By Kate Blair
As a health teacher and yoga instructor, I am continually amazed at the ways that yoga and life intersect. And life as we know it is certainly full of causes, hardships and injustices, now more than ever: the immigration crisis, the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter, and so many more important, impactful sociopolitical issues. Many people have strong opinions and feelings about these and other causes. Many caring people want to roll up their sleeves and do what they can to help, in big and small ways. It takes significant effort to care. It takes significant effort to help.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on a great workshop I participated in last May called “The Issues In Our Tissues: Yoga, Trauma and Social Justice.” You may be wondering: what the heck does yoga have to do with trauma and social justice?
It’s well documented that communities and subgroups of folks who suffer the injustices of the world are more likely to suffer trauma. Trauma is what happens when our ability to cope is overwhelmed, leaving us feeling helpless, hopeless and out of control. In situations of trauma and stress, our sympathetic nervous system activates and we go into fight / flight / freeze mode. Being in an activated state for a prolonged period of time takes its toll on our bodies and minds.
Whether we as individuals belong to an oppressed group, or whether we are taking part in social justice work, or even if we are just existing in today’s political and social landscape, our nervous systems are, no doubt, activated. When we’re in this state of high alert activation, our parasympathetic nervous system – the rest / digest / heal / restore mode – is off. Or at least not working well.
Think about it. When we’re experiencing stress and trauma, whether it’s one time or recurring, we can’t fully engage the system responsible for healing and restoring. To be truly present in conversations around social justice, we must first look inward and care for ourselves.
Taking time for self-care means slowing down. This can mean taking time for mindfulness, for yoga/movement, for breath work. These strategies have been effective for people of all ages. When we intentionally care for ourselves and activate our abilities to rest and slow down, we are more prepared to be compassionate. We are more resourced to be better listeners and communicators, to build community and interdependence. We have more capacity for empathy, both for others as well as for ourselves.
If you were on an airplane, and there was a loss of cabin pressure, you’d be instructed to put on your own oxygen mask first before you could help others. Makes a lot of sense. Again, here’s a compelling parallel between yoga and life. Isn’t basic self care–breathing–a really necessary first step in doing the deeply important work of social justice? Or other work that serves the greater good of any community or individual?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, Frontier.