For me, yoga is an important part of self-care, so it’s no surprise that I have integrated mindfulness into my counselling practice. When my yoga teacher told me about a series of trauma-informed yoga workshops being held over the summer, I signed up straight away – and I’m glad I did. Not only did it help me think about my own yoga practice in relation to my own triggers, it was invaluable thinking about how others might experience a well-meaning meditation – and how I can support them to make mindfulness – or any other activity – work for them.
Open your eyes
One of the first things we are told to do in a yoga class or guided meditation is to close our eyes – but this can leave us feeling very vulnerable or scared. If closing your eyes doesn’t work for you, try softening your gaze or maybe fixing it on something that isn’t moving. Alternatively – or additionally – try taking a few moments before hand to look around your environment, taking in what is around you. Knowing the space around you can create a feeling of safety that allows you to take your focus elsewhere – and perhaps relax our fight or flight mode.
A lot of mindfulness exercises focus on our breathing – but for some of us, paying attention to our breathing, let alone trying to control it, can make us feel more anxious. If this is you, try focusing on something else. Taking a moment to really feel your body in contact with the chair you are sat in and your feet with the ground can feel very grounding. Focus on how your body is supporting your body in that moment. If focusing on your breathing feels okay but controlling it doesn’t, play about with what works for you. Try breathing in and out through your mouth rather than through your nose. See how it feels to lengthen your outbreath but, if it doesn’t feel good, stop. And if trying to control your breath in any way feels triggering, just focus on feeling the breath coming in and out of your body, bringing in what you need, and releasing what you are done with.
Placing our hands on our body can feel comforting and invigorating, or feel uncomfortable and distracting. When practicing mindfulness (or at any time you want to relax), think about what feels better for you; some people find placing their hands on their laps palms up feels exposing and scary, whilst others find it freeing. Having your palms face down on your thighs can feel grounding, but can naturally lead to gripping. Placing your hand over your heart might feel comfortable – it is doesn’t, don’t do it. At the end of a meditation or if you feel like your body isn’t fully present, rubbing it vigorously or massaging it might bring you back – or it might over-stimulate your nervous system. There is no right or wrong, other than what is right or wrong for you, and that includes how you feel about someone else touching you too – your yoga instructor or personal trainer might think it’s helpful to physically help you get into a position or complete an exercise, but if it isn’t, you are 100% within your rights to tell them so.
Of course, feeling ourselves in our bodies, whether it is when practicing yoga, in the gym or during a mindfulness exercise, can feel like an alien concept if we have learnt to protect themselves from trauma by switching off the connection between our mind and bodies. It’s easy to feel frustrated with yourself if you are unable to do something that someone else assumes is easy for you to do, but try to be kind to yourself. If you find your well-meaning instructor (or counsellor for that matter) telling you to do this and you feel unable to explain why you can’t, try to find something else to focus on, whether it be your breathing, the feeling of the world around you supporting you, an object in sight or even a sound – even if it’s a mantra or song in your head.
Whether it’s when doing physical exercise or in therapy, we all have an edge. Working at it can increase our physical or emotional strength immeasurably, but pushing ourselves to hard too fast can lead to injury or even dissociation. Try to listen to yourself… is the discomfort bearable? Has your mind or body started to zone out, or can you take it? If you can’t, ease off, slow down or stop. Go back to a position or pace (physically or emotionally) that feels okay – just because it feels too much today doesn’t mean that it will forever. If it does feel okay, great – but practice trying to relax whilst you work. Are you holding unnecessary tension in your body? If so, try to let it go – it probably isn’t helping.
Like with any activity, mindful exercises can take some time to get used to and practice to master. If you struggle with focusing on the here and how and find your mind or body floating off elsewhere – give yourself a break, literally and figuratively. Learn to be kind to your mind and your body, and if something feels too much, take a break and congratulate yourself for giving it a go and doing something new. Likewise, if you get it wrong – we all do, and that’s okay! It took me a while to realise that mistakes are a natural part of learning and can help build our resilience to the bumpy road that life can be – and giving myself a break when I make one gives me permission to give things a go that I’d otherwise steer well clear of!
Support Counsellor, SurvivorsUK