Yoga for healing from trauma

Yoga for healing from trauma

People are often drawn to yoga to heal themselves physically, mentally, emotionally or energetically. It might not be an intentional or conscious thing, but there are undeniably deep, healing qualities to the ancient practice.

One person who is well versed with this notion is Tristan Rose, the founder of Blind Tiger Yoga, a yoga and meditation service for veterans. After serving in the military for 10 years with multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tristan experienced physical and mental health issues related to his service, which was what led him to the practices of yoga and meditation.

Yin Yoga in particular teaches skills that enable you to turn from always looking outward to directing your focus inward. This inner focus leads you to deeper levels of awareness which, from my perspective, can be a building platform for other forms of yoga.

Through a shared passion of yoga, Tristan crossed paths with Rob Langworthy. Rob, from Melbourne-based yoga company Stretch Now, has been a meditation teacher for more than three decades, lived and studied in India for 15 years and has travelled the world giving workshops, retreats and intensives on yoga.

“I met Tristan here [at Stretch Now] when he came into the shop to make some yoga prop purchases for the classes he teaches to veterans and first responders,” explains Rob. “When I spoke to him at length I became very intrigued by his story and I asked him [if I could] do an interview with him.

Read on for the full interview below.

Rob: Can you tell us a little about your military service and your experience with physical and mental health issues related to your service.

Tristan: From early on I had a strong sense that I wanted to belong to something — something that was dedicated to working towards a higher goal. The military as a professional organisation supports and defends people in need so it was very appealing to me.

I signed up for the infantry and for 10 years, with multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. I gave it 100 per cent. I rose to commander level and the training I received was definitely put to use.

Of course, military service is multi-faceted and so I was also exposed to the other side of war so to speak; that is, I experienced physical and mental health challenges that were associated with multiple injuries I sustained in service. Due to physical deterioration and the decline in mental health I was experiencing, I was forced to medically discharge.

Regarding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with service members, obviously it’s not a new thing — it’s had various names attached to it over the years and it’s been around since war has been around. I don’t believe a lot of soldiers accept that they have any mental health issues, even when they are diagnosed [with] having it, and a lot of soldiers go undiagnosed.

In Australian culture, generally speaking, there has been a stigma associated with mental health. We’ve had so many veterans come back from WWI and II that have had these issues and have been struggling for a long time but they have hardly been acknowledged. Often, for front-line soldiers to talk about it is perceived as a sign of weakness. I know when I put my hand up and said that I was speaking to a mental health practitioner I was openly laughed at. Sadly, some of the people who laughed at me have since taken their own lives as a result of their decline in mental health.

Many veterans have various problems relating to family and loved ones — the divorce rate is extremely high. If left untreated the abuse that family members suffer can be quite harsh. Family members are subjected to witnessing what the veteran is going through. Often veterans don’t even know why they are reacting like they are because they have suppressed so much.

A veteran can find it crippling when he or she is no longer in the military community and their mental health is often compounded because of [an] identity crisis and separation anxiety. They no longer have the recognition, acknowledgement and empathy they used to get from their peers — it’s a new world so to speak — and their experience of this “new world” can be incomprehensible to friends, family and work colleagues. Everything I have said about military veterans also applies to first responders.

Rob: How did your experience with mental health issues and being medically discharged from the army lead you to yoga?

Tristan: What followed was a long and complex process of treatment involving multiple therapies and medication. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, they only got me to a certain point. I was left with a very restricted range of motion and chronic pain. I was at the end of my tether. I had exhausted the conventional, recommended and so-called “approved” methods from military doctors, medical providers and occupational therapists so I began to look for alternative modalities and this ultimately led me to yoga.

To be honest, the first time I went into a yoga studio I left pretty frustrated — I walked out of the first three classes I took. There were a number of reasons for this. As a result of my training and service in the military I developed a highly tuned awareness to whatever surroundings, circumstances or environment I was in. When you are exposed to life-threatening and traumatic situations on a regular basis, this switched-on state of being becomes more of a lifestyle rather than just an occupation. You can go home and take your uniform off, but you are always in that role. So switching off is a big challenge, not only for soldiers that have seen action, but also first responders such as police, fire fighters and paramedics.

With me having had experiences that are similar to what other veterans have had, there is obviously a capacity to empathise with them and relate to them and vice versa. I am able to communicate to them that the processes they are going through are quite normal. It’s being able to acknowledge that these people are not broken; it’s just that they haven’t got the tools yet to manage what they may be going through.

For people who have not experienced this state of being it is often difficult to comprehend or relate to people who have. And for people who have served in the military or as first responders, this is one of the contributing factors that make it very challenging to open up about what is actually going on. Having said this, I went into my first Vinyasa Yoga class with a lot of pride and ego. I use to be in peak physical condition — on the level of an elite athlete, but because of my injuries I had a very limited range of motion. The fact that I could hardly move my arms was very humiliating for me.

I left those classes because for the first time I started listening to the things that I had blocked out for the past 10 years. I started noticing how I was feeling, how I was responding physically, mentally and emotionally, all in one go. This opened up a floodgate of emotion and it was too much to bear. So I did what normal people do in a fight-or-flight response. Fighting wasn’t an option, so I left.

The teacher wanted to know what was wrong but I couldn’t articulate it — I didn’t have the skills at that point to fully understand and communicate what was happening.

However the teacher said to me, “You can’t pick up a rifle and be a great shot the first time and you can’t pick up weights and be ripped the first time. You need to come back to this.” And I did — I said to myself, I’ve never quit anything in my life so I’m going to stick with the process. But the more I practised, I just still couldn’t get to the place I wanted to be.

Then I ended up going to a Yin class by mistake and I was blown away by the different people in the room — all different body types, shapes and sizes; there were even a few people missing limbs. I was about to walk out but the teacher said, “No, no, give it a try.”

I responded by saying, “I can’t really do these movements because I am in so much pain,” and she said, “Close your eyes and take it inwards; don’t care about what you look like.” So I picked up my mat from the back corner of the room and went to the front and said to myself, I’m just going to face this. I thought if I can confront my fears in a military operational context, then in a place where people are open and accepting, I can give this a try. So I exposed myself — put myself into the fray. I closed down my eyes and realised that my fear was just a perception. This threat wasn’t real. That fear was false evidence appearing [as] real — a deception, a delusion.

When I started practising with my eyes closed and really tuned into what was happening, I started making these huge leaps and bounds with my physical range of motion that surgeons told me I would never get back. They said to me, this is you for life — shut the book, that’s done.

With the physical release I realised that I was also experiencing mental release. As I went deeper and deeper into the practice I was able to then let go of things that I had blocked off for the past 10-plus years. I discovered that pain was essentially being controlled by my mind and I was holding on to it. In the past I didn’t have the tools to release it but yoga gave me those tools. Yoga gave me tools that were more powerful than any drug prescription or physiotherapist or chiropractor. I’m not saying that yoga heals everything, but rather it’s a complementary tool to add to a whole range of things that are out there.

Rob: As I listen to your story, I’m reminded that confrontations are a part of everyone’s life — especially confronting one’s own fears. But we receive very little to no education or training that enables us to confront and deal with fear and anxiety. More often than not a person shuts down their fear because it’s just too uncomfortable or painful and the emotion becomes transmuted into things like anger, violence, chronic anxiety etc and even suicide.

Yoga has helped you face your own inner demons in such a way that you no longer allow them to control you. From a yoga perspective, can you articulate what’s enabled you to get to this point?

Tristan: I once heard a statement that went straight to my heart, “What’s coming is coming to go.” Through my practice of meditation I experienced thoughts that were very obtrusive — some were memories of intense experiences. I felt that when you suppress these thoughts they then come back swinging in another way. And conversely, if you try and hold onto happy thoughts they seem to slip through your fingers. I thought to myself, if there is so much dialogue going on in my mind, how can I distinguish what I should pay attention to, and then it sort of clicked that I don’t need to pay attention to any of it, just observe. Just observe what’s happening.

When I held poses for long periods of time in Yin Yoga, it wasn’t so much the physical pain that I experienced but the mental discomfort.

I think a lot of soldiers and first responders go through so much physical and mental anguish that they get to a point where they snap, which leads to degeneration. There is also the other side of the spectrum where people are not getting engaged enough and atrophy sets in. So it’s finding the balance between the two. For me, [yoga and meditation teacher] Bernie Clark sums it up by using the term the “goldilocks position” — not too hard, not too soft, just in between. And that’s a skill that I had never heard of before; for me it was all in or nothing. You can only operate in this tempo for so long and then you begin to degenerate.

So for me, it was about observing and witnessing rather than adding fuel and exploring why I was going back to certain things and torturing myself. When I learned the skill of observing and witnessing, I felt a lot lighter.

Rob: You’ve obviously received great benefit from practising yoga, but what motivated you to become a yoga teacher specialising in Yin Yoga?

Tristan: I have always been a very active person; playing rugby, practising martial arts, sailing, surfing — all my pursuits outside my occupation were physical activities. So when I became injured, pretty much all those activities that I enjoyed were stripped away.

I was lost — it was extremely difficult to handle being told that you’re such a young man, but you will never be able to do these activities again. That for me was harder than any diagnosis about mental illness. I felt that my body had failed me and as a result my mental health declined, etc.

Why Yin Yoga particularly resonated with me and why it continues to resonate in the arena I am teaching in is that it’s inclusive for all levels. So whether you are a multiple amputee or still at a professional athlete status, or you are somewhere in between, it doesn’t matter. This practice is so adaptive to everyone and relatable to everyone. There are so many different styles of yoga out there and I believe there is something for everyone, but Yin Yoga in particular teaches skills that enable you to turn from always looking outward to directing your focus inward. This inner focus leads you to deeper levels of awareness that from my perspective can be a building platform for other forms of yoga.

I started teacher trainings with Bernie Clark and others and I realised, wow, had I learned these skills while I was still serving, I believe that the mental resilience I would have developed could have considerably diminished the mental and emotional impact my physical injuries had on me. Also, if I had developed the skills I learned through yoga and meditation when I was practising sport, even as a child, not only my recovery time but also my performance would have increased dramatically.

Around this time I was hearing about friends of mine who had taken their own lives, and that hurt on multiple levels. But what really hurt was that I felt I had this knowledge about what had helped me in my healing and I felt that I was keeping this to myself. I felt a bit selfish and foolish. In hindsight, there is always the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” but this doesn’t help anyone and I felt that if I could show another soldier the benefits that have enabled me to get on with my life in a very positive way, even if it was for only one person, it would be a noble and worthy pursuit.

With me having had experiences that are similar to what other veterans have had, there is obviously a capacity to empathise with them and relate to them and vice versa. I am able to communicate to them that the processes they are going through are quite normal. It’s being able to acknowledge that these people are not broken; it’s just that they haven’t got the tools yet to manage what they may be going through.

That’s where Blind Tiger comes in — it’s teaching them skills through the vehicle of Yin Yoga, which they can use to respond positively to the challenges they may be facing.

Rob: I can understand what you are saying. If you have a yoga teacher teaching veterans and first responders who has been there and done that, so to speak, they will have a much greater degree of acceptance towards the teacher because they perceive the teacher to be on the same wavelength. This makes the yoga practice that much more accessible to them.

Tristan: Yes, I have observed over the years that it’s very comforting being in a room where people have shared a similar experience. I could sit in a room with service members and not say a single word and be more comfortable in that environment than with certain family members. The members of the community in which you serve really do become like members of your family and the bond that’s shared is indescribable. In the context of a yoga class, it’s really quite amazing being in a room where everyone is open to being present with whatever condition they are dealing with. We strongly emphasise that there is no comparing between what person A has experienced with what person B has experienced. We don’t identify people with army, navy, air force, police, fire brigade or ambulance. In that environment it can be a massive relief when you explain to people that what they are going through is normal. 

Rob: Is Blind Tiger Yoga exclusive to those in the service, veterans and first responders?

Tristan: There are classes at different military institutions and there are government platforms that are exclusive to those members, but there are also classes that are inclusive to other members of the community. For example, we have classes for mothers and fathers of veterans and children of members, and we also support members of the general public to come to those classes as well, which is advertised.

Rob: If someone was to ask you, “What is Blind Tiger Yoga about?” What would you say to them?

Tristan: I would say that Blind Tiger Yoga is a particular group of military veterans and first responders who are teaching students to be present with where they are at in life and giving tools to students that they can use to grow physically, emotionally and mentally. It’s teaching them to simply just learn to be.

Rob: Your answer reminds me of a meditation session I had several months ago. As I was meditating, words came up inside me saying, It’s not about attaining, it’s about being. In the western world there is a strong emphasis on setting goals and attaining them — constantly striving to prove yourself to the world and to your own self. This happens sometimes even in yoga. The practice mistakenly becomes goal-oriented and sometimes even competitive, which is the very antithesis of what yoga is about. It’s true that setting goals and having ambition is often what gives meaning and purpose to life, and I am not saying this is a negative thing, but when it fills up your life to the point where it becomes the sole means with which you identify yourself, then you end up missing what the true essence of yoga is — that is discovering your essential Self and the beautiful relationship you have with the world around you.

Tristan: Yes, learning to be is just being present with where you are now. I called it Blind Tiger Yoga because I was ex-Tiger battalion; the blindfold and closing down the eyes is a huge emphasis of the practice. These soldiers are so attuned to their environment, so the first step to noticing where you are at is shutting down the eyes — tuning in to how you are feeling physically, mentally and emotionally. So if you have these emotions that are coming up, such as frustration, agitation, anger, resistance — whatever it is, allow it to happen without being attached to a physical or mental reaction to it.

What happens in Blind Tiger is that you have a lot of people who I would call “alpha” and ego-driven people and it’s very humbling for them to come to a practice that is non-judgemental and non-competitive. I teach up to 20 classes a week and on a daily basis I see people expressing a range of emotions, from rage and frustration to sometimes tears and elation, but by the end of the class they’re back on that even keel. They have surrendered to the feelings and expressions that they have had in the here and now by not suppressing or holding onto them. Accept that this is where you are right now and it will shift — it will always shift. We are generally overstimulated, so we put that imaginary blindfold on and let ourselves become aware of what is actually going on.

I say in my classes I don’t care what you look like; I care about what you feel. This is a big focus — if you are feeling it, you are doing it.

Rob: Yoga has been an esoteric practice for centuries and it’s only been in the last 20 years or so that yoga has become relatively mainstream in Western society. You mentioned before that the majority of your students are ex-military and first responders, so I am wondering how you make yoga accessible for people with this background.

Tristan: I agree with you that yoga was considered an esoteric practice for many, many years. Even with myself, if someone recommended that I practise yoga four to five years before I started practising yoga, I would have told them that I was not even remotely interested in it. My perception was that yoga was for a particular type of person and I wasn’t that person. I believe it comes back to education — I think the big problem we have in the West is that, to a certain degree, there is a perception that you have to [have] a particular body type to practice yoga, which is something that I come up against almost daily. So it’s educating people that yoga is inclusive to all body types and personalities.

It also depends on what style you go for. A lot of people believe that your inherent flexibility will determine your ability to practice yoga, but I don’t think this is the case. Probably most important is your mindset. For example, I get a lot of soldiers and first responders that look at the practice of yoga and go, “Yoga? No, not for me.” But they come along to their first class and they realise, wow, the way it is delivered is accessible — it’s not too far out there. It’s not going into and exploring deep levels of philosophy that they are not ready for.

So my approach needs to be pretty neutral. My approach is from an anatomical perspective and to address what they are doing, why they are doing it, the target they are aiming for and the principles of the practice. When they understand what they are doing and what the target is and how this is related to their own personal and professional experience, they find it easier to accept and embrace. If I go into too much philosophy too quick, I will lose those people very quickly.

I have been to classes that have been so far out there and personally, I quite enjoy them now; but if I had attended a yoga class like this when I was just beginning to practise yoga, I would have checked out because it would have been just too far away from the mainstream views that I had. In time, people start to open up to new things. You know, I have students that have been practising for 12 months and only now they are beginning to explore deeper levels of the practice and philosophy.

So breaking down the barriers is a huge thing that we at Blind Tiger Yoga have to face daily. It’s a hard nut to crack — we get a lot of guys who bring in a false perception of what yoga is about; some of them think that you have to be “soft” to practise yoga. However, just sitting and being present is harder than any physical activity they have done. From my own experience, just being present with my thoughts sometimes has been more intense than combat-like situations. We get about an 80 per cent return rate on people after they have done their first class.

The goal of Blind Tiger is to break down these barriers and give them the basic tools and let them build from this — then if they go and find a studio or teacher that resonates with them more, so be it — that’s great. It’s basically giving them a platform from where they can add tools to their toolkit that are appropriate for their particular circumstances.

Rob: Students have been practising with you for some time now. What are some of the benefits you are seeing as a result of their practice?

Tristan: One thing is huge; I have watched resistance towards practising yoga melt away. Guys come into the studio and say, “I’m here because my wife wanted me to come — I don’t really want to do it.” I’ve had guys who have flat-out refused to fill out the registration form. I say, “Mate, this is just legal coverage; if you hurt yourself you’re covered.” But as they get into the sessions, the resistance dissipates.

There is also physical resistance towards the postures, but even after one session I see a shift — it could be in their body language, or their habitually charged muscles relaxing or a change in the tone in which they speak. One of the biggest benefits is sleep — this comes especially from the Yoga Nidra sessions we do. A space is created where they can actually rest.

People also become more interactive and inclusive. I see people who are so withdrawn and isolated when they begin practising and then start to engage with others. This lack of social engagement is a very big issue with veterans and is well acknowledged by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. To see people begin to interact with others without any prompting is a huge step in growth. To see them going from the private Blind Tiger classes to the public classes is huge. There are other examples, such as when students stick around after class or seeing them journalling, or seeing students openly telling people about the benefits they are experiencing, which is quite profound.

Shifts in rage is also a big one — seeing very angry men and women start releasing that rage muscle and having people acknowledge that what they’re going through is normal. Watching some take a further step by talking about their own mental health issues that previously and even now is perceived as being unacceptable is very profound.

The classes teach participants that they are not victims — they are able to acknowledge that distressing things have happened to them, they are real, but they don’t need to identify themselves by this story and they now have the tools to let go of this story. Many veterans have their claws, so to speak, stuck so deep into their story, but when they begin to let go of this you can physically see that shift and I’ve have been more grateful seeing this happen than any monetary benefit I may receive from teaching classes.

Rob: I can understand your use of the word “profound”. They are amazing experiences. Where to from here? That is, what is your vision for Blind Tiger Yoga in the future?

Tristan: In 2017 and 2018, 3578 people attended Blind Tiger Yoga classes in Victoria alone. My vision is to keep on breaking down those barriers — to keep on helping people to explore other avenues. Next year we plan to run our first teacher training in Australia. We want to qualify 30 veterans and first responders to go back to their communities and teach yoga and the principles of yoga to people in their area. We also want to roll out a resilience-training package that can be accessed online for people who may not feel comfortable at this stage in their life to step into a yoga studio.

One of our goals is to work with existing service providers throughout Australia with a whole range of health and wellbeing healing modalities to create educational/respite facilities for members of the military, military veterans, first responders and people making a transition from the services into the next phase of their life where they can receive the relevant information they need. Their psycho/social engagement with current and ex-serving members keeps that sense of belonging. In these centres we can train veterans and first responders who may have retired from their work to run them.

I don’t think yoga is something that should be kept secret; it should be something that is shared. The same for meditation — it’s inclusive for everyone. I see people from the general public practising beside veterans and first responders and this could help to break down some of the barriers we face in society.

For me, yoga is about continuous development — not just for me, but for everyone.

Ally McManus

Ally McManus

Ally McManus, the editor of WellBeing Yoga Experience and the founding editor of Being magazine, is a freelance writer and editor in magazine and book publishing. She also teaches yoga and meditation on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula.

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