I recently met Shannon McQuaide, director of Fireflex Yoga, which leads first responder on-duty yoga classes. Meeting her may finally get me to actually try yoga, even though I have believed for a long time that it would be good for me. In fact, I became absolutely convinced of its benefit when I read Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score.
He devotes an entire chapter, Learning to Inhabit your Body, to yoga and its benefits.
Van der Kolk describes how he heard about Heart Rate Variability (HRV, a big topic of Stress, Science, Spirit) as a measure of how well your brain and body are connected. Activities that increase your HRV will help quiet the fight-or-flight instinct that is responsible for the negative health consequences of carrying too much stress too long. Remember that, as I wrote in You cannot starve the evil wolf, escaping or avoiding stress usually backfires. You have to “feed the good wolf” through attitudes and activities – anything that increases your HRV will accomplish that. Yoga is a powerful way to “feed the good wolf,” in part because of its emphasis on breathing techniques. HRV essentially measures how well synchronized your heart and breathing are.
Van der Kolk’s research showed that traumatized people, including marines at Camp Lejeune, indicate that yoga is effective for helping people with ordinary or highly traumatic stress heal and grow.
I will admit that I’m a lot like “Annie,” van der Kolk’s patient who said, “I don’t know all of the reasons that yoga terrifies me so much, but I do know that it will be an incredible source of healing for me and that is why I am working on myself to try it.
Yoga is about looking inward instead of outward and listening to my body, and a lot of my survival has been geared around never doing those things.” I’m not quite “terrified,” but whenever I think about trying something like yoga, part of me seems to resist, strongly.
In 1990, I passed up an opportunity to try yoga in post-earthquake Haiti. I was with a Jordan International Aid medical relief team, traveling in and around Port-au-Prince putting on clinics. It was an overwhelming task – every day, far more people were lined up for care than we could possibly see. Women and children were especially hard hit- poor sanitation always hits them harder.
Most evenings when we returned to the house where we operated from, some of the medical team would lead a yoga session. Even our Haitian national policemen were joining in, but somehow I just couldn’t bring myself to try it. I can’t claim to know why we sometimes are so resistant to things that we know would be good for us. I do know that it is related to stress and trauma. Shannon has invited me to join one of her classes at a fire station. Somehow, that seems safer than going to a classroom of strangers whose life experiences are unlikely to resemble mine. It seems to be important to start journeys of healing with people who understand, at a level beyond words, where we are coming from.