Breathe. Live. Be. An Interview with Red Elephant Foundation

In this interview with Red Elephant Foundation, I was invited to share about what lead me to the work of anti-sexual violence advocacy, teaching yoga, the physiology of resilience and some of the risks and rewards of forming The Breathe Network. Here is a brief excerpt:

REF: Could you start by sharing your story, to the extent you are comfortable and deem relevant to the work you do?

MBH: I began exploring holistic healing modalities and trauma resilience theory in 2003 after being raped and sexual assaulted. It wasn’t the first time I had survived sexual violence, but for various personal reasons and the specific nature of the event, it was exponentially more traumatizing to me than past experiences. The rape created a total split and a sense of irreparable chaos within my physical body, my brain and my soul. It completely dismantled the view I had on the world and my sense of who I was in it, and it disrupted nearly every relationship in my life. At the same time, I started working with the trauma in a variety of ways, through yoga, holistic psychotherapy, acupuncture, massage and art therapy and within those sessions, I was uncovering not only my rage, my shame, my fear, and my grief, but also, tapping into resilience, power, beauty and a sense of inherent self-worth. I had not known those aspects of myself prior to the event of my rape, which made me incredibly curious about the process of addressing healing – and mental disturbance, physical pain, and psychic unrest in this holistic way, through all the various channels of the human system. How could it be that during the darkest time of my life I was beginning to tap into and cultivate a sense of compassion, purpose, love and faith?

Read the full interview here.

Freeze Leads to Survival

Over the last 12 years, billions of cells have cycled through my body – created, utilized and disintegrated – without any of my own intentional efforts. Most of my life I took these processes for granted. Yet, after I was raped, the mystery of this constant, internal process of birthing and dying happening inside my body became a fascination. It was a useful touchstone reminding me that on a cellular level, my body was shedding the residue of my perpetrator from the inside out. In a terrifying and also transcendent way, trauma ushered in a radical awakening to the brilliance of the human organism and its relentless pursuit to fulfill a single purpose: staying alive.

When my life was threatened, in an instant, all of my survival mechanisms came online. The shock of what was happening to me physically, mentally, and spiritually, drove me out of my own shape. I floated in a slow motion dream: sensations increasingly numb, language escaping my mouth with no thought, movements and gestures coming through my body with no control. If I was lucky, I would only be assaulted while stranded in the largest public park on the continent of South America. However, the anger from my attacker communicated something far more insidious. If I could survive this, what would he do next?

Unconditioned by ego, the primal responses of my body immediately conspired for my survival: I froze. My spirit exited my body. I watched my own undoing looking down from tree tops. Yet, a part of me was still trapped inside my shape. My body went numb. I don’t remember breathing. My tears stifled along the corners of my eyes. Everything was silent and slow, like a movie with no sound. My brain, though, picked up every detail of the forest, archiving this information for the future. The instinct of my nervous system memorizing all the ways I landed here so that it could attempt to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Meanwhile, this man is crushing every part of me – my body, mind and soul, with his violence. I am unbearably present though moving in and out of body. I remain frozen.

Suddenly, a stick breaking in the woods is enough to startle him. This attack will not end with death. Rather, this is the painful, yet precious re-birth into a post-rape reality where I escape. The story is just beginning.

Read the full post here.

Interview with The West Coast Trauma Project

"The body remembers, the bones remember, the joints remember, even the little finger remembers. Memory is lodged in pictures and feelings in the cells themselves. Like a sponge filled with water, anywhere the flesh is pressed, wrung, even touched lightly, a memory may flow out in a stream." -Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I was honored to be invited by Guy Macpherson, the Founder of The West Coast Trauma Project to participate in his Trauma Podcast. In our conversation we explore what lead me to embark on the work of addressing and healing sexual violence and various layers of personal and professional evolution in being part of the anti-sexual violence movement and the healing arts field. We also discusses how my yoga practice was impacted by sexual trauma and its evolution, working in the advocacy field and balancing personal sustainability, how Somatic Experiencing has been a resource, and we talk in depth about the vision for The Breathe Network and the people - survivors, supporters, clinicians and healers. 

You can listen to my interview here and I encourage you to explore The West Coast Trauma Project's website to listen to interviews with national experts in the fields of trauma and resilience.

 

 

    Teaching Yoga with a Trauma Informed Lens Video

    There are many reasons why someone who has survived trauma may have difficulty participating in yoga classes. In this video, I focus specifically on the challenges of savasana also known as "corpse pose" which is instructed nearly 100% of the time at the end of a yoga class. It is a posture whose length can vary from a few minutes up to 10 - 15 minutes and asks the practitioner to lay still in a state of relaxation that can border on sleep. Yet, for trauma survivors, it is uniquely challenging to rest deeply or to "let go" due to the nature of trauma and its impact on the physiology of the body, as well as the embodied imprint trauma can leave on the whole person. I recommend that yoga teachers provide alternate options/variations when they teach savasana in order to assist people in remaining grounded and connecting with some level of ease during what might be the most vulnerable component of class.

    The insights I share here may also be useful for a survivor of trauma who is hoping to learn alternate ways to finish class with the rest of the group. Importantly, this video affirms survivors in knowing that their bodily responses and needs are very natural reactions to trauma and an innate internal attempt to manage the intensity of what they have survived. Savasana/Corpse pose can become increasingly accessible to trauma survivors over time, through practice, props, identifying variations that work, a yoga sequence that best prepares the nervous system for letting go, soothing music, etc. It is specific to the survivor and can be an interesting exploration to discover what shape and other supports can create the conditions where rest feels soothing. This is a wonderful practice to have in your self-care tool kit, as savasana, and other resting poses can restore the body, balance the nervous system and nourish the soul. This pose is a practice in and of itself, and an incredibly powerful one!


    Beyond Language

    I am increasingly invested in articulating a wider truth about sexual violence recovery – that it is not overnight, and it might be something we negotiate for life – not because I want to overwhelm or intimidate survivors, but rather to affirm and bring to the surface what so many of us already know to be true from our own experience. I share because resourcing more and more survivors with tools, practices, rituals, healers and possibilities for resilience that are not fixed but are ever-evolving, allows them become their own best expert - the authority on themselves and their lives. Through this simultaneously organic and intentional process they may be empowered to pave their own way, to recognize they are unique yet not alone in this dynamic struggle, and to fully own through post-trauma embodiment, their own truth about trauma, grief and pain. Having felt so much beyond what words alone can measure, we have glimpsed the self beyond ourself, the immeasurable breadth of who we are, the knowing that understands the unknown, and it seeps now – into our cells, our dreams and our laughter. I have highlighted four healing arts practices that have supported my journey to heal after sexual violence, acupuncture, yoga, massage and art therapy, in the hopes that survivors will have a clearer understanding of how these techniques might help them. Importantly, since talking about trauma can be triggering, survivors can feel confidence that these methods do not require having to tell their story in order to deliver healing and thereby have more options available to them.

    Read more here

    The Courage to Listen

    Too often, we read about survivor’s stories as if they are something other, something outside of ourselves, or perhaps the survivors we learn about remain both nameless and faceless – held at such a distance from our own experience that we simply cannot connect. At times, the stories we read reflect far too intimately, like a mirror, the shadows of our own sexual traumas, and for the purposes of our own short-term self-preservation, we choose not to connect. Sharing that intimate space of the theater with survivors expressing the complex reality of their own experiences creates an atmosphere where those who do not know sexual violence intimately (as survivors themselves) have an unparalleled lens into what it looks like, feels like and sounds like. The injuries of sexual trauma and the capacity of resilience literally shows up in the way we carry our bodies, the way we move or do not move and the vast variety of facial expressions we develop to communicate our loss, our confusion, our anger and our power.

    Read more here.

    The Re-Wounding of Healing

    It is early May and I am sitting with my best friend in an outdoor cafe in Cartagena, Colombia. I’ve dreamt of traveling to this city for years. It is hot and humid and even the 5pm sun can still bake the plaza bricks and deepen the color of our flesh. A disheveled hippie woman with an honest face approaches our table and asks if I would like a psychic reading. I am in South America, I am 26 and I am totally open to everything, so of course I reply with an enthusiastic “Sí.” The reading begins and almost immediately she becomes visibly upset. I am worried about my translation skills and what I might be missing when she explains in Spanish “Be careful! You are going to be terribly harmed by a man!” then runs away into the boisterous crowd. I don’t even remember if I paid her and I certainly cannot comprehend how to interpret her comments. How could I?

    One week later I am back in the neighboring Andean country where I live and I have finalized a decision to place a tattoo on my sacrum representing my connection to and experience of the lush, green land I had lived in for nearly 3 years. Its texture and color held my developing identity as a woman, an explorer, a daughter, a sister and a lover of nature. It is beautiful and it is powerful, and one of my dearest friends will apply it. It is a Friday and this moment marks my continual merging with my adopted home and the incredible community I have connected with in this international city.

    Two weeks later, the large tattoo is still very much a wound when I am attacked while running in a park, held at knifepoint and taken deep into the woods where I am raped by a stranger whose body, scent, hands – even the shape of his teeth – may never be forgotten. My identity is thrown into a state of limbo. My questioning of everything and everyone around me keeps me constantly dizzy, while the energetic and physical ache in my lower back now pulses in pain. My tattoo, however personally affirming the intentions behind it, soon becomes a daily reminder – a forced and remorseful pause in the mirror – of this tragic and life-altering event. These two separate wounds somehow fuse.

    Read more here.

    Travel and the Inner Compass of Healing Trauma

    I spent a few years of my life working abroad and while that time held some of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve known, it also contained long phases of loneliness, confusion and an overwhelming doubt about where my path would lead. I became accustomed to the highs and the lows of my day to day, and when I was in the space between – not entirely inspired, not totally lost, I was in a bit of a dull fog. It was during those plateaus in my experience that I would long for then familiarity of home – but where was home? My mind would be restless, unable to fully land in my body – leaving a sense of disconnect from myself and the surrounding environment. Everything and everyone would become strange, and I would begin to feel a rising vulnerability much like a still open wound.

    The new world perspective I was catalyzed into after sexual violence, the recovery and re-organization of the pieces of my life afterwards, reminds me of the roller coaster ride of my voyages abroad. Of course, the impact of trauma itself can stir up such a sense of foreignness both with yourself and the world around you – language escapes you, memory is out of order, things are not as they seemed. You sit on life’s periphery looking from the outside in, never finding connection through the images and faces around you and no longer sensing it on your own.

    For someone who hasn’t both traveled extensively (or who hasn’t felt themselves a outsider in a world where others seemingly feel at home) and survived sexual violence, my sense that the two experiences are in some ways quite parallel may feel like an exaggeration. Yet, as a survivor, I look to any revelations I gain, however slight – on my yoga mat, in the woods, while playing a keyboard, from my dreams – and seek to weave them into the bigger picture of how I can experience and understand the fullness of my Self. I believe that my daily, seasonal and annual witnessing of the ongoing cycles of love and loss can teach me humility, compassion and strengthen my courage to keep going. When a metaphor for healing emerges, I fully dive in.

    Read more here.

    Tapping the Intrinsic Power of the Mind in Healing

    Since surviving sexual violence, my body has long been my anchor, even with the unpredictable volatility of its tremendous feeling and sensation – it is the only place I call home. I can orient myself to the moment by simply following its natural rhythms and filling up on the flow of adrenaline, endorphin and ecstasy. Yet, sometimes I wonder why I have chosen to rely so heavily on my body for grounding when it also presents such intensity with its flooding of hormones, racing of the heart and prickling of the skin? Why would I risk living from such a delicate edge of pain and pleasure not knowing when either will evolve towards or devolve back away from balance? And why now this new desire to investigate my mind, when contemporary trauma research urges modalities that focus on survivors befriending their bodies through physical movement? Is my recent curiosity around searching my mind for equanimity an unconscious attempt to avoid all that still stirs beneath my skin? Is the flow of my healing running counter to the current? Or, am I re-learning all over again, that I have to drop everything I am told externally about the path of healing and endeavor to trust what makes sense in my being in this very moment?

    I’ve relied upon my body to stabilize myself when moods and situations became unsettling and in a sense, to slow down the speedy, dark thoughts of my mind. Many survivors are directed to psychological support after rape, and it might be years or decades later that they discover their own desire for healing through their physical body and the underutilized power within their own shape. The day I was raped I made a last minute choice to lace up my running shoes instead of stepping onto my already unrolled yoga mat – so connecting through my body and breath was already consistent within my regular self-care practice. Working with the body would be my starting point in healing. When I finally thawed the first layer of shock after the event, I knew that I needed to move and re-learn to feel into my body if I was going to swim across to the other side of this ocean of grief. With that as my intention, my body has been an amazing outlet for the build up of tension – physical, mental and energetic. This capability to move freely was a privilege I was born with and whose preciousness is gold to me. My gratitude for my body and its ability to run, stretch and breathe with a certain level of ease is something I once took for granted – now I humbly recognize my tremendous fortune.

    Read more here.

    When the Rape Myth is Your Reality

    After 11 years of researching, teaching and listening to private testimonies about sexual violence, I have heard the majority of the societal stereotypes (rape myths) that silence survivors’ stories and minimize the depth of these traumatic experiences. Our national denial of the truth of this interpersonal trauma creates a false sense of safety that we use like a shield to cover our ultimate insecurity – which is that sexual violence can happen to any of us. Believe me, the unwillingness to face the reality of our fear is not shocking, there are many days I wish I could buffer my brain from the images that lurk just beneath the humble courage of this self-identified survivor. Still, there exists no phrase we can methodically repeat to ourselves, no drink, no drug, no physical exercise, no new adventure, and no relationship that can actually erase the memory of sexual trauma.

    If we are lucky, we learn over a lifetime how to establish enough grounding within ourselves through the utilization of healing techniques that specifically serve us, so that we can develop the confidence to practice not resisting such memory and let what must emerge to finally move through and out of us. Whether our memories surface through emotions, through subtle and not-so-subtle physical sensations or through our dreams, we can begin to carefully explore how to allow, and ultimately, how to re-direct our pain into the life-force that cultivates the healing of a heart that is equally supple and strong. That inner power can feel like a flickering flame on a cool summer night – occasionally bold, clean, curved edges and extending upwards and outwards with the single purpose of enlightening the surrounding space. Often though, that flame is wavering, hanging on, and just about to burn out until the wind settles and it expands into and beyond its original fullness once again. That kind, quieting of the weather catalyzes the next wave of our relief.

    Read more here.