Once in a while, an experience comes your direction that promises to stick with you, a lesson dressed in a purple coat. Since teaching at the Healing Hands Intensive in Boston in May, I have been wearing that coat, warmed by the process. This conference was envisioned by Brecken Chinn Swartz, a professor who many years ago adopted a young Chinese girl who had been badly burned. Through her daughter’s healing, Swartz began working with other traumatized people. Her work includes this conference—a daylong series of sessions offered by massage practitioners, Tai Chi instructors, body centered psychotherapists, contemplative music teachers and chronic pain specialists. Brecken said she titled the conference “Healing Hands” because trauma survivors often talk about people being afraid to touch them, even though touch is often the key to long-term recovery.
For my part in the conference, Brecken asked me to teach a yoga class and then talk about yoga and healing. After the opening drum circle, officiated by the talented drum facilitator Cornell Coley, the conference participants chose from a range of healing sessions. In the classroom that had been transformed into a temporary yoga studio, I watched as people found their spots – a woman I had spoken with before the session who said she not been able to find a yoga class where she felt like she fit in before took a place at the back of the room; a six- year-old who chose a mat close to me, her mother looking relieved when I said that, of course, children were welcome; a buff burn survivor in her forties who clearly knew a lot about yoga; a quiet man whose age would have been hard for me to guess who took a mat in the front, and several others.
We started with people saying their names and one body celebration—a ritual I have used for a long time. Their answers on this morning—my eyes, my legs, that I am alive. Our practice went quickly, the music I had chosen—Snatum Kaur, David Darling, Miles Davis, Edo and Jo—seeming to work well, its cadence quiet, the melodies sweet. We did warm up poses together and many balancing poses in a circle, holding each other so we could stand in tree together, making a forest. When we got to the time in the practice when people were doing bridge or shoulder stand, I asked the fit burn survivors if she wanted help “getting up” into sarvangasana. She nodded as I helped to hold her shins up to the sky, her skin immediately reminding me of my grandmother’s—so soft, delicate, new, the look between us, a shared intimacy.
After the practice, we sat in a circle together, the time in the session where Brecken had requested that I say some about working with trauma survivors. Except somehow, I knew to say very little, instead asking them what they would want the world to know about working with them. The woman who had told me she felt out of place in yoga said she didn’t know it was possible to feel community in a class – that it made all the difference to her. Other people nodded their heads, a few commenting on feeling connected to each other. And then the shoulder stander spoke: “I have burns on over 90 percent of my body, third degree burns. I wasn’t supposed to be here. I was supposed to be dead. So, what I would say to people is, never let anyone tell you, you can’t do something. Because you can. And I am.” There were no words for a bit after she spoke, an awed silence gracing the circle.
After the session she and I talked some as she told me that since the burn, she has been practicing chair yoga with the “old folks” and is on her way to the World Burn Conference in Anaheim to teach chair yoga. Today, she tells me, is the first time since her accident six years ago that she has done yoga on the floor, without the chair. I told her that from everything I witnessed, chair yoga is great but she has moved way beyond that—nothing should stop her from yoga on the mat. She had done thread the needle, bridge, shoulder stand, down dog, balancing stick, and many other difficult poses. She was beaming. So was I. I came away thinking about how only one woman explicitly talked about her trauma. Sometimes people have words. Sometimes they don’t. What mattered was getting to be together.