Originally published on Yoganonymous (2015) by Dr. Jamie Marich
Photography by Natalie Mancino
When the first aerial yoga studio opened up in my city in 2013, I wrote it off as just another fitness yoga fad. People seemed to be swarming to it because of the novelty, yet because I am large of stature, I knew it would never be for me. Two judgments right there—of others, and myself! A stroke of good timing, the universe conspiring to nudge me in the right direction, and the fruits of my existent yoga and mindfulness practices manifesting converged a few weeks before Christmas of 2014. I decided to give aerial yoga a try. A few months prior, the Facebooksphere connected me with Jennifer Neal, the visionary yogini and dancer who pioneered aerial yoga in our rust belt city of Youngstown, OH. There was something about her energy that resonated. When I finally made my way over to her beautiful studio, a true oasis in our often-bleak city, I told her that I was afraid. Jennifer, in her beautiful way, validated and normalized my fear as a newcomer. She also assured me that the fabric could likely hold a horse or a small car. While some might see that as condescending, I appreciated the humor of it. In realizing that truth, the life and recovery lessons began to flow…
1. The fabric, like the universe and my understanding of God/spirit, holds much more weight than I realize.
During my first few classes I was terrified to jump in the aerial fabric designed to support me. This fear was mostly due to the weight issue. However, even in poses that required me to spread the fabric out with some force, my trepidation still showed. When Jennifer noticed this she assured me, “The fabric can take a lot, it’s there to support you.” As soon as she said that I realized that, like the universe and the God of my understanding, I don’t give these vessels that exist to support me their proper credit. When I can practice the faith that they will hold me, I am not afraid to try new things.
2. I am stronger than I give myself credit for.
I remember the pose exactly: side plank. During a private aerial session with Jennifer, she instructed me, from a seated position in the swing, to grip the sides of the fabric and simultaneously pull-and-roll myself onto my right side. Even as I protested, “No way am I strong enough to do that,” I was doing it. We both laughed at the silliness. So as I flew above the studio floor in a side plank position, it clicked: Clearly I am way stronger than I think I am. My aerial journey continues to prove this to me with ever new pose and subtle variation that I learn. It’s made me notice just now natural it’s been for me to doubt my strength, even during those times when my strength is clearly working in my favor. No doubt I’ve done this on the mental/emotional plane as well, and aerial is helping me make a change towards claiming instead of doubting my own strength.
3. Comparison truly is the thief of joy.
Although I liked this well-known quote of inspirational living attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, practicing aerial yoga made forced me to truly work on it or practice it. Jennifer and other yoga teachers with whom I studied beautifully remind us that yoga is “not a competition.” Yet for me, a type-A overachiever in other areas of my life, it’s been difficult for me to put into practice. I’ve never been especially athletic. After a few classes of practicing aerial and seeing how much more naturally others were taking to the practice during their first class, the temptation to quit was strong. Old memories about being the last kid picked in gym class surfaced. Yet when I focused on the small steps of progress that I was taking in each class—holding poses a little longer, getting into poses that I couldn’t the class before, I truly felt happy. When I made a commitment to drown everyone else out and focus on my own practice, aerial yoga began to fill me with fierce joy.
4. Don’t leave before the miracle happens.
At least 10 times during my first 10 classes and lessons, I found myself saying, “I don’t need this!” I almost walked out of the first class, and at the end of it I even said to myself, “The injury risk is just too high and you need to be mobile to work, especially with all of the travel that you do!” I decided to give a private lesson a try before making a definitive conclusion. When I started the comparison games I almost quit again, and then when I hit another barrier when an old knee injury got agitated (more on why that happened in #9). Looking back at it now, had I left at any of those junctures—which could have happened considering my history with some physical activities—I would have missed out on all of the strength, joy, and benefits to myself that I’ve accessed.
5. When I Can’t Actually Ground, I Can Find Stability in My Breath
Many of my trauma therapist colleagues are mystified by my love for aerial yoga considering that in my teaching life, I promote the benefits of yoga and meditation for grounding. Very early in my practice it struck me that keeping my breath even and deep was the key to working through the fear and instability that I experienced on the fabric. Not having literal grounding prompts me to rely more on my breath. In doing so I’ve been able to recognize, in all areas of my life, just how much connection exists between my breath and the earth.
6. Anticipation causes me to lose my breath.
Staying in the moment and keeping by breath full and steady is paramount in aerial yoga. I usually end up falling out of a pose, or talk myself out of getting into a new and more challenging pose when I start anticipating the outcome—how it should look when I get into the full expression of the pose. Even though I’ve heard and fundamentally believed the logic of “it’s about the journey and not the destination” throughout my adult life, I never fully embraced its relevance until I began my aerial practice. When I catch myself not breathing fully in any area of life, it’s usually because I am anticipating. Thus, I can accept the challenge of returning to the present moment.
7. The body can learn new lessons.
My body is capable of so much more than I give it credit for, especially when I can celebrate the small victories. I can honestly say that my body, which I’d once written off as past her prime, feels stronger now after several months of aerial practice than it did when I figure skated in my early teens. Sure, things in aerial yoga freak me out, like have my feet—my vehicles for fleeing dangerous situations—bound in poses like inverted bound angle. Yet noticing this freak out, breathing through it, and realizing the danger it posed in my body challenged me to look at old fears and memories about not being able to escape. I’ve received so many different types of trauma therapy during my life yet nothing has quite yet helped with some of my old body stuff like working through my fears around the poses.
8. Most discomfort experience can be adapted to and accommodated.
In aerial yoga, it can take your body a few sessions to adapt to the pressure of the fabric digging into your body, especially in sensitive areas like the hip creases and below the arm pits. As someone who long accepted that I don’t have to do what doesn’t feel good to my body, I almost used the pressure as an excuse to bail out during the first ten sessions. Aerial challenges me, in a new way, to constantly listen to my body about the differences between pain and challenges that I can learn to navigate. During one of my first times attempting swing balance, I sat there with the fabric digging into my glutes, and I said to myself, “This is bullshit.” Yet I made a choice to keep breathing and after about thirty seconds or so, the annoying pressure passed. Truly, a lesson for me in distress tolerance…
9. Making an adjustment in one area of the body can transform pain and make all of the difference in another area of the body.
My friend Jessica also found herself inspired by Youngstown’s aerial yoga revolution and completed a teacher training herself. In working with her privately during her first few weeks as a teacher, she immediately diagnosed why I experienced so much knee pain during aerial bound angle. She noted, “You are dumping your core instead of engaging it. Try it again and be mindful to not let the core collapse.” Since that adjustment, I’ve been able to do the pose (and the inversion) without any knee pain. Like in life, sometimes when we beat ourselves up about one thing, the answer is to make an adjustment in another area, even if the connection isn’t immediately apparent.
10. Freedom is on the other side of fear.
When Jennifer first whipped this mantra out at me, I must admit, I did the internal eye roll. I’d always fancied myself as a person whose life in recovery set her free, yet those first few sessions of aerial practice revealed to me just how much I’d been holding back from living my life to the fullest. That restraint is all fear-related. In learning the aerial version of locust pose, there was a moment when I first took my hands off of the fabric to fully balance on my hips and I went “Weeee!” As Jennifer observed, as soon as I felt the freedom, I cowered back and freaked out. I will be honest: I am still working on fully living out this truth of freedom existing on the other side of fear. Yet I have strong faith that one day I will experience freedom in my life to an even greater degree, and that is why I keep coming back to the fabric.
In the wake of falling out of starfish pose,
Maybe not this time try again.
Oops, I didn't stand firm, try again.
Umm, I missed the mark, try again.
Man, I didn't know, try again.
Maybe not this time
Maybe not next time but sometime I will.
I tried again
I risked again
I cried again
How many times again?
Tried a different route
Forced it to come out
I am sworn out but down the road
after rest, rest, ummm more rest Oh and more days after that rest
I am turning about with a loud shout!
Risk again, what?
Scary I know and with the right guidance gathered around
my frown is slowly turning upright now
Lots of bumps
I've endured to fall and lose it all
Misunderstanding, misled, and a loss of
I've been calling to myself
Where is home? Where is it okay? What can I do?
Not give up on me. One moment
I don't know how many moments will pass to be me
try again for a small little victory
Like falling out is a sweet victory.
I tried again
Will keep trying again
Because it is the part that helps me be with peace, again
When Season 6 of the AMC modern classic Mad Men drew to a close, audiences found the tortured protagonist Don Draper at a crossroads. The consequences of his alcoholism led to an indefinite suspension from his lucrative career in advertising, a career that seemed to narcissistically fuel the fire of unhealed childhood trauma and relational turmoil.
As a trauma and addiction psychotherapist, I found myself transfixed with the character of Don Draper throughout the show’s run. From this clinical perspective, I lamented at the damage I saw Don do to his children. Yet Don Draper, marvelously portrayed by Jon Hamm, as created by Matthew Weiner, demonstrated that behavior we can so easily write off as misogynistic and abusive can have roots in deep, deep pain. At the end of Season 6, I found myself completely empathetic to Don Draper. My best TV buddy Joe and I discussed what we saw coming for Season 7.
As I shared with Joe, “I’m not sure if it will make for what AMC sees as good TV, but I want to see redemption. I want to see Don find some type of recovery.”
The wishful thinking clinician, yogi, dancer, and recovery ambassador that is me put that out there—and I was not disappointed.
To read the whole article, click HERE to go to Yoganonymous.
“I think it’s wonderful when people find God. What I don’t think is wonderful is when people assume this excuses them from working on their shit.” Without even knowing it, my first recovery sponsor Janet gave me a fabulously potent warning about the dangers of spiritual bypass. She was not one to use a curse word, so when she dropped that bomb, I was sure to listen!
When I began my own journey along the path of recovery and wellness fourteen years ago, I had the privilege of working in a well-known pilgrimage site in the Catholic world (Medjugorje, Bosnia-Hercegovina). Seekers came from around the world to this mystical place searching for healing and for answers. During my three years of service, I saw a lot. I witnessed people working in the village become impassioned about their faith… and then fall apart when the reality of life smacked them in the face. I saw numerous problems with addiction and mental illness amongst the seekers. I even noticed myself falling prey to the “If I could just be a good enough Catholic then all of my issues will clear up.” Fortunately, Janet’s wise mentorship entered my life. She taught me that I could still pursue a spiritual path while digging into the painful work of addressing my issues.
To read the rest, click HERE to go to Yoganonymous.
An Open Letter From a Trauma Therapist to Yoga Teachers: 12 Simple Ways to Make Your Classes More Trauma-Informed (Elephant Journal Piece)
The benefits of yoga practice in helping people affected by trauma can be tremendous, and they are becoming better researched and documented.With so much press on the issue, many survivors of trauma check out yoga classes on their own, unaware that so much variety exists in styles of yoga and teachers.
As a mental health/addiction counselor specializing in trauma, I often suggest yoga for my clients. Since I have an active yoga practice and teach trauma-informed yoga/dance, I am generally able to steer people towards the right fit of style, studio or teacher. Yet many of my well-intentioned colleagues who lack yoga knowledge often tell clients just “go to yoga.”
With the wrong fit, clients may become retraumatized or further alienated from body-based practices.
Addressing my colleagues on guiding folks to the right class is a separate subject. Here, I strive to address yoga teachers in all styles. Traumatized, vulnerable, or otherwise emotionally injured people will come to your classes.
You may believe people will decide whether or not your class is a good fit for them and will naturally check out if your class is too much. Some of you may believe that “yoga is yoga” and the people ought to be informed about what they are getting into.
To read the rest, please visit the original publication at Elephant Journal by clicking HERE.
Originally published on StartAgain Media
“There is no way I can post that picture! The shirt I’m wearing is not flattering at all.”
“My stomach looks huge in this pose.”
“I just don’t have a yoga body—everyone must be laughing at me for posting these pictures.
“It’s not like I’m doing handstands or arm balances. These aren’t very impressive.”
These are just a small sampling of the judgments that I uttered when looking at pictures of me doing yoga during a recent thirty-day practice challenge. I’ve watched several of my friends who have sophisticated asana practices engage in challenges of various lengths. I found myself marveling at their physical prowess, toned bodies, and the sheer bravery they had in posting their work so openly on Facebook. When my good friend Marta Mrotek, a Phoenix-based yoga teacher, announced her thirty-day recovery yoga challenge on Instagram/Facebook, something inside of me told me, “Go for it.” I responded to the challenge largely because I trust Marta and really enjoy her style in teaching recovery yoga. There was part of me that thought, “Maybe it would be inspirational, on some level, for people to see a woman of size doing yoga poses?” While my trust of Marta and desire to continue advocating for plus-size women gave me the push to get started, within a few days I found myself really struggling with the challenge. As it turned out, the challenge became an exercise in working with my Higher Power to help me practice self-compassion and non-judgment in a fuller more mindful way.
The first pose in the series was child’s pose. No problem. Not only is it one of my favorite poses, but when taken head-on at floor level with an Instagram filter applied, the picture came out really cool! The second pose was the cat/cow sequence, and when I saw my stomach rolls “flowing” in the short 30-second video, I was overcome with a sense of “Shit just got real!” My reaction to the sequence forced me to take a breath and practice acceptance. I accepted that my practice and body were where they were supposed to be at that moment. On day three for downward dog, the inner critic began to roar. The fat-speak was only part of it. Most of the self-criticism was about how incorrect my form looked—I sounded like a critical yoga teacher! Although it genuinely feels good for me to be in downward dog, I generally cannot keep my feet perfectly flat against the floor. Moreover, early on in my practice I discovered that I had to modify the stance somewhat to account for my weight. Looking at the picture, I noticed I was smiling back at myself. It was only after the picture was taken that the criticisms, and the “I’m not good enoughs” poured in. I was eventually able to muster enough perspective to remember that when I began my yoga practice I needed the wall to do Downward Dog. Although it took some time, I now appreciate it as a pose that feels good in my body, even if I don't look like a Yoga Journal model when doing it.
Every day of the thirty-day challenge brought new insights. In the first week, after looking at the pictures, I caught myself saying things like, “I should put on another shirt for this picture and I’ll look better,” The first time I noticed that judgment, I committed to not go out of my way to put on special clothing (i.e., the “look good” outfits) for the challenge. Rather, I would have whoever was available to take the picture of me that day take the pose of the day in whatever outfit I happened to have on. I made a conscious decision to post the pictures, no matter what, as an exercise in self-acceptance, hoping that through this practice, I would build self-compassion. This decision was no easy task as I have struggled with my weight all of my life, enduring constant criticism from my peers and my parents during my formative years about my body.
In the thirty days of the challenge, the universe highlighted some pretty amazing insights. First, I noticed that I rarely judge myself so harshly when I look at pictures of myself dancing. In two years of Dancing Mindfulness pictures, I might have made some passing judgments, but the look of total joy on my face as I dance allows me to see the whole, beautiful picture. Yoga pictures are another matter. It would be easy for me to conclude that since dancing is a more natural practice for me than yoga, of course the dance pictures won’t bother me as much. Although there is some truth to this insight, it strikes me as a shallow explanation. I sat with the contrast in pictures for a while. I realized that stepping out of my comfort zone challenged me to cultivate [a feeling of] self-compassion and self-acceptance. The asana component of yoga is not a limb of the practice that comes easily to me, likely due to my tendency to harshly judge myself and compare myself to others in the class or on a video. As a dance facilitator, this insight enhanced my empathy for those who I facilitate in Dancing Mindfulness; they also make the same comments about how they feel when they dance."
Throughout the challenge I engaged in several conversations in the comments section of the pictures with friends, many of who practice. A major theme in our conversations was that there is no such thing as a “yoga body” or a “dancer’s body.” The very notion of a yoga body is a modern, Western conceptualization, one that emphasizes the physical fitness elements of the practice with little reverence to self-acceptance. I know that for many years I’ve kept myself trapped in doubt by thinking I didn’t have a right to practice either yoga or dance because I didn’t have “the body.” Thank God that today, I know these judgments are totally nonsense. Yet it is not lost on me that there are other women out there who keep themselves from transformative practices like yoga and dance because of these body judgments, fueled by a hypercritical society. Although my work with conscious dance has been a big factor in working through the majority of my body hatred issues, the yoga practice challenge prompted me to work on acceptance at a difference level.
Looking at the pictures allowed me to see parts of my body that I really like, and certain poses gave me different perspectives on how I see my body. When judgments came up on the parts that didn’t look so great in a picture, I asked myself, “That part of your body doesn’t look so great according to whom? Yoga Journal? My mother? The girls I went to elementary school with? The awful guys who say terrible things about fat women?” I checked out the origin of these criticisms and in most cases, realized they were no longer valid. When I caught myself still struggling with a shard or two of doubt, I practiced gratitude. I thanked my Higher Power for giving me a healthy body that allows to practice the asana limb of yoga as gently or as vigorously as I choose to. Today, I am beyond grateful for having that choice. My practice is my practice, and it’s a practice that embraces the process. It is a practice that values self-compassion and self-respect. It is a practice that allows me to work with my Higher Power in a spirit of awareness and acceptance. For that, I am beyond grateful.
Originally published on StartAgain Media
I began practicing yoga several years into my career as a helping professional. When I started getting involved at a studio near my home, I noticed a poster for a class that just spoke to me and captured everything I needed: Restorative Yoga. Usually described as a gentle yoga practice that helps its practitioners to deeply relax, Restorative Yoga is spectacular for helping all people to find a deep core of balance and total peace. When I found Restorative Yoga many years ago, I knew that I needed the help to relax. After all, helping people to relax was such an important part of my job as a therapist, but who was helping me?
People who practice yoga primarily for physical fitness may judge Restorative Yoga with as a wimpy practice that makes use of all of those props. As one person I know would be likely to say, “Well it’s not very challenging.” For me, a recovering workaholic who is always on the go, my mind always moving, Restorative Yoga provides a tremendous challenge. Anytime a recovering workaholic and co-dependent can earmark a couple of hours for herself to not only relax, but receive assistance to relax in the form of a Restorative Yoga teacher or facilitator, it is a challenge. Speaking for myself, long affected by old messages that I must being “doing” something in order to be worthy of taking up space, any time I can enjoy just “being” is a major point of progress in my recovery.
Dr. Judith Hanson Lasater is typically credited as the founding mother of Restorative Yoga as a practice. As shared on her website, “We work very hard in our lives, and while we may sleep, we rarely take time to rest. Restorative yoga poses help us learn to relax and rest deeply and completely.” As a helping professional, I need this practice! Although I’ve taken Restorative Yoga classes from a variety of teachers over the years, and have even learned to self-practice, my most recent experience with Restorative Yoga has been the most impacting. My yoga teacher and mentor, Maureen Lauer-Gatta, E-RYT-500 recently teamed up with two other talented people at our studio, Teresa Lisum, a retired educator/Dancing Mindfulness facilitator and Ethical Massage Practitioner, and Anthony Ellis, a singing bowl player. They offer monthly events called Retune and Recharge in which Maureen leads the participants through a restorative yoga class as Anthony plays; Teresa circulates the room assisting Maureen with deepening relaxation through appropriate physical touch.
This past weekend, on my much-needed day off, I made my way to my home studio not to teach or to lead, but simply to receive. The whole practice, as promised, helped to retune and recharge me after a very stressful couple of weeks. There was a point in the class where I was lying there in a reclined, supported bound angle pose, completely relaxed in my breath, noticing the flow of the singing bowls’ vibrations moving through my body. The sonic vibrations were literally healing my insides energetically, and with every tone, my breath quality just continued to deepen. I was completely relaxed, and ultimately, completely grateful. Grateful for the practice and the event, grateful to Maureen, Teresa, and Anthony for their service, grateful for the studio, grateful for the resources I have to take such a class, and most importantly, grateful to myself for recognizing the importance of nurturing myself in this way!
Wherever you’re at in the country or in the world, I encourage you to look up where Restorative Yoga may be offered in your community. Even if you have a very active, physically challenging yoga practice and experience the benefits of such a practice, consider giving Restorative Yoga a try; you might be surprised at the results, especially if you work as a helper or healer. For more information online, you can go to www.restorativeyogateachers.com, and there are a variety of home practice DVDs that you can access.
Dr. Jamie Marich
Curator of the Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts blog: a celebration of mindfully-inspired, multi-modal creativity