Reviews Yoga

Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Recovering Ourselves, Our Communities, and Our Culture

Sarah Hentges
Written by Sarah Hentges

Survivors on the Yoga MatAs an academic interested in feminist fitness and a yoga teacher, I anticipated the publication of Becky Thompson’s book for almost a year after meeting her at a conference. Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for Those Healing from Trauma has become an indispensable asset for my work in fitness and academia. Both of us draw from our personal and professional lives, weave the words and experiences of others into our texts, and believe in the power of yoga (and, for me, fitness more generally) as a means toward recovery and transformation. For anyone interested in the healing power of yoga–personally or professionally–this book is a moving and rich resource.

Thompson’s personal story anchors this powerful, multivalent text. As a survivor of trauma, she discusses some of the challenges of telling her own story. But this personal element makes the book more valuable. Her heartfelt and clear introduction frames the stories and the journey they create: “from early challenges and discoveries, to musings about how the practice of yoga can heal us both on and off the mat.” This progression speaks to the importance of process and the idea of yoga as a lifelong journey.

Thompson attracts and nurtures others’ stories and presents these stories to readers in digestible pieces. The author suggests that the reader meander, reading bits and pieces wherever and whenever we can find the time. This is how I read the book, mostly because this is the way I read. However, the chronology of the book is valuable to a bigger picture of survivors and the benefits of yoga.

The stories included throughout the book represent a diverse, global cross-section of yogis and their stories of trauma and recovery. Told with the finesse of a poet, these stories move and breathe; they inspire recovery. They offer practical advice, metaphors, truths, clinical knowledge, and scientific developments in neuroscience, and represent a diversity of yoga experiences. Thompson weaves a community of diverse cultural critics and authors—including Adrienne Rich, Sonia Sanchez, and Joy Harjo, as well as Yogis from Patanjali to Amy Weintraub— throughout the book, framing Thompson’s experiences with yoga and healing. This interdisciplinary approach is one that I employ in my own work, creating a feminist fitness theory that we hope will become foundational to stories and studies of fitness and yoga.

Becky Thompson

Becky Thompson

This book changes and challenges how we think about trauma survivors. Thompson argues that as trauma has been put on the national radar, a kind of doctrine has been created that runs the risk of “putting the emphasis on what is wrong with survivors.” Our national radar includes discussions of war veterans, or even the fictional character of Katniss from The Hunger Games series, and in both cases these survivors have something “wrong” with them–they need help to reintegrate into society, to live “normal” lives.

Thompson argues that what’s “wrong” with trauma survivors does not lie with the individual survivors; instead what’s wrong is the context for healing and recovery. “Survivors are the canaries in the coal mine, not the poisonous gas that kills the miners.” Recovery from trauma—poverty, exploitation, violence, war, and abuse of all kinds—is an individual process that takes place in community, not simply an individual’s psychological struggle. American culture blames the victim and relies upon “personal responsibility” myths; people who do not fit norms of physical or mental fitness are assumed to be weak and/or irrelevant.

Thompson continues, “What may go missing from this work is recognition that survivors also embody many strengths–qualities that are worth noting, paying attention to, and even celebrating.” Thompson provides glimpses into the experiences of trauma survivors and the ways in which they heal through yoga. She highlights the importance of teaching and listening to what trauma survivors have to teach us. Her work reminds us that flexibility in approach and authenticity are important attributes for those working with trauma survivors. She reminds us that “survivors do much emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental work to stay in the world, to be present. That takes guts.”

Some readers might find the more mystical and spiritual elements to be a little out there. Thompson describes her experience with the “higher states of consciousness” of yoga. At one point she describes “a moment of feeling connected with infinity, a luminous experience beyond the ego …of union with a spirit or energy that transcends thought.” But in the context of the larger work, these insights speak to the many forms and practices of yoga and the ways in which yoga can be a powerful force for recovery in individual and collective realms. While Thompson’s book is about far more than the physical practice of yoga (asana), it also shows how the physical practice can be healing for survivors.

The appendices include resources, information, and illustrations for novices as well as practitioners. It’s an important text toward individual and community recovery, and I have shared it with students and colleagues in Mental Health and Human Services, Art Therapy, Nursing, Education, and the Humanities. But this book is for any reader who wants to know more about the healing of trauma through yoga—a guide for our own benefit or for the benefit of those we work with, live with, and love.

Survivors on the Yoga Mat, like my book Women and Fitness in America, argues that the work of “creating justice within our own communities” is still very much in development—on and off our mats. Survivors on the Mat speaks to me, and it will speak to others—survivors or not. When I am looking for the wisdom and connection that yoga offers, I continue to come back to this text. I will continue to meander and consider how this work meshes with my own practice, my own ongoing recovery and growth—and the work for all of us toward recovery for our communities and cultures.

About the author

Sarah Hentges

Sarah Hentges

Sarah Hentges is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Maine at Augusta. Her most recent book, Women and Fitness in American Culture, considers fitness from many angles and blends her personal and professional experience. Sarah also teaches a variety of fitness classes at the Bangor YMCA including yoga, Group Groove, and free-style or "old-school" cardio classes. She loves to play in the snow and make vegan desserts.

Leave a Comment