[This post mentions self-harm and suicidal thoughts. I also write about trauma, including sexual trauma, so please take care]
For years, every time I went to a yoga class I would cry. There was something about lying down on the yoga mat, next to other people and listening to the teacher's gentle instructions that inevitably brought me to tears.
At the end of each class, with everyone lying on the floor for a relaxation posture, I would ache with an enormous sadness. As the teacher told me to 'let go', 'relax your body', 'take time to rest', a blue-whale sized swelling of grief would rise inside me. Lying there on the mat, I couldn't hold back my tears.
Although I wanted to practise yoga, I only went to classes sporadically because I knew that they would activate strong and painful emotions in me. I tried different styles of yoga, as well as many teachers over the years, but I had this same difficulty across the classes.
I think it would be easy for people to tell me that this sadness during yoga is something to be embraced rather than avoided; that it is a 'healthy release' or 'to feel it is to heal it'. The difficulty for me however, is that my emotions can be so strong and painful that they have been completely overwhelming for me. As a result of not being able to cope with my emotions, I have ended up self-harming and in crisis more times than I have been able to count.
This can mean that feeling immense sadness during a yoga class was not a 'helpful' experience for me. Instead, it could leave me so distressed than on leaving classes I have had to call Samaritans because I am so anxious and upset that I don't know how I will make it home safely. It also made me feel disconnected from everyone else in the class when I already felt isolated by my BPD.
Now that I have completed a year of DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy), I am able to manage my intense emotions well enough to go to yoga classes. When the emotions rise up in me, I am able (most of the time!) to attend to them as my therapist has shown me. In fact, about a month into starting DBT, I began going to yoga and I have regularly ever since.
Yoga is one of my favourite things to do and I have always loved exercise involving balance, stamina and flexibility. Now that I'm in a place where my body and mind feel safe enough to practice yoga, I am able to reap its rewards: less tension in my body, enjoyment and a feeling of improved health.
I think that until I knew how to manage my borderline personality disorder and my intense emotions, I was not able to bear hearing the teachers saying kind and calming things. Yoga teachers tends to say things like 'be kind to yourself', 'give your body what it needs', 'let yourself relax'. Hearing these things activated harsh thoughts within me about being unworthy and being deserving of punishment.
It was very hard for me to be a person who self-harmed, as well as a person who did yoga.
Secondly, yoga classes made me aware of how starved I felt of affection, physical touch, warmth and intimacy. I felt grief during yoga for all those moments I had longed to feel safe, nurtured and cared for.
There is a well-established link between people who have a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and those who have experienced trauma of all kinds. I am aware that just as trauma-informed approaches to mental health care are growing, so are trauma-informed approaches to yoga.
Furthermore, many people with a diagnosis of BPD have been through sexual trauma. As yoga is deeply invested in the question of what it means to inhabit your body, I believe trauma-informed yoga, as well as free and lower-cost classes, could play an important role in making yoga safe and accessible for people who have experienced trauma.
Although yoga can feel instinctively safe and calming for many people, for others it could activate traumatic experiences; an unexpected touch from the teacher, certain postures that feel exposing and so on.
Forgive the pun, but because yoga is so flexible I believe it can be adapted to all needs. I know, for example, that there are yoga teachers who specialise in teaching for children with additional needs, those with physical disabilities, autism and cancer.
What are your experiences with yoga? Have you ever found it distressing? Has it helped you? I would love to hear from you.