DIGITAL EXTRA: This is an extension of the interview that first appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Yoga Journal. Here, learn more about her journey to a career in somatic therapy and trauma-informed yoga.
SEANE CORN: Alright, so the first thing I’m curious about is when did you actually start practicing yoga and how long before you started teaching
HALA KHOURI: I started practicing yoga toward the end of college. The first time I actually took a class and I actually hated it because it was too slow for me. It brought up a lot of anxiety for me. I couldn’t tolerate it. I went back to my hour on the treadmill with my headphones and my book. But I came back to it after I graduation. I started taking Iyengar Yoga classes, ironically.
SC:What brought you back?
HK: I got diagnosed with cervical dysplasia—cancer cells on my cervix. I was 24 at the time and I was reading Caroline Myss’s book Anatomy of the Spirit and I was making all these connections around the second chakra, and my relationships, and my ability to set boundaries for myself, and it was a really profound time for me where I started to think about my body really differently than I ever had. Prior to that—I think you know this secret of mine—I used to be an aerobics instructor.
SC: It’s my favorite image in the entire world—you in a headband and very high-cut body suit and leg warmers.
HK: And a belt. And lip gloss…By then I was a personal trainer and my body was really something that I was trying to sculpt and mold to make up for all the sugar I was binging on. When I got the diagnosis, I realized there was a difference between being fit and being healthy. I wasn’t eating a healthy diet, and my exercise regime was all very aggressive. I had a month before I had to have any surgeries or procedures and in that month I started practicing only yoga. I stopped doing anything aggressive. I shifted to a totally organic vegan diet. And within that month of cleansing and fasting and healing, yoga started to represent to me a shifting relationship of what it meant to be healthy. So I found yoga when I actually had to try to heal from cancer and it was quite profound.
See alsoLilias Folan: Cancer Is a Guru
SC: So when you did start to teach were you just teaching Asana or did you start to weave in some of these trauma-related themes or did that come later?
HK: I started to weave in the themes. Way before I ever did a yoga teacher training my fitness classes turned into secret yoga classes. I started putting on ambient music during spinning class and having people breathe, meditate, find a Drishti. I would take them off the bikes, take their shoes off, and do some yoga stretches. I told them they couldn’t tell anybody. I used to call myself an undercover yoga teacher. I didn’t feel qualified to call it yoga—I hadn’t had the proper training. But I knew it wasn’t just fitness. So by the time I started teaching yoga, I was weaving it in fairly early on, not in the trauma-informed way that I do now, but definitely in my own way.
When we think about trauma we usually think about really big things like a car accident, abuse, or war, but trauma lives on a spectrum. We’re shaped by the big ones and the little ones. When
SC: How did you come to the knowledge of trauma you have today and what inspired you to bring it to the mat?
HK: I studied Somatic Experiencing which is a body-based psychotherapy that addresses trauma and I learned the language that explained everything that I knew to be true about yoga. Yoga is a tool for self-regulation, and when we get in touch with our sensations [through yoga] it allows us to get in touch with unexpressed emotions and impulses and we can move that through our body. That language informed all of my teaching, and I found that it really resonated and was a helpful tool for other teachers.
SC: Can you explain what trauma is?
HK: On a very simple level, a traumatic event is anything that overwhelms our capacity to cope and respond. It leaves us feeling helpless, hopeless, and out of control. When we think about trauma we usually think about really big things like a car accident, abuse, or war, but trauma lives on a spectrum. We’re shaped by the big ones and the little ones. When we don’t have tools and resources to deal with traumatic events, they impact our physiology; they impact our bodies. When we’re not able to get ourselves to safety or say what we need to say, tramautic energy gets stuck in the body.
SC: Then you can either get overwhelmed, reactive, shut down, turn to drugs or alcohol or TV, or take a moment, breathing, recognizing the sensation in your body, taking responsibility for those impulses, and using your practice to get centered and make a healthier choice. Rage is a familiar sensation, acceptance not so much perhaps?
HK: Yeah, and for some people it isn’t rage but sadness, or guilt, right?Like for me guilt is the default emotion that also paralyzed me. Whatever it is, if it’s rage, guilt, sadness, can we go into it and not let it be an excuse and not bypass those feelings?Go and have a place,where you writethe letter, hit the pillow, talk to friends, say all that un-PC stuff, and then go and act differently, don’t react. Sometimes I tell my kids, as I’m trying to teach them to be with their big feelings, I say that there’s war, because there are grownups who don’t know how to use their words.
SC: So if we don’t learn how to self-regulate, we can almost guarantee that we will create more trauma because of our unhealed wounds?
HK: I’m really interested in how as we’re in the process of addressing our own individual traumas we start to change the collective narrative. Community is a really big part of it. We can’t do this work in isolation. And often for people who practice yoga or even are committed to healing themselves it can become very individualistic. You can only do so much yoga or acupuncture. But if we really want to be healthy, we have to look at our relationships. It’s a natural extension. This is all backed by the trauma research. We’re social beings, and our nervous systems resonate with each other. It’s really through relationships that healing happens. I’ll often tell my students you know your yoga is getting better when your relationships get better—not when your yoga postures get better. If our relationships get better at an individual level, if our relationships get better on a political level, then maybe, perhaps, possibly peace can be something that’s a real conversation.
SC:Here’s a question people ask me quite often: Why do you care? Why is this so important to you, why are you passionate about social justice and understanding oppression and power and privilege?
HK: On a very base level, I care because if I didn’t I wouldn’t know what would motivate me to be alive quite frankly. To just wake up everyday and do what I do would feel meaningless. Now that I’m raising children, I’m so aware of the world I’m sending them into and of not wanting them to be human beings that perpetuate suffering for others. I’m really aware of how I’m raising them. And because we are so lucky and blessed, they could grow up to be total jerks. So I just don’t want my kids to be jerks.
SC: To learn more about your work—yoga for trauma, social justice, Somatic work—and how to get into it, where should people look?
HK: I have resources on my website HalaKhouri.com. I do teach workshops nationally, but I’ve also created audio versions of the workshops that are available on a sliding scale on the site. So people can just go in and download the lectures.
There’s a handful of people doing trauma-informed yoga training, so they might find something in their community. But of course we’ve created a faculty, who are doing work based in trauma-informed yoga and social justice issues, with Off the Mat, Into the World, and we’re offering trainings and courses. So whether its through Off the Mat or another trauma-informed training, I think that’s a really good place to start. From there, look at what’s needed in your community and how you might engage.