Photo credit: Edgar Peraza.

Photo credit: Edgar Peraza.

This Tuesday night, September 23 at 7PM, Becky Thompson, PhD, poet, activist, scholar, yoga teacher, and Professor and Chair of the Simmons College Sociology Department will visit the Brookline Booksmith for an unforgettable night of gratitude, readings, and perhaps if the mood is right, a Facing Crow pose.

Thompson is the author of several books; her latest, Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for Those Healing from Trauma, is a collection of bite-sized essays that explore the role of yoga practice in healing people who have suffered early or adult-onset trauma—everything from accidents and natural disasters to sexual abuse, racism, genocide, warfare, incest, and incarceration.

I met with Prof. Thompson in her sunny office on the second floor of the main building on the Simmons College campus. I immediately noticed how elegant she was—her lean physique evidence of many years of devoted yoga practice. She appeared to me to be intellectually curious, passionate about the world, but not self-serious—in other words, exactly the kind of person you would want to lead you into a standing forward bend or tree pose. She put me at ease.

I started by asking her why she felt that yoga was so beneficial for people healing from trauma. What about other physical activities, like swimming or long-distance running?

“I don’t believe there’s one way to heal from trauma,” Thompson told me. “Do long-distance running or swimming if it works for you. But 19% of Americans have at least tried yoga, or been exposed to it. It quickly calms the mind. It’s a moving meditation for people who may not want to do sitting meditation right away because it’s too hard for them. Moving our bodies brings us to a place where we can find that stillness. We crave stillness but it’s also threatening to us, to the whole culture. We crave it yet we avoid it.

“There’s a quote from Nikki Myers (the founder of Y12SR: Yoga of 12-Step Recovery.) She says ‘our experiences live in our tissues.’ It’s in our kneecaps and in our bellies and in our backs. Talking isn’t the only way to work through traumatic experiences. The memories are in our body. 10% of our consciousness is in the front of our body. The back, the spine is where we hold our subconscious knowledge and awareness.”

I thought about the handful of yoga classes I had taken over the years, and how I had spent an inordinate amount of time worrying that I looked awkward or fat or not athletic or flexible enough. I hated the breathing exercises—I usually faked the long out breath because it felt unnatural. I pushed my body too hard to keep up with my more loose-jointed neighbor, and ended up injuring myself.

So what about people like me, who are undisciplined or afraid? What about the socially phobic and the physically unwell, the old and the obese?

“The ideal type of yogi is everyone you mentioned,” she answered with a quick smile. We talked about an essay in Survivors on the Yoga Mat, “Inside Silence,” about Matthew Sanford, the author of Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. Sanford was thirteen when he was in a devastating car accident that killed his father and sister and paralyzed him from the chest down. Thompson writes about how he “endured living inside a halo, multiple surgeries, several body casts, and years of physical therapy.” But what truly contributed to his recovery was yoga. He reconnected to sensations and energy in his body, including his legs. Yoga did not cure him of his paralysis, but it gave him an awareness of parts of his body that he thought would forever be dead to him. Sanford now teaches yoga to people with physical disabilities.

Thompson paused then and asked me to rub my hands together, faster and faster, then spread my hands a few inches apart and notice the energy in the space between them. I felt a subtle vibration in my fingers and palms.

“Trauma is not only felt on a physical and mental level, but on an energetic level,” Thompson said, “The energetic body is our power source, our prana. We tap into maybe 10% of our energy (in our day-to-day lives.) Yoga helps us find the other 90%.

“When you’re healing from trauma, you need to access that blocked energy.”

Thompson writes movingly about other people who have suffered from trauma, but she was originally hesitant to speak about her own childhood sexual abuse. “We live in an era of ‘the confession’ and I didn’t want the book to be sensationalized.” But she ended up including some personal details about her experiences, in part because many yoga teachers resist revealing their vulnerabilities or personal traumas because they fear losing the respect of their students or fellow teachers. She’d like to break that open because what trauma survivors need in their teachers—more than a soothing voice or a perfect warrior pose—is authenticity.

“No one has a corner on suffering. What we have in common is that we all suffer.”

As we were ending the interview, Thompson gave me a couple of recommendations for early morning yoga classes in Brookline to help with what I confessed were some personal anxiety issues.

“Call me and let me know how you make out,” she said, giving me a warm hug goodbye. On my way home from Simmon’s, I stopped by Coolidge Corner Yoga and picked up a discount membership card. Maybe it was time to try again.

—By Jennifer Campaniolo