“Our task must be to free ourselves.” ~ Albert Einstein
There’s no rule against having many sides to your personality. For too many years I thought I had to have one set of traits that didn’t contradict each other. My life as a child was chaotic and so as an adult I strove for consistency in every facet of my life. As I got older, I began to release some of the desire for consistency and found that at times I could be very assertive and at other times very shy. I could help and then ask for help when I needed it. I learned that there were times to be strong and times to let my vulnerability show. The key to balance between all of these different sides was authenticity, being in every moment. Authenticity always leads us to the appropriate behavior at the appropriate time. This idea of authenticity and being in the moment saved my life exactly twice.
A time for action
Had my head been able to rule my gut when my apartment building caught fire almost 2 years ago, I would not be here to write this post to you. Without a split second of conscious thought, I felt an incredibly assertive, unshakable strength in my belly. I literally flew down four floors, past burning apartments, and never felt my feet hit the ground. It was pitch black and I couldn’t see even an inch in front of me. It was as if I had been tightly blindfolded, and still I kept moving without hesitation. It that moment, my body chose life.
A time to give up
When I was a sophomore in college in Philadelphia I was robbed at knife point in the campus subway station. I was heading downtown to buy reeds for my saxophone at my favorite music shop. A man appeared in front of me without warning as I waited for my train, looming over me with a long, thin, sharp knife at my gut. “I don’t wanna hurt you; I just need your wallet.” All I could focus on was the gleam off of that blade. Without thinking I reached into my bag, grabbed my wallet, and handed it to him. He took the cash, handed the wallet back to me, and shooed me out of the station with the knife.
This time, I did feel my feet, and knees and face, hit the floor as I clumsily scrambled up the stairs. I felt like the subway station spit me out onto the sidewalk when I got to the surface. A naval officer was walking by and stopped to help me. He stayed with me while I talked to the police and even got me safely back to my dorm. Again, my gut chose life, but this time it chose life by giving up.
Both of these events brought on a good deal of trauma for me even though no bodily harm resulted from either incident. The pain and the harm was all in my mind and in my spirit. I was fearful and angry after both incidents, and wasn’t sure how to process either of those emotions. I was adrift, and I felt alone.
It took me a solid 6 months to get through the aftermath of the apartment building fire and over 2 years to get through the fear I felt on campus after the robbery. Help came in two completely different forms.
Asking for help
I credit my increased ability to ask for help with the shortened recovery time after the fire. I started working with my coach, Brian, as a result of the fire and it has proven to be one of the very best relationships of my life. When I was in college I was convinced that I had to get through the robbery on my own. If I didn’t feel okay, I needed to fake it. I didn’t go to counseling and I rarely talked about the incident with my friends. I beat myself up for giving that man my wallet; I didn’t honor the quiet strength of surrender that had saved my life.
How healing begins
With the fire, I couldn’t pretend to be okay. I would be walking down the street and suddenly be hysterical sitting on the curb. I couldn’t buy anything and I couldn’t hang up anything on the walls of my apartment. I was clearly not okay, and the guy I was dating at the time just wanted me to “get over it.” My friend, Rob, knew better and he referred me to Brian. Brian helped me reclaim my authenticity, find my voice, and taught me about the balance we can and should strike between strength and vulnerability.
After two years of completely avoiding the Philadelphia subway, Paul, my senior year boyfriend, suggested we take the train downtown. I couldn’t walk down the steps, and for the first time I told him the story about the robbery. We could have just walked or taken a cab. Instead, he grabbed my hand, guided me down the stairs, got on the train with me, and let me just cry it out. He literally cracked my heart open so I could begin to heal.
We can’t go it alone
We have the ability to be appropriately tough and soft. Our body knows exactly which way to be at every moment. It’s our mind that gets in the way. It’s the stories we tell ourselves that really send us into a tailspin. The hardest part of dealing with trauma is not the incident that causes it; it’s the sifting that our mind has to do once the danger recedes. Once we are through the physical cause of the trauma, we are left with so much to process and rarely can we do that processing alone. The mind needs patience and time, and very often the loving heart and healing of another person to help make us whole again. That person can be a teacher, a partner, a friend. What those going through trauma must know is that they don’t have to go it alone; there is someone who can help if only we can be strong enough, and equally vulnerable, to let someone else in.
What these incidents mean for my yoga teaching
These two incidents, and several other periods that I went through earlier in my life, led me to a strong interest in trauma and neuroscience. For a time I thought this interest was leading me to medical school when I suddenly realized that my long-time yoga practice was merging with my interest in how the mind recovers and heals. These two parts of my life has been calling to one another, learning from each other, and informing one another.
Yoga gave me a way to begin to be grateful for trauma. It’s only recently that I realized this was even possible. I thought trauma was a thing to file away as deeply as possible. I thought the best I could hope for would be to forget it, bury it. Healing is not an easy task; it’s difficult and uncomfortable and painfully slow. With patience and time, everything is possible, even the healing that we think will never come. I’m learning that eventually, we really can be truly grateful for even our darkest moments because they are often the spark that leads to our brightest light.