Sometimes when things are really hard, I have the impulse to quit and run away. I remember in college telling my father that if I was ever missing, to check the streets off Broadway because I was just going to pack up my car, drive to NY, and try my hand at being an actor there to escape from the madness of real life. (Acting is still on my bucket list, just a tad smaller venue- something more like community theater where I live.)
This is a natural panic response when I am feeling overwhelmed and my nervous system feels like it cannot handle what is going on. It is the “flight” reaction, of which I am sure you have heard. Needless to say, I don’t act on this impulse, but the thought is rather soothing at times.
As a Master Trainer for YogaFit, I lead a yoga training for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and in that training, we not only talk about the responses in the body to trauma and brain injury and how to help manage those responses with yoga, but we also process the experiences of the people participating in the training. This can be both heavy and healing for those involved. I repeatedly feel both honored and compelled to continue contributing to the effort to lead others into healing from trauma.
As a Licensed Professional Counselor, in trauma-sensitive yoga trainings as well as in private yoga therapy sessions, two of the most frequent recommendations I make in support of the healing process are to breathe and to just keep going day by day, hour by hour, or even moment by moment.
If you know anything about Harriet Tubman, you most likely know that she was involved in the Underground Railroad and helped to free hundreds of slaves in her lifetime. After escaping from enslavement herself, she had an amazing way of knowing when to stop, when to run, when to change directions, etc. as she was guiding others to freedom. In his book The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope reports that “none of the obstacles that she faced ever stopped her for long.” Her motto was “just keep going” and she allowed her gut to lead the way. She lived by a refrain from the Underground Railroad: “If you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.” This refrain strikes me as incredibly applicable in the effort to heal from trauma. If you want to taste freedom, keep going.
When things become overwhelming for the nervous system, we revert to our survival instincts and rational thought stops. This can take several forms and manifest in a multitude of ways. Many times however, people feel overwhelmed, helpless, out of control of their own bodies, and unaware of how to make it through what they are experiencing. In yoga, we address how experiences store in the body and how to help to find some relief through breath, movement, and numerous forms of meditation. We are also practicing the ability to notice what we are experiencing in the moment and to breathe through it as a way to tolerate discomfort and stick in there rather than ignoring, numbing, or distracting ourselves.
Tapas, one of the ethical teachings in yoga, is about finding the discipline to keep going even when you want to quit. Not only finding that fire within to push through, but also to view the hard situation as a fire that is molding you into the next best version of yourself. That doesn’t mean that it will be easy or that while you are surviving the worst, you will easily think, “oh this is shaping me in some way for the better”. It does, however, mean that you are choosing to keep going- one step at a time- and that you will at some point try to find how to use the experience to aid in your own growth. This is much easier on some days than on others, but if we call upon our deeper knowing – the intuitive spirit inside of our bodies (and wiser than our brains) – we can make it through.
If you are a living human being, you have experienced trauma of some sort in your life. And the collective experience of the global pandemic in the last year has unearthed and caused trauma for some as well. The feeling of being out of control and powerless in our lives is common when we experience something that shocks the nervous system. We have all been tested and stretched and overwhelmed. Life can feel really hard alot of the time. We have all had thoughts of giving up or running away. We have all not known what to do and felt that we had nothing left to give. But if we can stick with it, if we can try something different, if we can- just for today– not give up, we can make it to the point of freedom. We each have to make this decision for ourselves, though. No one else can do it for us.
Shoma Morita was a Japanese psychiatrist and creator of Morita therapy which is aimed at accepting life as it is rather than fighting against it. It is about letting go of comparison and expectations and judgment (which, by the way, we also teach in yoga) that form our perspective on our lives. He is quoted as saying, “when running uphill, you can give up as many times as you want as long as your feet keep moving”.
So, give up in your head if you want. Curse. Cry. Scream. But, don’t stop going. You can take a breath, you can ask for help, and you can do all of this while your feet are still moving. You are making it. Right now, in this very moment, you are ok and you are doing it. So push on to freedom, my friend. It will be worth it.
And I will be pushing on right along with you.
Talk again soon,