Meet Catherine Ashton: a woman whose knowledge and expertise in yoga for trauma warrants an entire essay of its own.
Last month, I had the pleasure of taking the first half of the intensive certification of Yoga to Transform Trauma with Catherine Ashton; her program which marries the emerging and developing field of traumatology with the ancient wisdom and healing of Yoga philosophy, principles, and teaching. I had the honor of interviewing Catherine about her work and her experiences in the yoga and mental health fields.
For those unfamiliar, can you explain the main differences between a regular yoga class, a trauma-sensitive yoga class, and a trauma -focused yoga class?
A “regular” yoga class is one that is found in any number of places including yoga studios, community centers, private residences, churches and all types of other venues that are taught in any number of styles of yoga without any “consideration” of the trauma that individual students may have experienced. There is no ill-will intended, but rather, a simple lack of knowledge or understanding of trauma. A trauma sensitive class implies that the teacher is aware of the existence of trauma for his/her students and may adjust or alter their respective teaching to be sensitive to those needs. A trauma-focused class is one that consciously considers the impact that trauma has on the students in attendance as well as how the practice “lands,” purposely alters their teaching modalities making changes in the type of language and/or breath work utilized, the time held in certain poses, offers little to no hands on adjustments and other possible variations to the class.
What drew you to pursue a career in this path? And how did you end up merging yoga and trauma psychology into your career?
Although I worked in the health care system for quite some time, I have been drawn to Yoga, holistic healing and Eastern traditions since I was quite young. I was searching for a kinder and gentler path from health care, my passions have always been Yoga, wellness and trauma recovery and at the guidance of my teacher, I kept praying for a way to marry my passions. At the time, I was taking an advanced teacher training and was struck by the impact that “traditional” classes and methodologies had on many students and through a convergence of moments, Yoga to Transform Trauma was born.
Like many other spaces, much of psychology and the mental health field is lead/dictated by men. Was this ever a difficulty or did you ever feel unheard because of your gender?
Sexism is intricately woven in both subtle and overt forms into the very fabric of ours and many other cultures. I’ve always been a really good advocate and defender of others in the workplace and community setting. But being a woman coupled with my own history as that of a trauma survivor has certainly offered challenges because like many others, I too have historically shut down and felt unable to speak when it came to my personal life. My challenge over the years has been to find and feel comfortable with my own voice in matters of my heart.
In what ways has feminism shown up in your work? And have you felt the need to defend or articulate your feminism in this line of work?
Feminism shows up in my work all the time and like women everywhere, I too have had to explore what it means to be a woman in this culture and time. I actively encourage women to honor themselves and their journey as being valuable. Women have been the singularly most oppressed group worldwide and it’s encouraging to begin seeing a shift happening in the world. Feminism challenges us all as we often equate femininity with being soft, vulnerable and fragile which is simply not true. One of my goals is to empower all of us, both men and women, to connect with and honor the feminine aspect of themselves and to find a balance.
In psychology, or even yoga, is there a main deficit in trauma sensitive or focus? And what would that main deficit be?
Trauma recovery is still very new and what we “know” now has already and will surely continue to change. There are many deficits….culturally we learn not to talk, share and explore our own shadows. We’ve become disconnected from our bodies which we frequently shun. Personal struggles are still viewed as problems, conditions and disorders which prevents us from embracing our experiences as simply being human. Fortunately, through the practice of yoga and similar practices, there is a slow awakening which is beginning to occur and is much needed.
For current or aspiring yoga teachers, what are a few basic tips you would implement in your classes to honor each of your students (those dealing with trauma or not)?
Know that there are countless numbers of individuals that are attending classes with a trauma history. We don’t automatically have permission to touch and adjust. Our job is to allow the student’s journey and to hold the space as sacred. Take your time and be gentle because we are just guides.
So often in trauma, people lose their voices. In what ways do you help your students feel heard or gain empowerment?
I give permission and remind them their voices are valuable and intended to be heard. We’re all good at staying quiet, particularly women. I now actively encourage students to ohm and chant on the mat and talk off the mat as it’s good practice.
How do you stay grounded and neutral while doing this work?
I have a really wonderful support network to include those that will call me on my, shall we say, poop. I try to practice mindfulness in all things and self-care in many ways including my own yoga practice. I have altars in my home and office to keep me centered. I have my non-negotiables including diet and movement. And while “neutral” is to some extent the goal, I am always touched by those people that I work with. People are seriously brave.
What is the most important thing you have learned in doing this work?
Learning never ends, neither the personal nor outward work is ever done, the individuals that chose to work with me, and my personal challenges are actually my biggest teachers.