Yoga, Healing & Resilience, Part II

"As a trauma-informed yoga teacher, I believe that the flip-chips are fantastic,” wrote Naval Special Warfare veteran and Mindful Yoga Therapy (MYT) instructor Anthony Scaletta in a message to Yogaflipchip. Eager to support Anthony in his work as a trauma-informed yoga teacher, we sent some flip-chips his way. MYT is one of the five programs of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, which supports and funds certified yoga teachers of all traditions to bring yoga and mindfulness techniques to underserved and under-resourced segments of the community. In his work with the MYT program, Anthony shares the transformative power of yoga with various trauma-sensitive populations and with veterans in particular. Jessie, our fearless intern, recently conducted an in-depth interview with Anthony. What follows is Part II of their illuminating discussion about yoga, healing and resilience. Enjoy!

Jessie: Tell us a little more about your students.

Anthony: I live in a small city about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh called Johnstown. We have one yoga studio, the ‘just breathe mindful movement studio,’ where I offer many of my classes. I work with a lot of baby boomers and they’re coming because they’re aging and have the time and money to spend on their health. They are curious about how they can feel better, beyond going to the doctor and getting prescriptions. Most of them are in their fifties or sixties, so they bring a lot of life experience. This affects the way they digest the yoga teachings. 

Quite a few people say this is their very first time doing yoga. And that's amazing -- to be the first to share yoga with them. Often, they’re consumed by what they're not going to be able to do. I can't tell you how many times they’ll say, ‘I'm not flexible enough.’ I’ll say, ‘you're right; it's all about being flexible. But I mean flexibility in your thinking, not your body. It doesn’t matter whether or not you can touch your toes, it's about having a flexible mind.’ That puts them at ease.

A smaller number of students are in their mid-thirties to mid-forties. They're often not as limber as someone in their early twenties, nor have they acquired the wisdom of the boomers. And some are just not ready to listen to their bodies quite yet. So, sometimes they don't choose to adapt and modify in ways that would be the most healing for them. That's not a judgment, just an observation; they are on their own journey. If they stick with it long enough, yoga will show them the way; I truly believe that.

Yoga is inherently adaptable and it’ll always meet you where you need it to, if you allow it. The more we can get that message out there, the more people might feel comfortable enough to give it a try. It's common to give classes labels: “beginner,” “advanced,” “all levels,” or whatever, just to give people a general idea, but in my opinion it doesn't matter. Every class is all levels when you really think about it. It can be a challenge in group classes, but you can always offer lots of different options so they can find the one that's going to work for them in that moment. That's what I've learned from trauma-informed yoga and working with populations with diverse needs. And getting to work with these groups right from the outset of my teaching career has been truly invaluable, a real gift.

Jessie: Take us back to your yoga teacher training experience. 

Anthony: I completed the 230-hour program at the Asheville Yoga Center (AYC) in Asheville, North Carolina. My tuition, room and board, and travel -- everything was covered by a variety of veterans’ organizations and scholarships from AYC. It's a true gift and I often reflect on how grateful I am for all the support.

I did the YTT as a 21-day intensive. There were twenty of us in the cohort and we were meant to learn and grow from each other. One of the ladies in the group, Andrea, became my ‘Yoga Mom.’ She really looked out for me. When it was all over, she connected me with Ann Richardson Stevens in Virginia Beach. Ann has been working with the military community for a long time. Her niche is adaptive yoga -- working with amputees and those in wheelchairs -- and she's one of the few yoga teachers that really specializes in this area. She's also one of the directors of the Mindful Yoga Therapy program, and serves on the board of the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Jessie: Where did this connection lead you?

Anthony: Connecting with Ann opened the way to joining the Give Back Yoga Foundation as Outreach Coordinator for Veterans, which led me to Mindful Yoga Therapy. The blessings continued to roll in when Mindful Yoga Therapy offered me a full scholarship to take their 100-hour certification program. This completely changed my personal practice as well as my understanding of how to teach yoga. MYT is trauma-informed yoga, so now I teach every class from this perspective, which is why the flip-chips are freaking fantastic - they give students a choice, and choices are key in trauma-informed yoga.

Jessie: That’s great to hear. What are the origins of the MYT program?

Anthony: Our program emerged from Suzanne Manafort’s experiences working at the VA in Connecticut over many years. The students in these classes were experiencing PTSD symptoms so severe that they were admitted into a residential treatment program. In this setting, as instructors we don't even leave our mat while teaching, because we don't want students to have to worry about tracking where we are in the room. Where I’m going with this is that participants must always be given the power to choose, to participate in any way they feel is appropriate. Again, that’s the core of trauma-informed yoga.  

Jessie: Some would say this principle applies in any group yoga setting.

Anthony: True. I believe that all yoga classes should follow a trauma-informed approach because just about everyone has experienced some trauma in their life. But we all respond to it in different ways. Plus, we may not even know that it's locked up in the layers of our energy body and yoga always has the potential to bring emotions and deeply rooted layers of trauma to the surface. In any public yoga class there's probably quite a few people in that room, whether they know it or not, that have unresolved trauma. It benefits everyone to always approach the class in a trauma-sensitive way and to give as much choice as possible. The flip-chips are super empowering in that way, and I've seen that when I use them.

I want to express my sincerest gratitude to Nina and Giles at Yogaflipchip for sending me the canvas flip-chips. I love working with them, and I've had nothing but a great response. As we discussed, when you step into the yoga space, it's always an opportunity to check-in and realize that you're completely different than you were yesterday, and than you will be tomorrow, so whatever you have going on now you can honor that. You have a choice, not only to flip the chip at the beginning of practice, but at any point in the practice. So as certain emotions are released you still always have that option to change. Maybe you thought you wanted to be touched, but then decide you don't. It's right in-line with my philosophy of group yoga: giving people a choice on their own terms as much as possible. I really dig the flip-chips for this reason.   

Another thing I love about the flip-chips is that they help build relationships, which is what yoga is all about. Personally handing everyone a flip-chip before class begins gives me an opportunity to connect with them on a personal basis, even in a large class when we’re pushed for time and no words are exchanged. It's an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I see you, I'm here with you, and it's an honor to share this practice with you.’ That I may not enter their space during the entire class doesn’t matter, because the connection’s been made.

Jessie: Offering a flip-chip is a ritual, it's an acknowledgement. I believe that was Nina's intention.

Anthony:  Yes, exactly! And in the performance of the ritual, the space is then marked as sacred, thus an invitation is extended to honor that if they so choose. I believe in using verbal instruction as the primary form of ‘adjustments’ in group yoga classes. I like to have the student understand just how unique they are and that they are encouraged to always honor their body, which is constantly changing from one yoga practice to the next.  I like to give students many options so that they can pursue their own journey. I'm not big on giving manual adjustments for the sake of trying to help someone’s body move in a certain way. My hands-on adjustments are used as a form of touch therapy and offered in a healing capacity -- to simply say that I'm here with you, and it's okay. Over time my adjustments have really evolved into mini-Reiki treatments, and I explain Reiki to them, if need be, when I hand them the flip-chip.

While I really believe in the power of human touch for healing and connecting, we also live in a time when, both in and out of the yoga space, we have to be really mindful of how this power is used. And being a male instructor in a mostly female world I have a whole extra layer of that to deal with. Ultimately, the power of human touch with the right intention behind it can be very healing. And we need this now more than ever as we are becoming increasingly more disconnected from ourselves and each other on the physical level. Yes, technology connects us to people all over the planet in amazing ways, but nothing beats a good hug! And science has proven that if you touch or hug another person for at least seven seconds then neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, are exchanged between people. The flip-chip provides a perfect way to create a safe space where touch and connection can happen in a way that honors the individual and their right to choose how they would like to participate.

Jessie: Can you speak more about your Reiki training?

Anthony: I completed Level 1 Usui Reiki training back in April, so it's been about 8 months, and I completed Reiki II at the end ofSeptember. When you reach the highest level of Reiki training you get the title of ‘Master.’ I have mixed feelings about that, because as soon as you think you’ve mastered something, you stop learning! Nevertheless I received Master-level certification in a style of Reiki known as Kundalini Reiki, which refers to the latent energy that sits coiled like a serpent at the base of the spine. Once activated, this energy flows upward through all the chakras and out the crown, while cleaning and strengthening the energy body. I find this type of Reiki awesome for the yoga space because, as far as energy goes, it's more gross than some of the other systems of Reiki, so it has a very grounding, physical component to it. It's also ideal for the mini-Reiki treatments I mentioned earlier, because in as little as a minute or two the Kundalini Reiki really begins to flow and then it continues to work its way through the system for up to 30 minutes after I remove my hands. It’s really the perfect style of Reiki to complement a yoga class and I've seen some awesome results with it.