher needs to go to graduate school for psychotherapy, I created Applied Psychology for Yogis. There are other pieces to how this larger work got conceived, gestated and birthed.

But that can be for another day. 

And that is sort of how it happened.

Livia ShapiroComment