For this edition of the Village of Care, we interviewed Kiki Williams. Kiki is a NY based Yoga teacher and dancer who shared with us the unique ways that Yoga can aid in healing from trauma. Kiki’s warmth and care for people flows through their words and we hope you’ll find it encouraging as you come alongside people who are seeking whole-person life.
In your experience/opinion, what makes yoga good for people?
Everything! It’s a practice that engages both the body and the mind. It’s equally beneficial for lowering blood pressure, increasing muscle strength, gaining a greater sense of mind-body awareness, and learning to be with difficult emotions. Depending on the practice, it can also be relaxing or energizing, or a little bit of both! In my own experience, yoga has allowed me to feel and be deeply connected with my body and my mind. I can have an experience and register both the emotional aspect of it, as well as the way the emotion manifests in physical sensation, such as a faster heart rate when I am anxious. Yoga has also helped me feel into my own strength and power. The practice continuously offers opportunities to push past perceived boundaries and expand into a greater sense of being. As I often tell my students, yoga is less about the poses themselves or contorting your body to look a certain way, but rather is a metaphor for life. You will do poses that are challenging, and poses that come with ease. Throughout the course of even a 60-mins class, you may encounter comparing mind, self-doubt, frustration, joy, and fun! And just like with life, the lesson is really about how we show up in each moment, if we’re willing to be present with whatever arises, be it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The more practice we get sifting through all of that on a yoga mat, the easier it becomes in everyday life.
How does trauma-informed yoga differ from a standard practice?
I actually take some issue with the idea of a standard practice, because it negates the reality that most folx are in fact walking through life with some degree of trauma, as if there is a “standard” way to be and exist in the world, and absolves the teacher in some sense of their responsibility to read a room and adjust the class based on who is present and what is needed. But I don’t know if that’s where you were going with that question! Trauma-informed yoga is different than a standard yoga class in several ways, but one of the main ways is language. When someone experiences something traumatic, they don’t choose it, it is something that happens to them without consent. So everything done in a trauma-informed class is an invitation- there’s almost no commanding language. Oftentimes that is made explicit in the beginning by the teacher, and then reinforced as the class goes on. Statements such as “Perhaps you might try...” or “If you’d like you can...” allow students to make choices that they feel comfortable with, and thus rectify a sense of agency that was damaged during a traumatic event.
A trauma-informed practice is also not goal-oriented in the same way a standard class is. In a standard class, the teacher might be offering an apex-pose model, which involves working up to a specific pose by doing exercises and poses that directly relate to that pose. For example, if the apex pose is a deep back bend like Chakrasana (wheel pose), the teacher will likely engage smaller backbends, open the shoulders, and lengthen the quads, all in preparation for the apex pose. While this model can still be used for a trauma- informed class, the point or objective isn’t about the apex pose itself, but rather about providing opportunities to connect and be present with the breath and the body. The disembodiment that often comes with a traumatic experience often lasts far longer than the event itself. By offering moments to notice any physical sensations in the legs, or to try breathing into your back and feel it press against the floor, etc, gives folx the opportunity to form a new relationship with their bodies.
For me, when I think of healing work, I am thinking of whatever upsets one’s current conditioning and opens pathways to an expansive and authentic heart and mind, or in Buddhism the heart-mind. While we have to be mindful of our limits and capacities, the opportunity to be challenged or to be in discomfort is often how we chip away at the trauma thats built itself up around our beings. It’s not always comfortable work, but it’s necessary work.
In your experience, what people/groups benefit from a trauma-informed approach to yoga?
Literally everyone! I say this because everyone has trauma. That trauma looks very, very different from person to person, of course. I don’t believe it’s possible to be a human in the world and not have trauma, be it from this lifetime, familial, or ancestral. Oftentimes I think people hear “trauma” and their mind moves towards a very specific place, usually towards physical trauma of some kind. But for so many folx, a lot of our trauma is emotional and ancestral, and arises in how we do or don’t communicate, create boundaries, and care for ourselves, amongst other things. So in a trauma-informed class when there are choices given, it can be quite difficult for folx to decide what to do because they’ve only ever been told or commanded. Or because the pace can often be slower in a trauma-informed class, folx who are used to hiding behind busy work days and overloaded schedules often find that moving slowly or being in silence makes them anxious. Or if you grew up in a very rigid household where play and pleasure were not acceptable, then the suggestion to “do what feels good in your body” can be a completely foreign concept, and deeply uncomfortable to engage with. For me, when I think of healing work, I am thinking of whatever upsets one’s current conditioning and opens pathways to an expansive and authentic heart and mind, or in Buddhism the heart-mind. While we have to be mindful of our limits and capacities, the opportunity to be challenged or to be in discomfort is often how we chip away at the trauma thats built itself up around our beings. It’s not always comfortable work, but it’s necessary work.
What groups in particular are you working with? What challenges are they facing? What is unique about their circumstances?
Currently I teach a wide range of adults, Hasidic Jewish women, and high school students, and their challenges are quite different. My Hasidic clients are extremely active and busy people who have much of the same hurried nature as most New Yorkers. This often results in a lot of physical tightness in the body, particularly in the calves, feet, and shoulders. The demand on their time is such that my time with them is probably the slowest-moving of their entire week. Thus, I always make it a point to start and end in stillness, with a focus on the breath- an opportunity to engage their parasympathetic nervous systems, find ease in the body, and practice being present in the current moment.
With high school students, however, their challenges have a wider range- they’re physically exhausted from lack of sleep, but are also some of the most stressed and anxious people I’ve encountered. For many, home life may not be the most stable, and they often feel an immense amount of pressure from school, guardians, and society to accomplish a very specific idea of success, one that usually leaves them depleted and riddled with self-doubt. Then you consider hormonal changes, and peer pressure, and it’s easy to understand where their lack of grounding arises from. My work with students has a lot to do with introducing them to being present with their body- noticing sensations, sounds, and what physical reactions might occur with various emotions. As their relationship to and understanding of their bodies strengthens, they also then cultivate a greater sense of agency for how they meet the circumstances of their lives. Using breath and body awareness, they learn to calm their anxiety, and make grounded, thoughtful choices.
What accomplishments do you get to witness that people in other fields might not notice or understand the importance of?
I get to see people become more embodied and more aware of their bodies over time- they begin to notice their own physical patterning and “wake up” various parts of their bodies and minds that had no liveliness or awareness prior. This is very exciting for me. When I first start working with a client, the body is often like one big mass that moves around- the left arm lifts and the whole left side of the body moves every which way along with it, but the client may not even realize. Over time, students are able to cultivate a very intimate and nuanced understanding of the inner workings of the various parts of the body. By bringing an intentional awareness practice to the experience of movement, you are also strengthening your awareness generally. I am speaking very physically here, but as I tell my students, yoga is a metaphor for life. In yoga there’s something called the koshas, which are 5 layers or sheaths of the body, from the physical to the spiritual. As we become more connected to our physical body, which is the first layer, it has the opportunity to soften and open, and thus make the way to move even further inwards and to connect spiritually.
It’s equally beneficial for lowering blood pressure, increasing muscle strength, gaining a greater sense of mind-body awareness, and learning to be with difficult emotions.
What additional types of care do you see as being helpful to people looking to heal holistically from trauma?
If the resources are available, therapy is so lovely! Especially if the therapist introduces mindfulness practices that allow clients to have tools outside of sessions. Being able to speak about our trauma, outside of our own minds, allows us to better understand it. Being able to process our experience in some external way allows us to release the trauma in whatever way we’re holding it- silence, physical illness, muscular blockages. It also brings the experience from the individual to the collective, which fosters support, connectivity, and community, which is so important. Silence can occur because we feel alone, or shame around our experiences, and we tell ourselves the story that no one has experienced what we have, or that no one will understand, and it’s very much a Western thing to suffer in isolation like we often do. One of my favorite teachers/authors, Malidoma Patrice Somé of the Dagara tribe in Burkina Faso, speaks passionately about community being necessary for healing. Community is the reflection needed during difficult times and transitions that support both the strength of making it through (elders) as well as reasoning behind continued perseverance (youth). There is an acknowledgement of the collective nature of our healing- that by healing myself, I create both space and an example for others on their path to healing as well.
What effect do you see on/in people’s faith or spirituality as a result of their practice?
This is actually a more challenging space for me to see change/growth. Because most of my current work is with Hasidic Jewish women and children in public school, I have to approach the subject of yoga and meditation from a more secular or anatomical/physical lense. I can and often bring in universal themes, such as compassion or self-love, but even mentioning the word “faith” can be problematic in both of those spaces. The affect I do see, however, is the deepening connection and understanding of the physical body, which is a critical stepping point towards deeper connection spiritually. What I learn through my Buddhist meditation practice, for example, is that it is because of our manifestation in these human bodies that we are able to have complex thought and experience spirituality and spiritual growth/healing in the way that we do. We wouldn’t be able to do it without a physical form, and so even just the simple awareness we practice as we move through postures or exercises, is in itself a part of spirituality.
Spiritual direction involves caring for and attending to the whole of a person. Our emphasis is on the soul or spirit of a person and so we often spend time developing habits of prayer and contemplation that facilitate deep connection between our experiences of the Divine and our conscious mind. In some cases however, and particularly when serving survivors of trauma, engaging the body is the best way to help make those connections.
Physically moving, both as a gentle state during a direction session and as spiritual discipline, can help relieve symptoms within a person as they work towards healing connections within a fragmented self. Trauma is often held in the body as the physical responses of fight, flight, or freeze become stuck. These excesses of hormones and neurotransmitters become literal blockages that make it difficult for survivors to access some of their higher brain functions and leave them vulnerable to unpredictable instinctive responses. Including tailored movements into direction sessions can help directees connect more deeply with their own experiences and help them to remain grounded and present while doing so.
Deciding how to engage the body in spiritual direction is a wonderful opportunity to discuss with your directees what helps them in very practical ways. For some, taking a leisurely walk while you talk and pray together may be the only chance in their busy life to be outside and moving. For some it may be needing to pause at regular intervals to check in with their extremities. Literally feeling their feet inside their shoes, wiggling their fingers, or shaking their head. Some may find that beginning or ending a session with gentle stretching helps them to release anxiety. Others may find it most helpful to have something to do during the session such as coloring -which helps coordinate the hemispheres of the brain- using a sand tray or other tactile meditation device.
Our emphasis is on the soul or spirit of a person and so we often spend time developing habits of prayer and contemplation that facilitate deep connection between our experiences of the Divine and our conscious mind. In some cases however, and particularly when serving survivors of trauma, engaging the body is the best way to help make those connections.
Of course, we directors are people too with our own physical limitations and comforts. Be honest about what your limitations are and find something that works for both of you. There are many kinetic meditations that could be practiced by your directee alone such as using a candle to focus on, measured pacing, taking a trauma-informed yoga class, or changing postures regularly during prayer. Some directees even find it helpful to create choreographed movements to accompany a personal lament or prayer or a favorite passage of scripture to help them connect with it. Be open to what works for your directee.
In a broader sense, any physical activity or expression can be viewed and treated as a spiritual discipline. In everything we do from washing dishes, to exercising, to laughing at a comedy, there is an opportunity to connect to the Ever-Present-Ever-Loving. How might you encourage your directees to use the activities already built into their lives, those that seem mundane, to be a pathway to connection with the Divine? Allowing even the smallest of physical routines to be a reminder of Love is a powerful way for survivors to connect with themselves and to experience Presence in their bodies in healing ways.
Recommended Further Reading:
The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD From the Inside Out, by Susan Pease Banitt
101 Trauma Informed Interventions, by Linda Curran
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, by Adele Calhoun
Erin Jantz received her Master’s Degree in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from the Institute for Spiritual Formation. She also holds a B.A. in developmental psychology and has furthered her education with trainings in trauma care from Boston University and intensives with Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk. She has been practicing spiritual direction since 2012, helped to author ICTG's Spiritual Formation Resource Guide, and also teaches and speaks on a variety of spiritual formation topics. Erin lives in Southern California with her husband and their four marvelous children.
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION BLOG
Expanding understanding and best practices for holistic health in the context of spiritual direction.