As though I needed an excuse, about a month back, I took a 50-hour Yin Yoga Teacher Training with Biff Mithoefer. After ten years of teaching Yin (and now teaching yoga teachers how to teach Yin well), I wasn’t really expecting to pick up many new tricks. What I love about Yin is how uncomplicated and elegant the practice is; you learn a basic set of poses and some different ways to approach it, and then the best way of continued learning is to uncover the strata of meaning as you keep a consistent practice. But I had fallen in love with Biff’s approach back in April, when he was kind enough to engage in a back and forth with me – a total stranger – over email and the phone about the relationship of Yin Yoga and trauma, which made me want to hang out with him for longer and pick up whatever I could.
My interest in trauma began in earnest in my 20s, working with Central American refugees and immigrants – many of whom told me harrowing stories of being imprisoned or tortured or having their best friend killed in front of them or just walking by dead bodies at the side of the road, and wondering when their turn would come. I’m not a personal-professional split personality: who I work with is who I hang out with, is who I break bread and share wine with, is who I love. I felt a keen sense of familiarity with how my friends approached life – with generosity and an eye to game changing and movement building. They’d make me mix tapes packed with boleros, bachata and balladeers and we’d drink wine and discuss political strategy and cultural appropriation deep into the night.
Around this same time, I joined a group for Children of Holocaust Survivors. We met once a month, reading novels, memoirs and nonfiction to jump-start discussion on everything from the spiritual dilemma of a just and loving God with the backdrop of our families’ murders, to intergenerational transfer of trauma, to the commonalities we as a group had despite obvious differences – those of us whose parents, say, were part of resistance movements, seemed to have an easier time in dealing with life’s unavoidable fluxes, perhaps because their parents’ weren’t as broken as those of us whose parents were part of the Kindertransport and grew up in foster families or orphanages – or those of us whose parents had survived concentration camps, were the most palpably wounded, and found it difficult to not share their lifelong pain with their children, usually from too early an age, in ways that overwhelmed our own abilities to cope.
Connecting the dots, I realized that what was so appealing about my work was war: I got to work it with people who had parallel life experiences with my parents, and yet weren’t as visibly damaged in their response to these experiences.
Perhaps it’s for the best that during this time of intense engagement in my daily life and psycho-intellectually with the concepts and impact of trauma, I also began practicing yoga — and writing creatively – both of which taught me how to find ground in volatile periods of my own learning how to be an adult different than my own adults were.
I can’t underestimate how healing it was to also be engaged in a strong activist movement, to witness and experience the choices people are capable of making happen in the wake of great personal suffering and collective trauma – often by working diligently, strategically and collaboratively to find justice where possible and reconcile with the past where not.
When I spoke with Biff this spring, I knew there are no studies on Yin Yoga and trauma – there’s only one study on Yin that I know of (surprise, it’s shown to reduce worry and stress!). Yet after ten years of practicing it (and twenty practicing yoga overall), I’ve come to believe that it plays a special role in discharging stress and trauma.
Biff and I talked about how that might be – does it heal trauma that has been left in the body, particularly the fascia, long after the traumatic event or periods of complex trauma? Does it release or help us deal more easily with trauma in the same way mindfulness has been shown to? Does it teach us to accept what happened to us and slowly find completion with that?
I spoke with a lot of people around this over the following months who told me story after story of stress-exacerbated and auto-immune conditions which are made better by a regular Yin practice. One military vet from Australia with chronic pain who was told he’d be on medication his whole life healed himself and has begun to teach Yin to other vets.
We still can’t spell out a causal relationship – and no one practice works for everyone (if you’re hypermobile, you might want to lift weights instead) – but as for myself, I’m not giving up on practicing or teaching Yin anytime soon.
I’d recommend studying with Biff if he ever comes your way – or if you just need a good excuse. I love that he always teaches in circle so that participants are intentionally woven together in community. He’s sensitive and practical and also incorporates teachings such as the medicine wheel, Jungian archetypes, and poetry and storytelling, which give great depth to the Yin practice, allowing you to come back to the same poses, over and over again, each time with a fresh layer of understanding.
Would love to hear your own experiences and thoughts!
Dear Yael, I always love to read your thoughts, your articles and especially your insights on Yin yoga. I do believe that the body remembers and may store his past and trauma into the fascia.
It’s fascinating and I love learning from you, my Yin Teacher.
Thanks so much Isabel! Even though I’m continuing to learn other modalities to discharge stress and trauma, I keep coming back to Yin. Glad to see all the ways you are offering it to others, so that they can heal — as we continue to! xo
I don’t have the same deep relationship with Yin that you have — it is something I’ve only practiced with one teacher and have never studied. My training and regular yoga practice is Forrest. The two styles are incredibly different in that Forrest is also about creating rather than allowing for change. So yang. Yet they share the long holds and therefore both permit release of fascia. Over the years I’ve come to believe that fascia is our storehouse and communication system, so that releasing the layers permits healing on every level. Which I’m not sure I’m saying very well right now. But is profound. I will have to think more on this. Thank you for prompting the conversation with such grace. I’m ever grateful to know you.
Like you, I’ve only taken a handful of Forrest classes — I like the two teachers I’ve taken it with a lot, but my body doesn’t do so well with the insistence on practicing in a heated room — it’s the lack of air circulating as much as as the heat. From the little experience I have had, I do think Ana Forrest incorporates yin style holds in yang poses. There are two ways to allow release of or create new systems within the fascia: movement and manual manipulation. So even though Yin specifically targets the fascia, all forms of yoga affect it. I love practicing and teaching Yin, but my home practice include a lot of slow flow too. Did you catch Gil Hedley when he was doing his cross-country tour recently and giving his very witty and accessible half-day lectures? He essentially says what you just did. It is profound and so are you!
I did see (and hear) Gil Headley–absolutely mind-blowing. Much of my thoughts about fascia are informed by the things I learned from him. But it was one of those situations in which he articulated feelings that I’ve experienced. Like I said: mind-blowing. And yeah, the heat of Forrest sometimes makes me sick. During teaching training I always practiced near the window and would sometimes open it. Now, when I teach, I like the room warm but not hot. 76 degrees is ideal. There are a lot of things about strict Forrest that I disagree with and at this point I’m pretty sure I never again want to see or practice in person with Ana Forrest. But life is long. And I continue to evolve, largely through and because of this style of yoga. It’s complicated and confusing for me. If ever I see you in person it would be fun to discuss. Which we should really make happen. I will see about a trip to DC sometime in 2018. For now, I’m grateful for written language. xo
So happy that you saw him — mind-blowing for sure. And like you, I like some warmth in the room (when it’s wintry outside) — and an open window for fresh air/prana when it’s a gorgeous day. I haven’t had a yoga teacher (yet) who I adore and keep in touch with and practice as they teach. I have teachers I respect and admire and have learned a lot from and who I like to practice with when I can afford to visit them — I don’t know why but it’s somehow clunky in yoga, unlike my teachers in other domains. You are welcome to stay with us if you come! It has been YEARS since I’ve been in Chicago which is ridiculous. Written language, though terribly limiting, is the bomb! xoxox
I will keep you posted! And of course you are welcome here if ever you visit Chicago again. But I’m guessing you would stay with Jen. Which would be wise, as her place is far more comfortable than mine and also in a much better neighborhood (although I love my hood). Plus that would provide a great excuse for me to see her. You should do it!! And I will also work on a trip to DC. Scott and I were actually talking about it–seeing you adds impetus. =)
I always say “maybe when the weather gets a bit warmer” since I’m not into either extreme 🙂 And: hope to see you soon!