I’m standing in a circle of 30-some people in a rustic yoga studio, peering through oversize windows at the lush, soggy woods outside—and trying my absolute best not to dissociate. It’s the last day of a five-day Yoga, Purpose, and Action leadership training with the yoga and social justice organization Off the Mat, Into the World. Cofounders Seane Corn and Suzanne Sterling, along with facilitator RW Alves, are reading self-identifying statements aloud, such as, “If you have family and friends who are incarcerated...” “If you or someone you know has had an eating disorder...” And “If you have an advanced degree...”
The exercise, called the Ally Circle, goes like this: When you hear something that applies to you, you step into the middle of the circle and notice who else is there and who isn’t. It feels a little bit like an emotionally charged, high-stakes version of that game called Never Have I Ever. But instead of earning cachet by admitting to having sex in a public space or smoking a joint before high school, I’m about to reveal the things I’m most ashamed of. My heart is pounding, and my thoughts are on fire: I don’t want these people, many of whom were strangers a week ago, to know any more about me. I inadvertently label some of the statements “good” and others “bad.” (And then noticing my own biases and judgments, I feel guilty about them.) I warm up with the questions about higher education and eating disorders. When I hear them, I take tentative steps toward the middle of the circle and realize that while I may be in the minority with my master’s degree, exposure to eating disorders is way too common. I feel for those in the circle with me. Some of the people who step up next, because they have family or friends incarcerated, take me by surprise, and I check in again on my assumptions, ashamed of stereotypes I wasn’t aware I held.
Then there’s a question about sexual abuse. It’s framed mildly enough—“You or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse or assault”—but I know that when I step forward, I’m talking about me. Fewer people than I expect are in the middle, and I’m desperately looking for someone to make eye contact with so I don’t feel so alone. I step back and my mind leaves the room for a few minutes, staring at the trees, remembering painful details from that traumatic event. Then I’m back, just in time to hear, “You have been diagnosed with a mental illness.” The statement feels harsh, but I want to be someone who is open and risk-taking. I don’t want to overthink it. I want to own my depression. And as soon as I step forward, I regret it. I try to look around at who’s there and who isn’t, but my eyes are leaking uncontrollably. I’m aware of my tensely contorted mouth and clenched jaw. Mostly I’m looking down, this time afraid of meeting someone eye to eye.
I step back and totally check out, retreating inward. I feel the space between my ribs and pelvis shut down and imagine an infinite, dark, churning sky filling my torso. There is no ground beneath that void. I feel light, like I might float away. I am in free fall. All of a sudden I understand that this is what vulnerability feels like, for me.
I can’t remember any of the statements that come after that.
The truth about trauma
The Ally Circle is meant to crush assumptions, foster trust, and show that compassion can help us connect across differences. Suzanne explains why it’s part of the training: “Our work with Off the Mat is built on unpacking and taking accountability—for our familial or ancestral wounds and the systemic patterns of oppression that impact us or that we are complicit in—so that we can cultivate the kind of activism or service in the world that is informed by a sense of solidarity and empathy, as opposed to any form of saviorism. We have seen incredible projects come out of this level of vulnerability, self-awareness, and community-building.”
The whole training takes you on a journey. It starts with personal introspection, and then you learn how to transform your wounds into gifts. The experience has felt raw, like the beginning of a new phase in which I’m demolished, then slowly rebuilt. Life has been stressful, and I’m starting to see that my coping mechanisms are finally catching up with me. Over time, I have constructed a rigid, heavy, perfectly measured frame, full of right angles, on a slippery and subsiding foundation. After decades of tectonic shifts, the integrity of the I-beams is in question, and the walls are starting to crack.
My M.O., for as long as I can remember, has been to serve—others, a mission, the planet, humanity. And now I get it. Focusing on serving others has been a brilliant strategy to keep me in my comfort zone and away from the pain of dealing with my own shit.
Seane connects the dots for me in her book, Revolution of the Soul: When you have undigested trauma—when you haven’t been able to talk, scream, or shake it off—“any new situation you experience that’s even mildly uncomfortable produces a biochemical reaction akin to the first trauma. To feel better, to shift energy, you may find yourself reactive.” And, as she adds at the training: “If you’re trying to get unmet needs met, your activism (or ‘selfless’ service) can cause harm to you and others.”
So, the training asks you to dig deep and face demons. And in doing so it allows you to show up and care for and celebrate others. What I learned that week in the woods was that compassion—for myself and everyone else—is the key ingredient of service. That I need to take care of my own house, employing forgiveness for all of the ways I feel guilty, ashamed, scared, and unsure. That I don’t have to wait until I’m completely healed (that’s a lifelong process) to re-enter the world, but that I do have to stay present to the hard work of awareness and personal transformation. I need to rebuild a frame that can flex with and serve as a conduit for collective anger, grief, pain, and joy. I want to be able to stand in the middle of the circle with vulnerability and still be there to catch someone else’s glance, helping them find ground when they are in the wild throes of free fall.
Try this trauma-informed yoga sequence from Off the Mat, Into the World cofounder Hala Khouri.