Medicine Walk: Wisdom of the Four Directions—June 23, 2012

Green woods beckon on a medicine walkFinding Healing and Guidance in Nature

June 23, 2012 – Vancouver

“Journeys start from where we are. Everything starts from where we are. Where we are is where we’re supposed to be.” – Evelyn Eaton, The Shaman and the Medicine Wheel

This day-trip in the North Shore mountains, just 20 minutes from downtown Vancouver, and 10 minutes from the Commercial Drive area, will teach you tools and ceremonies for working in nature to access your own inner guidance and the guidance that nature can bring. This could be in the form of answers to questions, deepening connection with the greater mystery, healing, letting go, accepting, or gaining new strength. Whatever you need is available to you, and can be reflected to you through the mirror of nature. You will learn different ways of working with the four directions to access this guidance.

A small medicine wheel for sending healing prayersOur ceremony will begin with setting our intentions for the day and creating a sacred container for learning by creating an altar together. You will learn the four shields, an ancient model of understanding the psyche of humans and nature. Each shield corresponds to a cardinal direction, with its own colours, textures, seasons, stages of life, and qualities of true nature.

Then you’ll explore what you’ve learned on a solo medicine walk. After brief instruction, you will go on your own solo walk in nature, seeking guidance from our dear earth mother and her diverse creatures. Following in the footsteps of our ancestors from many cultures and traditions, this solo time includes fasting from food, human company, and human-built shelters. At the end of the day we will break our fast together with brown-bag lunches while we share our stories with each other around the circle.

See here for an account of last year’s inspirational medicine walk by the rushing Seymour River.

9:00 AM to 5:00 PM Saturday
We’ll meet at a location in the Commercial Drive area and carpool from there. Bring your lunch. Wear comfortable shoes for walking on hiking trails, as part of the day will be spent wandering through the woods by the Seymour River.

Cost: $50 (free for those who wish to participate if the fee is an obstacle)
To register, please fill in the online Registration Form. For payment information, see Fees.

Touchiness – in more ways than one

To touch or not to touchYak Mountain - one of the mysteries of nature

I recently had the great good fortune to attend a Judith Hanson Lasater workshop on the sacroiliac joint. Judith is a world-renowned yoga teacher and author of numerous books, including one of my faves, Yoga Abs: Moving from Your Core. I was surprised to arrive at the training site and discover more than 50 teacher-students in the room. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as Judith is a wonderful teacher and obviously many of the yoga teachers and serious yoga students in Vancouver would want to come to learn from her.

I learned some fascinating information about our natural spinal alignment and how that impacts the most basic poses such as Mountain pose. I will write about that later. What I would like to discuss today is the respect with which Judith created a safe space for her students. Although we were all experienced yoga practitioners, and many of us were teachers, Judith did not make any assumptions about touching each other. She created a ground rule about asking for permission to touch, and she followed this rule herself every time she demonstrated a principle of alignment or subtle adjustment on a student. Similarly, she coached us to ask for permission to touch our partner when we worked in pairs. It seems very obvious to me that this is a foundation for creating safety in a classroom. I was very happy to see that one of the foremost teachers in the North American yoga community promotes this basic courtesy.

In several recent Yoga Outreach trainings that I attended, including their foundational teacher training and a course on teaching trauma-sensitive yoga, the YO teachers explained that when working with students in the populations that Yoga Outreach teaches, touch is rarely appropriate. Many of the students in Yoga Outreach classes in prisons, mental health facilities, women’s shelters, addiction treatment centres, and so on, have experienced physical trauma in their lives, such as physical or sexual abuse. When someone’s boundaries have been trespassed in this way, it can be difficult to say no to touch, even when gently asked by a caring yoga teacher. This is one of the reasons that touch is not advised. Another reason is that any kind of touch can inadvertently re-traumatize a student. Even a word or tone of voice can be re-traumatizing to someone who has experienced abuse or other forms of trauma.

Even in a mainstream yoga class, it is usual, though not universal, for teachers to request permission to touch before they make an adjustment. Often they will make a statement at the beginning of class about the possibility of touching, and ask students to indicate if they are not comfortable with this.

I must be like one of those people who are allergic to cats, whom the cats love to come and rub up against. I don’t feel comfortable receiving physical adjustments in a yoga class. If the teacher is moving around the classroom and making adjustments it makes me feel wary and on edge. I like the teacher to stay at the front of the room where I can keep an eye or her or him! Even if the teacher is someone I know well and have had many classes with, I still feel uncomfortable about being touched. I am very sensitive both physically and energetically, and others’ touch leaves an imprint that I continue to feel long after the touch has occurred. I don’t like it.

So you would think I would have learned by now that for some reason my discomfort with touch seems to call out like a beacon for teachers to come and touch me! Yes, I finally have learned that this is likely to occur, and I’ve thought of a strategy to deal with it. But the learning didn’t come easy.

In January I attended a class at a location I was thinking of teaching at. I was there to participate as a student while getting a feel for the location, which was in the Downtown Eastside in the back room of an organization that offers yoga classes to DTES residents as an adjunct to health services that they provide. I’d never been there before, and I’d never met the yoga teacher. I have to admit I wasn’t 100% comfortable with this scene. Being in the DTES is a bit challenging for me, and attending a class with DTES residents was scary. Although I must say, the women who attended the class seemed like ordinary, high-functioning individuals and not at all different from students in other classes I’ve attended, except that they were a bit older than the average student in a yoga studio.

Nonetheless, I felt a bit on the hyper-vigilant side as students came in. The teacher turned off the light in the room, so there was only dim light coming down a hallway from the front room. This made me feel uncomfortable, but it seemed to be what the other students were used to. The teacher began the class late, and did not remark on this with an apology, but perhaps not being too vigilant about time was intended to make students who were late feel okay about attending. This was another difference from what I’m accustomed to, because usually being punctual about time is a way of respecting students’ schedules and setting clear boundaries for the class. I didn’t mind it beginning late, but the teacher also ended the class quite late, and to me that is disrepectful of the students’ time.

I don’t know, I suppose all these things were the conventions the teacher had established after founding the class there and teaching it for 3 years. But to me it was as if I had entered some weird Twilight Zone where all expectations are blown away. I was doing my best to deal with the norms of the class, and when the teacher began teaching, I was very impressed with her skill as a teacher. She had prepared a lesson about cleansing out the digestive system after over-indulging on the holidays, and had a second theme about protecting the joints when extending limbs. Wow! I was impressed.

So I was participating in the class, and exploring the subtleties of inner perception that the teacher drew my attention to. I was really getting a lot out of the class, and it seemed like the other students were too. Then we were all in child’s pose, and the teacher began moving around the room. Uh-oh. I noticed she was approaching various students, but couldn’t really see what was going on since my face was on the mat. And, in case you are not familiar with child’s pose, my ass was in the air. It is a very vulnerable pose. In the trauma-sensitive training they advised to use extreme caution about putting students into this pose, because it can trigger trauma. Think about it! Yet here the teacher was, going around the room and approaching students from the rear while they were in this extremely vulnerable pose.

Still, I didn’t dream that she was going to touch me. We had never met before. I had not granted her permission to touch me. She hadn’t said anything about touch at the beginning of the class. I felt uneasy as I sensed her approaching my mat. Then she did it–she bent over and placed her hands on my kidneys–one on either side of my waist. I turned towards her to say don’t do that, and she removed her hands and moved away before I had the chance to say anything. But the imprint of her hands remained for the rest of the class. I felt violated, and this incident did retraumatize me.

At the time, I was trying to cope, and mindful of the fact that I was supposed to be teaching there soon. I felt I had to get along with the teacher, and go along with what was happening. Big mistake. I over-rode my own instincts in order to be nice and go along, instead of shifting out of the pose and looking after myself. I wanted to deal with this maturely!

At the end of the class I waited for an opportunity to speak privately with the teacher. After complimenting her on the class, I explained to her that I hadn’t wanted her to touch me and that in trauma-sensitive yoga trainings that I have attended they teach that touching students is not appropriate. She did not apologize for touching me or express any concern about how her touch had impacted me. I guess this was new information to her and she didn’t understand how what was obviously a good intention could leave a bad impression.

Unfortunately for me, I learned the hard way that I have to set clear and definite boundaries even if there is no easy opportunity to do so. From now on, if I ever attend a yoga class again, I will be sure to speak to the teacher before the class begins to make it clear I don’t want to be touched. Yoga is supposed to be healing, not harmful, yet this incident was very distressing to me. I later experienced a panic attack when I was out for a run and remembering the class, and I ended up having to go to a trauma therapist to de-activate the triggered event of being held around the waist and physically beaten.

I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s new novel, The Novice. He writes about a woman who responded to extreme injustice and physical violence with equanimity and magnanimity towards her aggressors. Clearly, I have a long way to go towards healing and being a spiritually enlightened being. Even now, I feel resentful towards the yoga teacher, and even towards my trauma therapist, who was supposed to have helped me deal with this trauma already! Although I am sure the yoga teacher meant no harm, I am still angry. And underneath the anger, I am hurt that she did not care how I felt, or admit she had done anything wrong. As always with events that impact us strongly, there is still more for me to understand about what happened that day.


A father’s forgiveness

Me & DadI keep meaning to get back to the story of my first vision fast, but today I feel inspired to tell you about my second vision fast. Did you ever see the wonderful Japanese-Icelandic film Cold Fever? It tells the story of a Japanese man who feels reluctantly obligated to travel to Iceland to perform a mourning ritual at the place where his parents died in a river accident during their trip to Iceland 7 years before. This movie was very inspiring to me, and in 2001, the spring after my father died, my family held a private ceremony to scatter my father’s ashes in the Horsefly River. We sang Amazing Grace on the hillside overlooking my mother’s ranch, and then walked single-file to the river, each holding a candle. We released his ashes into the river, and poured in some of his favourite vodka. The candles bobbed on the water, floating with the current until one by one they were extinguished. I was very moved that my mother and four siblings were each willing to participate in this nature ceremony that I had created, and each brought their own unique contribution to add to the ceremony.

But mourning a parent can be a long process, and when I set out to do my second vision fast, in 2006, I still had many unresolved feelings about my father and our relationship. I was still mourning him, and seeking some kind of peace that eluded me. My father was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1998, after driving into a ditch when his vision blacked out. He gathered the family together in Kelowna to tell us the news, and had an operation soon after. Luckily, he lived for two more years after the operation, before the tumour grew into different parts of his brain and took his life. This gave us time to spend together and make peace with the past as much as we were able to, each one of us. I know my father sought forgiveness for his failings as a parent, and he asked each of his children for this forgiveness. I thought I had given it to him already, but there are many hidden places in the psyche, and they reveal themselves in their own time.

Vision fast group on the slickrockMy father was not on my mind as I prepared for the vision fast in 2006. I was travelling to Boulder, Colorado with my friends Dorrie and Marvin, and we were going to rendezvous with the rest of the group in Parachute, Colorado, about 4 hours west of Denver. I had been fooling around on the monkey bars at the park near my childhood home a few days before leaving, wrenched my shoulder, and was in severe pain as the trip began. It seemed the purpose of the trip for me was learning to accept feeling helpless and let others help me. When we arrived at the slickrock basecamp in the high mountain desert, I couldn’t carry my pack or set up my tarp. For someone who is fiercely independent and likes to do everything herself, this was very difficult! One of the members of the group was a doctor, and he advised me to take ibuprofen every 4 hours, and double the dose I would normally have taken. Another participant was a sales rep for Motrin! She had plenty of tablets with her, and gave me enough to last for the remainder of the trip. The apprentice helped me set up my tarp, and during the days of preparation for the solo, I received incredible support from the entire group.

Me & DorrieWe all selected our solo spots, and it turned out my friends Dorrie and Marvin were each nearby, though out of sight and hearing. I was surrounded with gentle sweet holding support. And once on the solo, nature took over, guiding me to do exactly what was needed. Originally my intention for the fast had been to deal with my fears, because during my first fast, that is what I was faced with, over and over. But for this fast, Being had something else in mind for me. I spent the first few days laying in the sun, fully clothed and with every inch of my body covered in cloth or mosquito netting to keep out the biting gnats. As I lay there, helpless, and baked, my soul was infused with the warm sun, the delicate precious desert flowers, the sound of Marvin’s drumming at dusk, the constant drone of gnats. Water, peeing, dozing. The crisp hours before sunrise and at dusk, before the gnats were out, I lay cozy in my sleeping bag. Letting myself rest and be, a vision of a ceremony began to take shape. Halfway through the third day, I knew what I needed to do.

Marvin putting on sunscreenI wrote my father a letter, telling him about the things he had done that had hurt me, and that I believed made it impossible for me to have a committed, enduring romantic relationship with a man. It is strange how the sharpness of painful incidents can resonate over the decades, outweighing the much more constant facts of Dad going to work to design logging mills to feed the family, and taking us on camping trips every summer, and mowing the lawn, and teaching me to play crib and chess. As my thoughts turned to what was unresolved with my father, it was the painful events that still cried out for resolution. In spite of years of therapy and inner work, layers of imprints shaped my soul and were not letting me be free.

Then there were the last few years of my father’s life, and the regrets I had accumulated over not being there for him as I would have wished to be. I took all of these thoughts, memories, regrets, and walked them out on a sandy path 20 yards long, in the late afternoon of the third day of my solo. Back and forth I walked barefoot on the sand, as the shadows of the scrubby juniper bushes lengthened. I spoke to my father as I walked, telling him everything I could think of. The time he asked what we did when I was young—because of the tumour he couldn’t remember the early days of our family—and I said we watched TV. A moment of anger because I could not forgive him for the abuse. How I wished I could have opened up to him in that moment, and had a real conversation about how it was when I was young, and the fullness of our family life back then. The good memories of him wheeling me and my sister around the yard in the wheelbarrow of grass Me & Dad, 2000cuttings, him making loud exclamations of peril and me and Kim screaming with laughter. I told him all the memories, good and bad. For hours I did this walking meditation in conversation with my father. A one-way conversation, but I felt he was listening. I told him everything that still hurt my heart. I talked until there was nothing left to say, and it was nearly dark. The sand had grown cool under my feet.

Feeling quiet and empty, I moved off the sandy path I had made, back to my solo spot, where I intended to carry out the next part of the ceremony—the burning of the letter and letting go of the hurt and resentment I had carried all these years. But the spirits of the ceremony had other ideas! The wax-coated waterproof matches I had brought with me in my pack would not light. Over and over I struck them, but not a spark or sizzle of cooperation would they give. Time for Plan B. A less dramatic but equally effective symbolic act was to bury the words and all the feelings that they contained. So I dug a hole in the dirt. I ripped the letter into tiny pieces, and buried them in the hole. Invoking the spirits of the four directions, of the land, of my ancestors, for support and witnessing, I spoke my intention of letting go of my anger, bitterness, and resentment towards my father. Kneeling there in the darkness on the cool earth, I felt my father’s hand gently brush against my head. I knew he heard and forgave me, and that all that was left in his heart was love for me. I felt the gentleness of his unbreakable loving connection to me, and I cried. Shards of blue and white confetti light rose into the sky, releasing the pain with my tears. My softened heart opened to the vast, personal warm holding of my father’s love.