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Mindy Levine on Yoga for Mental Health

Mindy Levine has done many different things throughout her life. She has a masters in education, has opened a NYC restaurant, had an online business, and even written a novel. She has also spent those same years on the yoga mat, as a student and as a facilitator since 2008.

Mindy is trained as a crisis counselor and as a Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga Facilitator. She also studied Polyvagal Theory with Deb Dana and this year will be in a year long study with Bonnie Badenoch, a heart-based training in relational neuroscience for healing trauma. Mindy’s intention is to invite a safe space for clients to share time, movement, and choice-making. Read our interview with her below!

Please tell our readers a little about your yoga journey–how long have you practiced, how did you find yoga, and what made you decide to teach?

I’ve had various careers in my life, but yoga has been the thread, a constancy. I’ve been a student for over 20 years, and I’ve been facilitating since 2008. I took my first training when at a crossroads and thought that perhaps I could be of service. I didn’t teach full-time for a few years, and it’s been a progression toward what I offer now. I think it’s a misconception here in the West that yoga is a time we give ourselves when we unroll a yoga mat. Yoga is a philosophy, a way of living and although I have a yoga journey of teaching, my yoga journey of practice has always been full-time. I’m realizing that more and more as I continue to study and it’s changed the way I facilitate.

How can yoga help with trauma? What are some of the main benefits?

What I offer comes out of 20 years of research out of CFTE (Center for Trauma and Embodiment) a program of JRI (Justice Research Institute). The complexity of trauma is both interpersonal and systemic, and quality care models require attention to these dynamics. Yoga can be a way to reconnect with our bodies that, oftentimes, can feel disconnected and unfamiliar after surviving external traumas, power dynamics, and so forth. Through safe connection and relationship (earned rather than created), a person can begin to make choices in how they would like to move and possibly notice how their body supports their choice. It’s a disruption of harm to create space for non-harm.

How is trauma-informed yoga different?

I would like to mention again that yoga is a philosophy. Dr. Ranganathan, a field-changing researcher and scholar of Philosophy and Yoga Philosophy, says, “As a philosophical theory, Yoga is the view that our minds and bodies are the parts of the natural world that we, as persons, must take responsibility for, so that they reflect our interests as people.” We deserve to thrive and to allow others to thrive. So in this sense, yoga is already trauma-informed.

What is often taught in the United States is a postural practice, where we can get it all in–movement, breath work, meditation. There’s a sequence, a teacher guiding and perhaps adjusting folks into that sequence. It can sometimes feel, for survivors/warriors, that there is an aesthetic, a right way, a power dynamic. This can sometimes mimic trauma. And so what I offer is power sharing, as authentically as possible. I’m moving and making choices in my body as well. So we can be doing different things–we can be together, each in our own power and interest as people.

For example, if I’m offering arm movements, I may want to lift my arms to the side. You, perhaps, would like to lift your arm at a different angle. Or maybe you have a shoulder injury and want to only move your right arm. There’s no right or wrong. And as you’re moving, if you’d like, maybe you notice a sensation in your arm. Survival by any means necessary means becoming a brilliant external surveiller. You’re able to read the room and know the nearest exit. Here, I’m inviting internal exploration and curiosity.

Can you tell us more about yoga’s role in crisis counseling and/or polyvagal theory?

I’ve volunteered as a crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line for the past five years. It is free mental health support 24/7–you can text 714741. Although through words, it is the same thing I offer through movement and yoga. People deserve to feel heard and supported, to feel safe in connection, to have choices, and to collaborate for safety. As a crisis counselor, I’m not telling someone how to feel better but working with them to come up with their own choices, ways to feel some relief, and to go from a hot moment to a cooler calm.

Polyvagal Theory, some say, is the science of safety. I’ve studied for the past few years and feel strongly that the more we can befriend our own nervous system, the more choices we can have in finding our way back toward safe connection and regulation. We are nervous systems, unconsciously checking each other out to see if the other person(s) are safe, a threat, or outright dangerous. I can’t earn safety from people I share time with if I don’t feel my own sense of safety, if that makes sense. It’s helped me be a resource of safety for others and also to notice when I may be feeling compassion fatigue and some burnout.

What age can people start practicing yoga?

I think yoga is a way of living and so we can teach non-harm, truth, and respect for ourselves and others right from the start!

What benefits do you think we might see if yoga was available in schools?

I think having the time to practice choice-making, reclaiming internal sensation and feelings, learning about how to regulate our nervous system, understanding why respecting others is part of this practice (as a way to disrupt bullying) and doing this in relationship with others in school can be amazing. There is research out there talking about its benefits as well. School violence/shootings and the pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of students, and they deserve to feel empowered when so much feels out of their control.

What would be your message to people, especially young people, who are hesitant or skeptical about trying yoga?

My biggest message is this: if you bravely try a yoga class and feel like you’re not good at it or made to feel like you’re not good at it, or feel like you did it wrong, or you’re not flexible enough, then please find another class :-) because yoga is a way of being, not an exercise.

These shapes and forms we move through contain an experience that is yours and not the other way around which can be more of an exercise in perfectionism. That’s giving way too much power to a pose/asana/form/teacher. You get to find spaces and facilitators that offer room to experiment and figure out and make choices that feel useful for you and your life.

It’s been such an honor to be able to share my thoughts. Cameron, thank you for creating The Balanced Soul Project, for sharing your yoga journey, and for helping others find their way.

Follow Mindy on her website

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