Survivors on the Yoga Mat is the first multicultural book to investigate trauma and yoga. We meet folks like Ron, the fire-fighting yoga instructor; Jarvis Jay Masters, a death row inmate; Tia, a young woman living with Lupus; and Arsalan, an “exquisitely attuned” Pakistani Muslim.
Of course, the stories of notable yogis such as Matthew Sanford, Patricia Waldon, and Ana Forrestare explored as well, but the book is at it’s best when it presents these “Neighborhood Voices.” All have two things in common: trauma scars and yoga.
These bite-sized essays are written by Becky Thompson PhD, an award winning social activist, trauma survivor, and Chair of the Sociology Department at Simmons College in Boston. Sutra-like, they meditate upon yoga’s power to heal the samskaras that haunt our minds, and bodies.
Instead of taking yoga “off the mat,” Thompson invites survivors on to it. She notes how yoga can aid traumatic residues such as dissociation, while strengthening the right/left brains and parasympathetic nervous system, among many other things. Her writing is investigative yet approachable. It’s appropriate for a wide readership, and worthy of one.
Thompson spoke with YogaCity NYC’s Michael Laskaris about trauma, yoga, and her new book.
Michael Laskaris:Why is yoga beneficial for people healing from trauma?
Becky Thompson: My friend and fellow teacher Nikki Myers of Y12SR (Yoga of 12-Step Recovery) says it perfectly: “the issues live in our tissues.” Talk therapy may not be enough for some of us healing from trauma – we also need ways to release the pain from our physical bodies. Trauma deepens our samskaras, and yoga helps to create new neural pathways in our minds – like experiencing new sensations, caring for ourselves, and different ways of understanding our memories.
ML:What was the inspiration for writing “Survivors…”?
BT: Unfortunately, I see that yoga usually lives in one corner, and trauma in another. In my first teacher training, after I dissociated on the mat and after hearing fellow trainees whispering about their own addictions, depressions, and injuries, I asked if I could present a trauma workshop for the group. It was a perfect learning moment.
And once I started writing my story, people came from all four directions and shared their stories of healing with me. I hope it will find wings and that a range of people will see themselves in these stories.
ML: How do you bring yoga into the college lecture halls?
BT: I’m lucky…early on, I was given permission to bring mind/body concepts into the classroom, and to draw links between the feeling and the analytical mind, the body and the spirit. I’ve incorporated mediation, talking circles, and deep listening rituals (inspired by Buddhist activist Joanna Macy’s “who am I?” exercises) into my classes since grad school. I attribute that to my mentor, Maury Stein…and twenty-five years later, I still teach the course he first taught me, “Birth and Death: The Sociology of Joy and Suffering.”
I’ve started to incorporate asana as well, depending upon the energy in the room. I love teaching savasana…and sometimes, just napping on the classroom’s carpeted floor can make for thrilling discussions after people wake up, refreshed.
I was quiet about it for a long time, but I’m now seeing real progress in the acceptance of yoga and other contemplative practices in higher education.
ML: Discuss your talk at Vassar.
BT: I will explore the body’s five domes – the arch of the foot up to the crown of the skull – and identify them as places of alignment.
Misalignment that occurs individually and at the level of the body politic relates to social injustices we have not come to terms with as a culture. “Yoga tourism” may be part of this misalignment as well, reproducing colonial relationships based in race and class hierarchies. In my mind, yogis are particularly prepared to help bring this culture back into alignment, a project that begins with activism.
ML:How can yoga and social activism complement each other?
BT: To me, they are kissing cousins. They are soul close, like Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, like Coltrane and his saxophone, like how a cloud may feel sliding across her sky…
Yoga opens us up. And similarly, many people who have faced trauma, question that which was originally taken for granted. This questioning is useful for those of us from dominant groups (white people, men, able-bodied people, etc.). Questioning authority is essential, whether it be patriarchy, white supremacy, or class elitism.
ML: Any advice for teachers dealing with potential survivors in a yoga class?
BT: Trauma survivors can be quiet. And you never know what brings people to the mat, nor if it is, in fact, part of what is saving their lives.
Try to make space for people to talk about how they feel on and off the mat, or what may come up when they practice (words, feelings, images, etc.). And don’t run away from people when they get upset.
ML: Where do you see yoga going?
BT: Yoga is at a crossroads right now. We are in a time of plasticity in the yoga world, and there are big gaps between “corporate yoga” and “grassroots yoga.” “Corporate yoga” gets all the media attention, but “grassroots yoga” is being practiced all over the place – in temple basements, prisons, YMCAs, community centers, urban schools…the list goes on.
We need to make sure that “grassroots yoga” has the resources, visibility, and attention it deserves. We must keep yoga accessible, recognize its multiracial roots (Asian, African, and Indigenous), and understand that its philosophy has the potential to influence justice.