The chair exercise

So. I sat in a chair at yoga today. It was a big deal. I’m talking huge deal. Like, the hugest. I didn’t even know it was a as huge a deal as it turned out to be until afterwards. Are you confused yet? Maybe I should start at the beginning?

I get to yoga early, and take a seat in the waiting area. I’m glad to be early, because on the drive here my mind had been wandering, and I have some notes I want to make for myself before I forget.

I’ve been attempting to practice mindfulness, as the one book on eating issues has suggested. I think I’m doing it wrong. I find it quite boring, and hard to do. Trying to make myself pay attention to the trees and the color of their leaves, the way the steering wheel feels in my hands, the noise my car’s tires make on the road, all of that takes an awful lot of work. Is this what what “normal” people notice in their lives all the time? Is this what it means to to be fully present? If so, it’s really tiring. And boring. I would much rather put my favorite playlist on and crank up my music and sing as loud as I can– tone deaf voice and all. Am I missing the point? And why is it so uncomfortable to pay attention to breathing? Why is that simple act of of focusing of something I must do to survive so threatening to me? I scribble these thoughts down in my notebook. I want to ask Bea about them.

“Hello,” Kris greets me, just as I’m finishing up a last thought.

“Hi,” I grab my stuff, and start to follow her back to the yoga studio, “I didn’t go to the dentist. I had Hubby call me in sick.”

“I had a feeling you weren’t going to make it. Do you just not like going, or is there more to it?” She pauses at the door so I can slip my black ballet flats off. Pretty soon, I’ll be forced to wear something warmer on my feet.

“I’m just really afraid, I had a bad experience with my dentist as a kid, followed by my very first cavity being filled turned into this traumatic thing because the Novocain wore off and I was too timid to say anything. And I don’t like people touching my face.”

“That would more than do it,” she agrees.

We start the by sitting in our chairs, just checking in, chatting. She’s drinking green mango tea, and asks about what flavor tea I have today.

“It’s vanilla something….” I dig through my bag, and pull out two tea bags, “This is vanilla caramel chai, but I also got this white tea that is vanilla apricot cream.” I hand the tea to her, and tell her she can have them to try if she wants.

“Thank you. I have to say I glad I’m not the only one who carries tea around in my bag.”

“I’ve gotten so picky about tea, and only coffee shops really have a good selection. Restaurants really don’t.”

“No, they don’t. So, how are you feeling today?” Kris is sitting flat feet, back straight, good posture.

I’m in my curled up position, knees drawn to my chest, sitting like a kid might. I’m comfy though, relaxed. It’s not a hiding position, not like it can be in therapy. “I’m tired. I didn’t sleep much. I’m more sore than I have been lately, but it’s getting colder out. I’m okay though. I feel pretty good, otherwise.”

“Is everything okay with Kat?”

“Yeah, she’s good. We took her out to rainforest cafe last night. She wanted a pet elephant, so we went on an elephant hunt, had dinner and got a stuffed elephant. She’s very happy,” I smile at the memory of Kat talking to every– and I do mean every– elephant in the gift shop to choose the one that wanted to live with us, “Hubby and I have been fighting lately. That doesn’t help.”

“Fighting with your spouse, that can be so draining, tiring on the body. That alone could be triggering your fibromyalgia to flare up, too.”

I agree with her. We talk about that, and I share how I have gone out of my normal pattern and attempted to talk about the fighting, and to get Hubby to discuss our relationship with me.

“Last night, I did a lot of research on emotionally focused couples therapy. It has imperative data to back up its claims, and is one of the most effective therapies for couples when one partner has been through trauma. So I found a workbook that was available for kindle, downloaded it to our iPad apps, and talked to Hubby about it. He agreed to do the workbook with me.” I’m beaming, I am so happy that I have succeeded in this; not only that I tried a new way of being in a relationship, but that Hubby has chosen to meet me part of the way there. Kris gets that, and she congratulates me on doing things a new way, stepping out of old patterns.

Kris decides that because I’m tired, we should start with some standing poses, to get some energy in me, help me be ready to move for the day.

We begin by standing straight, and raising our arms. We breathe. I like how she talks me through breathing and stretching, how she says I might notice this or that. It feels safe to me. I can’t focus on the breathing, but it’s okay, I don’t feel like I have to.

Kris directs me to keep my right foot forward, and to move my left foot back. It’s a stretch, although I don’t feel it. We bend to place our palms on our chairs.

“What would happen if your moved your right hip back– not moving your foot, or your positioning– and let your left hip move forward just a bit– again not moving your foot or positioning?” Kris is looking at me; I know that part of her job is to make sure I don’t do something that will hurt myself. Being disconnected from my body means I will stretch farther than is maybe good for me, lift things heavier than I should, run or walk farther than my body may want.

I try to do what she has suggested, but I can not feel it. I don’t know if I have done it, or not. I’m confused. I must have a look of confusion on my face, because Kris explains, “If we make sure that our hips are squared, even in a pose like this, it will keep things more stable, and you may build some stability there. Then Dr. B might not have to fix your hips as much. If we can practice being aware of that here, then maybe one day, you can be aware of it out there.”

I try again. What she is saying makes sense. I’m just confused. I don’t feel it. “I don’t know if I’ve done what you have said or not.”

“Could I come over by you and see?” Kris asks. Trauma yoga instructors, even one on one, are very careful not to trigger students by coming too close, and they will never touch you unless it’s a matter of safety, without your permission.

“Sure, please do.”

Kris walks over, and even with my permission to do so, she is careful to stay in my field of vision. “This looks beautiful. Really good, really nice.”

We finish, and repeat on the other side. It should be easy, because I did that one “right.” Only it isn’t quite the same. As soon as we get all the way into the pose, I can feel that my right calf is shaking. I start to panic. This isn’t good. I knew my legs weren’t strong enough to hold my weight, this is why I shouldn’t be here. And the more I am hyper focusing on the feeling in my calf, the more panicked I start to feel. I don’t like feeling things in my body, and this is just too odd a feeling, too new, too weird, too scary.

“Alice? What are you noticing right now?”

It takes me a minute, but finally I mange to share that my right calf is shaking.

“Do you notice a stretch with the shaking?” Kris is still on her yoga mat, still in the pose. She’s not rushing to save me from the imminent collapse of my legs. She must think I okay.

“No. It’s not like that. It’s just shaking. I can’t stop it, it’s not something that has happened before.” I’m staring down at my green yoga mat, and hoping the mat is enough of a cushion for when my legs give out.

“It’s a stretch, a tight spot. Yoga puts our bodies in positions we don’t normally do so otherwise. So we find these spots that hold tension. It’s okay. You are okay.”

I still don’t feel okay. Feeling slightly insane, I manage to get the words out anyway, “Are you sure?”

Kris walks over to me and stands next to me. “What would happen if you moved your right foot forward a little bit?” I try, I really do. But I’m too frozen. “Can I have permission to help you move that foot forward? It might help to take some pressure off your calf.”

I nod, and she helps me move my foot forward. She doesn’t force my foot, but with Kris putting gentle pressure on the side of my foot, I’m able to lift it enough that she can move it and place it where it should be. Immediately the shaking is relieved; it’s still there, but some of it is gone.

Kris wraps up the pose quickly, not rushing, but pretty much we are done in this pose for the day. She asks me how that pose felt.

I head over to get a drink of my tea. “Confusing,” I laugh and she smiles at me, “I have to think about everything you say, like I don’t know my left or right, and then I can’t feel things, so I have no idea if I’m doing them or not.” I realize this is why I feel clumsy so often.

“That makes sense, perfectly. It’s hard to place where your body is in space if your can’t feel it, and that makes it really hard to find your left or right when you are in an unfamiliar and strange body position like a yoga pose. I’d like to do a chair exercise. Your body is strong. You have nice long lean muscles, that are fluid and you have this amazing flexibility. This exercise is really designed to help show you how strong your body is, and how much you can trust your body.”

We sit in our chairs, facing each other. “You might need to scoot more to the edge of your seat, so your knees can be at a ninety degree angle, ankles and knees in line.” Kris suggests, and I move.

“Okay, all you do is swing your arms forward and lift up off your chair just enough so your legs are still bent, and you are still in a seated position,” as she explains, she demonstrates.

I watch. Hmmmm. Swing your arms forward, and lift up into a low chair style squat? I really don’t think my legs, stomach muscles, whatever else, are strong enough to do that.

“Your body is strong, come on. This will show you.” Kris encourages me as I make a false start. After that, I pop up, and I’m doing it– I’m in the chair pose. I’m surprised.

“There you go! Can you feel how strong your body is? That your body can lead and know what to do– to move to get up after you swing your arms and give a subtle signal?”

I stare and nod, I’m still dumb founded. “Yeah….yeah.”

“Now, we are going to lower ourselves back down to sit on our chairs. When you’re ready,” Kris proceeds to give the instructions ending with, “don’t look back as you sit.” She demonstrates, sitting easily.

I stare at her. I’ve never thought about it. I can’t sit back. “Don’t look behind me?”

“Nope, just sit back.”

I’m starting to feel frozen again, anxious, scared. I can’t sit down and not look back. I’m not aware of any thoughts, just that I cant do it.

Kris stands up, demonstrates again. She talks about trusting my body. She reassures me that the chair is right behind me, that it hasn’t moved.

I can feel my breathing become shallow, and panicky. In the back of my mind, I think to myself that I have never noticed how my breathing changes when I get panicked. I really can’t move. I didn’t think about it then, but it was a classic freeze response.

“Okay, Alice, look at me. Let’s try breathing, focus on me, let’s do it together, okay?” Kris has stood back up in the chair position, arms out in front of her, mirroring me.

I manage to nod, and breathe with her. I don’t focus on the breathing, so much, but we breathe. Kris starts to lower herself, and I follow. I don’t make it all the way down though. I had to be less than an inch from the chair; I’m like a child whose feet are right above the floor but continues to insist they can not jump down.

Kris doesn’t bat an eyelash. “You are almost there. The chair hasn’t moved. What would happen if you sat back?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” I’m shaking now, not because I’m tired, but the fight-flight-freeze response that this exercise has triggered.

Kris waits. She gives me space, but she’s there with me. In some ways, this is like being in therapy.

“Just sit back?” Kris nods at me, smiling.

“The chair is there?” Kris nods again.

“Okay.” I take some deep breathes. I think maybe this is a bad idea. Logically, I know the chair is there. But I’m scared. I sit back.

I sit down in the chair.

And start shaking. And breathing shallow, like I’ve run a race and can’t catch my breath. I still have my arms out in front of me. I can’t lower them for some reason. The rest of the panic I had been holding at bay floods me.

“Alice, when you’re ready, let’s lower our arms.” Kris is still sitting in her chair, but I’m not so aware of her. I’m in this weird space of feeling my body, but not feeling all the way present. I’m not sure exactly what is going on with me. I’m more aware of my body’s responses to the fear and panic than I’ve ever been before.

I lower my arms. That’s better, I can hide my face now.

“What would happen if you tried to slow your breathing? Maybe did the ‘snake breathing’?” Kris starts to breathe in, and breathe out. When she breathes out she makes an “ssssss” sound like a hissing snake. It’s a breathing technique that has worked wonders for Kat.

I breathe. I’m so embarrassed. Who behaves this way? This is why I can’t do yoga in a class. I’m a freak. I’m crazy.

“Can you look at me?” I shake my head no. “Okay. I’d like to talk to you about that exercise, would that be okay for you?” Kris is calm, I don’t hear any stress in her voice. I nod at her.

She proceeds to explain that everyone who does that exercise has at least moment of fear, the first time they do it. She says that it’s because we move our bodies forward, never backwards. She explains that even if we logically know that the chair is still there, not being able to look and know for sure is unsettling. “I didn’t know that this would trigger something big in you. As we work together, this can happen. Different yoga poses, different exercises can trigger things for trauma survivors. It will happen, and it’s okay, we will work through it, like we just did.”

I’m listening to her, but I’m unsure. I’m embarrassed. Once I sat down, and realized that she was telling the truth, the chair hadn’t moved, and that what my logical mind had known was correct, I felt relief, followed by stupidity and embarrassment.

“Can you look at me? What would happen if you raised your head up and looked at me?” Kris asks.

“I’m embarrassed,” I tell her.

She tells me about a class she just taught, where they did the same exercise, and all 14 people reacted to the idea of sitting back without looking.

I slowly raise my head and drop my hands from my face. It’s okay. Kris looks the same. She doesn’t look like she thinks I’m crazy. If anything, she looks concerned, but in a way that says she cares, not in a panicked way.

“I’m okay….?” It is a statement with a question at the end. I’m telling Kris I am okay, as much as I am telling myself I am okay. The amazing part is, I really am okay, and I am surprised by this.

Kris nods at me, and offers an encouraging smile, but she waits.

“I’m okay.” The words are stronger this time, and they are a definite statement.

“Do you want to try it again?”

I hesitate, but there really is no question. “Yeah, I do.”

We go through the exercise again. This time, when it’s time to sit back, Kris sits back first, and I watch. I take a deep breath, tell myself the chair is there, look at Kris and see her nod.

I sit back in the chair.

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7 thoughts on “The chair exercise

  1. I love this post! First – congratulations on working through that so well – I am so impressed by your total recall of events and the conversation. That is so hard to do. Second – the fact that you have only just begun your trauma journey and you have accomplished this and stayed in the moment is so much more than I can put into words for you. I have only been able to accomplish this in the last year and I have been on this road a long time. Third – thank you for posting this – it never occurred to me that when I can not feel my body that it could have to do with trauma. I just thought it was normal and never brought it up and I pushed myself through the panic. I’m going to share this post with my therapist. Have a great day, Alice.

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    • Wow. Thank you. 🙂

      1–Writing out the events like this helps me process everything…it’s become my habit to write every night, even if I don’t post what I write.

      2–I don’t know why I was able to stay in the moment with this. I think part of it is I was really, really ready to work through my trauma, and I think the other part is I have a really amazing therapist, and my yoga teacher is really wonderful. I somehow was blessed with the right people in my life to help me through this journey.

      3– I also thought not feeling your body was normal. I’ve been disconnected from my body for most of my life. When I would read descriptions in novels of people feeling their bodies, I thought that was made up…I had no idea that people were supposed to be more connected and present in their body. I didn’t bring it up, my therapist brought it up to me; she really believes in the mind body connection with trauma, and my disconnection was noticeable to her early on.

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  2. Wow! This is fantastic! I wish we had something like that here. What a positive experience. You capture the experience beautifully I feel like I’m there and I know I would have been exactly the same x

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    • Thank you, Penny— you are always so nice to me! 🙂

      I really, really love my trauma yoga. You might have something in your area, it’s hard to say. Trauma sensitive yoga is becoming more popular/known for help in treating PTSD. If you google trauma sensitive yoga + where you live, you might find a teacher or two. You could also find a yoga teacher who does private lesions, and see if they would be willing to learn about trauma sensitive yoga and work with you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my goodness, like who actually gets to work through a freeze response like that!! Awesome.
    In therapy I have had it happen several times but only once when it was so bad and she had me sit with my hands grasping my shoulders/neck. She called it Parasympathetic shock, sounds as yucky as it feels. I don’t remember much though. I have yoga on Sunday! ❤

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    • I never thought about it….but I guess most people don’t ever work a freeze response with a therapist or trained person to help, do they?!?!

      I remember you wrote about her having you sit with your hands grasping your shoulders, and elbows up. I wonder if that was a beginning of working though a freeze response……or something like that?

      Enjoy yoga! I’m so excited you are going! I don’t want to be the crazy yoga girl, but I do feel like adding yoga to my therapy has made such a difference for me, and I really want other people to get to experience the changes I have. 🙂

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