Even bears do yoga to make their days go mo’ betta. (Photo of Finnish bear from The Guardian)

In June, I attended the first ever yoga therapy symposium — a gathering of practitioners here in the DC area — which was the brainchild of Linda Lang and the Open Door.

Several long-time teachers shared the way they approach their work.

Doug Keller reminded us that yoga was intended to help us be fully prepared for the challenges of life which is why so many poses are named for warriors and sages — to remind us to be strong and wise.  As a therapy, yoga asks what we can do for ourselves and how a teacher/therapist can help us get to where we want to be.  In that way, yoga is a lifelong practice in deepening your self-awareness, your relationship with the parts and processes of your body, the waves of your emotions, and ultimately — because it is a spiritual practice — with something larger than yourself that you might choose to merge with.

JJ Gormley shared the model she uses for clinical assessment, which uses the 5 panchamayas (most often referred to as the koshas) — the physical, the energetic, the mental, the psychological and the spiritual — and walked us through a case study to help us understand the model in action.

Though she works in a variety of settings, Karen Soltes focused on her work with veterans teaching yoga nidra, sometimes called “yogic sleep” because you purposefully leave the waking state and go into a deep, dreamless sleep state where yogis believe you can heal the mind of habitual patterns of perception.

Finally, Dr. Siddharth Ashvin Shah reminded us that not all suffering can or should be labeled PTSD, but healing is nevertheless advised. He has a lot of experience working at the organizational level, with health care practitioners and disaster relief staff what are suffering from compassion fatigue or just high levels of, particularly in environments where resources are low and conflicts/crisis are high. Laughter yoga is one approach he uses; yoga nidra another.

Through the session, the words of the late Irish poet John O’Donahue kept coming to me.  He wrote about “inner harvesting” in which one sifts, groups, selects and integrates the fruits of our experience. O’Donahue found that much traditional therapy “reverses the process of healing” by analyzing to death every wound “under the neon light of analysis” which doesn’t illuminate so much as fry. Some of these wounds have already healed and scarred over quite nicely, thank you very much. Instead he advised practicing “the art of spiritual non-interference” knowing when to bring a compassionate mindfulness to mistakes and wounds, and where in the damp mossy fog, releasing naturally takes place.

Yoga is not just a few poses meant to be curative. If you’ve done yoga for any length of time, you know it has a weirdly cumulative effect: you go for months and notice nothing and then SHAZAMMMM!!! something shifts and you realize you’re not as easily offended as you used to be, or can touch distant appendages. or don’t need that second helping after all.

The founding yogi-jis meant for yoga to be a holistic lifestyle, with a disciplined and compassionate mindfulness imbuing every thought, speech, and action.  It was designed for a special class, some say, willing to dedicate their lives and worldly possessions to the cause of a higher union. They certainly didn’t intend for yoga to be deconstructed and distributed piecemeal, as I sometimes do with friends suffering from bouts of, say, butt pain:  “take three asanas and call me in the morning.”

After all, a lot’s happened since the times of the Upanishads and wandering bands of yogis in magical forests.

Within the structure of our modern lives, I’m 1000% down with starting somewhere very small and awfully specific.

Self described chant-wallah Krisha Das advises “Find out who you are, and you’ll know everything you need to know.”

Or for yoga therapists, help others learn who they really are, by shaving away the marble to reveal what’s inside.  As Karen urged us to use as a mantra “Nobody is broken. There is nothing to fix. My job is not to fix anyone.”

I’m looking forward to beginning my studies in integrative yoga therapy at the end of the summer.  If it goes well, it’s a two-year learning adventure. Not so well and you might just find me practicing holding my breath.

This past week, I taught yoga at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is on 113 acres of gorgeous land filled with old trees.  But not for long:  it’s merging and moving to the National Naval Medical Center “soon.” The State Department will take over the current campus. I sure hope Hilary is a tree-hugger.

When I teach at Walter Reed (only semi-regularly, as a sub), my ritual is to get there plenty early so I can head up to the PT lab and hang. I like schmoozing with the staff, getting a feel for what’s buzzing and what might have folks in knots. It helps me to acclimatize, seeing strong young men without arms and legs racing around with robotic lower limbs, toddlers crawling up on wheelchairs to their mother’s laps, therapy dogs headbutting newcomers for affection.

This time, I came super close to knocking into a dude with my backpack. (Many years of yoga, still a klutz.)  Turned out to be a photojournalist whose legs were blown off in Afghanistan, and whose memoir was recently made into a movie.  Our interaction was brief, mainly because my words were coming out stupid, but something about it kept tugging and messing with me until I came back to my computer and did my other healing practice: poetry.  Hope you enjoy it, and the rest of your July!

No, I Don’t Come Here That Often
For Joao Silva

When I do there’s usually
a good story. You took the wrong
step. You’ve spent a lifetime
letting your lens chronicle
what happens when men kill
each other by machete and fire,
bullet and tank. Now,
you’re the last one left.
By bang bang or suicidal smoke,
or having fled the business.
Kandahar hardly caught you. You
strap on legs when the President’s
wife visits so you can stand
at attention. Nine months,
same room, bored by hospital
corners. You prefer the street,
the field, being our eyes
in faraway alleys. So few of us
live in zones where war is the norm.
We worry more about the latest
IPhone than the poor’s daily dead.
You shoot us alive. To you, I walk
from the far gate, committing trees
I may never see when State takes
over this campus to memory.
My last camera was pawned
more than a decade ago
by an ex for a higher resolution
of white against dark ash.
These oaks might get the ax,
like the rest of us in the wrong
place. In this room, I practice
not pitying the limbless.
I want to bring you the scent
of rubble and a downpour
of singed tabloids, not
Red Cross cookies,
though I secretly think
the forced extended
sweetness can’t hurt.
Still, when you look at me,
I don’t know what to do
with my hands, and when
I try to speak, I can’t
find a leg to stand on.

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