I trained for and worked as a volunteer in an assault care shelter in Iowa and taught yoga to homeless youth in Chicago after attending a Street Yoga teacher training. The stories I heard and the pain and trauma I was exposed to during these projects had a deep impact on me, and my own sense of safety. Additionally, as part of the 40% of women who feel unsafe walking home in their own neighborhood (according to the Washington Post), I deal with my own sources of anxiety around personal safety and street harassment. I have lived in rural America, Midwestern college towns famous for partying, a bustling Asian metropolis, and two of the USA's largest cities (as well as having traveled, alone, internationally), and the feeling of always having to watch your back has followed me everywhere I've been. These personal experiences of vicarious trauma and the stress of continually facing potentially dangerous situations as a woman have informed my interest in the field of somatic therapies, to help myself and others.
As a dancer and yoga instructor, I am in the practice of observing how my day-to-day experiences and emotions affect my body. I can feel the "fight or flight" mechanism engage whenever I go somewhere alone. Being harassed on a daily basis makes me feel helpless and angry. Empathy for the endless stories of abuse and violence weigh heavy on my heart. All of these emotions present themselves in a more visceral than mental way. Stress can be healthy in small doses but we're not meant to exist in that alert, hyper-aware state all the time. It can interfere with well-being, digestion, sleep, and motivation, and cause fatigue, tension and pain in the body.
In his book, "The Body of Life," body psychotherapist Thomas Hanna writes:
We cannot hate or be angry without an organism that hates and is angry. We cannot love and hope and expect without actively, movingly, physiologically loving and hoping and expecting. Hate, anger, love and hope are not “psychological states,” existing in some “mental” vacuum; they are somatic states that exist in the entirety of a living organism.
We want safe spaces and communities that are free from hate and anger. As activists, caregivers, listeners, or those looking for a holistic approach to healing, we are all at risk of suffering the physiological effects of trauma--directly or indirectly. We must first understand how to discover and nurture safe space within our own bodies through practicing mindful movement (breathing practices, yoga, tai-chi, dance, hiking, etc), so that after trauma (whether secondary or primary) we can return to inner safety, peace, purpose and strength. Like the often-used airplane oxygen mask analogy, one has to be connected to their life source in order to help others connect to theirs.
Yoga is a wonderful way to treat compassion fatigue. Not only does it lower blood pressure, it helps us return to natural biorhythms that can be disturbed during trauma through the disassociation of mind and body. Practicing yoga, moving rhythmically with your breath, helps you reconnect to yourself.
I have compiled a list of books and online readings and resources if you're interested in further study on trauma/secondary trauma and the body, and how movement practices assist in maintaining our energy and ability to help others.
Books (Available through Amazon)
Overcoming Trauma through Yoga
David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD
Getting Our Bodies Back
Waking The Tiger
Peter A. Levine
The Compassion Fatigue Workbook: Creative Tools for Transforming Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Traumatization
Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self while Caring for Others
Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk
The Body of Life: Creating New Pathways for Sensory Awareness and Fluid Movement
Relax and Renew: Yoga for Stressful Times
Judith Hanson Lasater
Overview of Secondary Trauma
Green Tree Yoga: Yoga for Compassion Fatigue
The Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute
Research, trainings, publications, resources.
Trauma-sensitive Yoga DVD available:
Street Yoga: Changing Lives One Breath at a Time
Blog, resources, videos, trainings, research.
"Yoga Therapy in Practice: Healing Childhood Sexual Abuse with Yoga" by Mark Lilly and Jaime Hedlund, Street Yoga
"A Yoga Intervention for Counselors with Compassion Fatigue: A Literature Review and Qualitative Case Study"
Janys M. Murphy
http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/handle/1957/37794 (click view/open for PDF)