“Isolating oneself into a narrowly defined victim group promotes a view of others as irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst, which eventually only leads to further alienation. Gangs, extremist political parties, and religious cults may provide solace, but they rarely foster the mental flexibility needed to be fully open to what life has to offer and as such cannot liberate their members from their traumas. Well-functioning people are able to accept individual differences and acknowledge the humanity of others.” – Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
PLEASE NOTE : When I use the word “trauma” in the below blog entry according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, I am using this definition below: “a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time.”
As I have been watching the news over the last two weeks, I have been viewing the recent deaths of the victims of the Charleston massacre and burning of 7 churches from the lens of a person with a healed diagnosis of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). I have recently been tapping back into my history of post-traumatic stress disorder as I have been preparing to become a trauma-sensitive yoga teacher this fall. I have been replaying all the scenes that I witnessed as a teacher in North City and North County over the last 5 years in my head but specifically last fall when I watched the black community of St. Louis County cry out that their lives mattered with the chant “Black Lives Matter” in the streets where they have endured so much abuse at the hands of the white people in charge. From the lens of trauma healing, the Black Community has established their personal agency and power, after centuries of oppression through systemic racism. As individuals this is the therapeutic approach to healing from trauma. What is special about the “Black Lives Matter” movement is that a WHOLE ethnic community are collectively saying “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” As someone who has personally experienced how it feels when you *finally* find your voice after years and years of being silent and confused about your own pain, it is super freeing and powerful to feel that sense of control in your own mind and body again. But then as I am watching this new found sense of power and personal agency being expressed in cathartic and empowering ways by protesters and street artists through protests, community meetings with government leaders, I am seeing their message to the leaders in White America fall on deaf ears. To trauma survivors, not being heard IS TRAUMATIZING in and of itself. This is the part that absolutely HURTS to watch.
As a white person who lives a middle class life and also travels this earth with PTSD (and adhd), sometimes in recovered states and sometimes in active states, I have been given the opportunity to learn therapeutic coping skills and gain some control of my own life through photography and yoga. I had a family that could afford to be a part of gyms with great yoga classes that made feel whole and good in my own body. My family could also afford to send me to a college where I could experiment with artistic expression with photography, painting and performance art. Hence because of my white privilege, I have been given numerous outlets to establish personal agency and control when I feel that life is happening to me (something you often feel when you are living out in trauma and depression). When I am feeling depressed, I can pick a camera up and start shooting things that makes me feel joy or attend a yoga class to remind me that my body is beautiful and I have the freedom to make choices. I have been taught that I have choices when I am low and these choices have a positive impact on me, even when my current life situation is depressing. In the past, when I have worked with my students and families, I have often held back discussing my love for art and yoga because I saw it as something that put an emphasis on our socio-economic disparities instead united us as people. However, now that I am looking at the Black Lives Matter movement and my life as a teacher working with youth living in poverty through the lens of trauma healing, I see that now, photography and yoga are the BEST tools I can use to ask my students and possible individuals with PTSD, “What happened to you?” instead of “What is wrong with you?,” which creates a power struggle and further emphasizes a feeling of inferiority to the person in question. The former recognizes our common humanity and can possibly engage someone who has lived a hard life and/or a victim of trauma to begin to tap into their stories through creative expression or through their body. In my case, it was both but I had access and resource working in my socio-economic favor. My friends living in under served populations very rarely have access or resources to healing or creative expression as therapy.
Through my own yoga practice, I have learned to take myself out of the victim story line, go into my body through conscious breathing and movement and find that I have the power to make choices about the poses I go into (or not), the speed at which I move, to what level I want to exert myself, etc. Yoga has allowed me to take those choice making opportunities off the mat and into my own life where I can choose the people I have in my inner circle, where I want to live, and “be fully open to what life has to offer.” Really every person alive is worthy of being open to everything life has to offer, regardless of their zip code, race, sexual orientation or ethnicity. Those of us that grew up with privilege can help make these tools more accessible in ways that are meaningful to people of color. We also need to learn to ask people of color better questions in the process. To quote Bessel Van Der Kolk, we have to move away from, “what’s wrong with you,” to asking each other “what happened to you.”