Joy can be a foreign feeling for a childhood trauma survivor. The idea of experiencing joy is approached with skepticism and mistrust. Joy is something you read about and hope to find one day.
Looking back on my life, I realize that I spent most of it fragmented and out of my body, often as though I was looking down from above. I don’t have many memories of my childhood, because I wasn’t “present” for much of it. It was safer not to be present, not to feel. In order to feel joy, you need to let yourself be open to receive and let yourself be vulnerable. But surviving the trauma meant being numb. Many trauma survivors live a life based in fear, in constant fight, flight or paralysis mode. Trauma survivors can lose trust and confidence in life, and the greater the loss, the deeper the scar. It can take conscious effort to feel joy.
When I was lying on my mat during my first teacher training, my teacher Diane Bruni asked us to put our hands on our belly to connect to our breath and to be still. In that moment I remember something shifting. After years of practicing yoga, this moment was different. Something uncomfortable was happening. I was slowing down. I was feeling.
What followed were three months of tears, rage and pain. They were the worst three months of my life, but also the best. That one moment on the mat started to slowly bring me back to the living.
Over the next few years I learned to discover who I am outside of my past trauma and abuse. I reconnected to my body. I reconnected to my breath. I wasn’t afraid of my body anymore, and I began to replace shame and sadness with respect and honour. I embraced strength in my body. I invited courage. I learned to explore emotions, to take risks, and to sometimes even feel happy. Happiness was the scariest because it meant that life could be good, that life could be beautiful.
Joy is an essential spiritual practice that grows out of faith, grace, gratitude, hope, and love. It is the pure and simple delight in being alive. Joy is our elated response to feelings of happiness, experiences of pleasure, and awareness of abundance. It is also the deep satisfaction we know when we are able to serve others and be glad for their good fortune as well as our own. For a trauma survivor, to know that you are worth something good, something joyful, is a critical part of recovery and healing. To trust that you are loved, to give yourself the permission to experience pleasure without pain or shame – that is the survivor’s journey.
By learning to trust, I have invited joy into my life. My outlook is no longer filled with fear, but with anticipation and gratitude for what is to come.
It is in the spirit of joy that I have decided to complete my first Ironman Triathlon this summer. Ironman for me has been about meeting myself in every step of the way. It is about being a survivor and believing in me; not succumbing to the pain or frustration of daily training, but embracing the journey as a challenge and accomplishment because I can. I will. Every run, every swim and every cycle is a response of joy to the many years of fear, isolation and numbness I lived in.
For all of those years when I could barely make it out the door because I simply wanted to fall down and cry or stare at the floor, today I find joy. I seek joy. I embrace joy. I experience joy. I have reconnected with the light within me that was dimmed for so long. That is joy. And I know now that life is not meant to be endured; it is meant to be enjoyed.
Joanna Morrison is the founder of Sangha of Hope, an outreach based organization offering trauma informed yoga and mindfulness meditation classes to survivors of trauma. A certified yoga teacher, practitioner and educator, Joanna teaches many styles of yoga, including Ashtanga, Restorative and Yin and has trained with Diane Bruni, Ron Reid, Hali Schwartz and Tracey Soghrati. She has received specialized training in trauma work and has certification in Trauma Sensitive Yoga through the Justice Research Institute in Boston and Kripalu Centre for Yoga and Health, where she has studied with renowned trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk and JRI Yoga Director David Emerson. She encourages students of all ages to honor their bodies, to find contentment in any pose without judgment, and to listen to one’s inner teacher. In her teaching, Joanna places great emphasis on the breath as a means to deepen and enrich your yoga practice and enhance your awareness of the connection between mind and body.