A brass bell rang out at the front of a long, light-filled room in the Empowerment Center of South Bay. Jill Ippolito, the founder of UpRising Yoga—a nonprofit founded in 2011 to help veterans with PTSD—stood in front of a group of participants and smiled warmly as conversations simmered to a few whispers.
“Okay, time for a little housekeeping!” Jill announced.
Thirty or so bodies hit their yoga mats, which had been strategically lined along the bottoms of concrete benches built into the walls of the room. A few folks took out journals or returned the caps to their water canteens. As they all settled, a rhythmic intentional breath began to fill the space.
TENSIONS AND EXPECTATIONS MELTED.
I arrived just a few minutes before the bell and the breath, having just made it in time for the second day of the event: a trauma-informed yoga workshop. The hours leading up to my arrival had been… less than ideal. My apartment had flooded the night before, and my wife had woken me to tell me the news that 49 queer people had been killed at a nightclub in the early morning hours. I wasn’t sure what kind of emotional space I could dedicate to meeting Jill, let alone the folks who had come here to learn how to help those moving through trauma with yoga. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I could leave the house.
But in those early moments, after the intentions for the day were set and Jill discussed the agenda, there was a palpable energy growing in the room that demanded a singular kind of attention.
Everyone, regardless of what organization or personal need had brought them to this workshop, seemed deeply invested in the business of shedding light on trauma. It was a diverse group of people, with backgrounds ranging from a firefighter from Kansas to a drug and alcohol counselor from Los Angeles. Some seemed to be seasoned yogis, while others’ yoga mats still had that new, sleek veneer to them.
Jill sensed that the group was brimming with stories to share from yesterday’s events, so she opened the floor to talk about what their evening of rest and self-care had revealed. Hands shot up immediately. One participant talked about how waking up to the news of the Orlando shooting seemed to solidify all of the hard work the previous day had brought. Another talked about drawing an Epsom salt bath to release the physical manifestations of Saturday’s heavy discussions on trauma, sexual abuse and children. Jill listened to each voice, holding space for each moment before affirming or offering words of encouragement.
I’ll admit I was blissfully unaware of what trauma-informed yoga was—or what the need for it might be—prior to walking through the doors of the Empowerment Center. Questions that crossed my mind as I was researching the practice included:
“WELL ... ISN’T ALL YOGA HEALING?”“HOW DOES ONE PRACTICE INFORMED YOGA?”
Google was productive, but not necessarily illuminating. That’s likely because the work Jill does is unique for the Los Angeles area.
For many years, thanks to loopholes in the law, commercially and sexually trafficked children were being arrested for prostitution and sent to juvenile hall. Jill told me this is becoming less and less common, and children who have been exploited are now being moved out of incarceration and into group homes and other situations that aren’t imprisonment. Still, according to Jill, about 82 percent of foster youth in Los Angeles County are subjected to commercial sexual exploitation at some point in their lives. To Jill, these are the facts that inform her work with various county agencies such as the Los Angeles County Probation Department, family and juvenile court systems, mental health agencies and social work agencies (to name a few) to bring yoga classes to kids who would benefit the most from these services. This cannot be a one-woman job, so Jill also spends a great deal of time training a few dozen eager members of the public each month through weekend-long workshops like the one I found myself in on Sunday.
The first half of the day was spent delving into the systemic issue of youth incarceration in Los Angeles County. There was a lengthy slideshow during the workshop with dozens of compelling statistics on the types of mental health issues experienced by incarcerated youth, information on the various measures taken by the institution to quell the rising tide of children experiencing deep and lasting trauma and an illuminating look into the often complex and debated role of medication in a juvenile detention setting. It also included a Skype meeting with UpRising board member Scott Roberts, who talked in detail about the effects of medication on the developing brain.
What could have been an eye-glazing, tedious list of facts and conditions was actually captivating due to Jill’s ability to impart her love for her students through a detailed analysis of trauma and its effects on incarcerated populations.
She asks difficult questions, such as: Should children who just want to move, who have been cooped up in cells and small yards, be put on Adderall? Jill doesn’t presume to know the answer, but she does have her own personal experience with prescribed medication from which to draw, and she has seen what yoga can do for the kid who just can’t sit still in class.
While she was dealing with her issues with drugs, she tells the group, a doctor prescribed a number of psychotropics for her to take.
“I WAS JUST SITTING IN THAT DISNEY CUBICLE WITH THE CARPETED WALLS, DROOLING...” SHE TELLS US.
In so many ways, it has taken Jill quite a long time and a lot of hard work to get to this moment in a Sunday workshop where she teaches over three dozen students the ins and outs of working with communities of people with trauma. Actually, it took three separate falls from the second stories of three separate buildings at three different times in her life. It took addiction issues, a tumultuous childhood and, finally, a metal plate in her arm to lead her to the empowerment of yoga. And those are just the bullet points.
“I was at a workshop in Hawaii, and I was having a hard time in one of the poses. I was trying to tell the instructor that I have a metal plate in my arm and that I couldn’t do the pose. She said, ‘If it has metal in it, that means it should be stronger, no?” Jill laughs warmly when she tells this story, and you get the sense that it’s more than metal and yoga that strengthens her now.
While it may seem strange, it’s this strength and hardiness that are essential to the compassionate, gentle and mindful yoga practice Jill teaches to her instructors.
Just as I began to feel comfortable with my perception of trauma-informed yoga, Nick Ippolito—fellow UpRising Yoga instructor, assistant chief of staff to LA County Supervisor Don Knabe and Jill’s husband—brought my brain to a screeching halt. As Scott’s Skype presentation ended and the floor was opened up for questions, someone asked,
“IN WHAT TANGIBLE WAYS DO YOU ACKNOWLEDGE TRAUMA WHEN YOU TEACH?”
Nick stepped forward and began to tell a story from his early days of teaching a group of boys in juvenile hall.
“So I told them how to get into a forward bending pose,” Nick explained, bending down at the waist to demonstrate, “and one of the boys said, ‘Nope. No. I’m not going to do that.’ And I realized that was a vulnerable pose. Someone could come up from behind him, and he knew that. So we don’t do vulnerable poses … we also have them stagger so they aren’t right in front of or directly behind one another.”
And just like that my fragile, tentative knowledge of how trauma informs yoga was upended. A participant raised her hand and said that she avoids phrases like “just relax” or “picture yourself in your bedroom …” while teaching yoga because such language might be triggering.
I had been moving through the world assuming that yoga is universally healing to those who sought its refuge. I didn’t think about the heavy emotional weight each person might be silently bringing to the mat, and how each pose or guiding phrase could bring them closer to their trauma.
Jill makes sure—through these training workshops as well as constant, open dialogue with her instructors—that anyone who goes out and teaches yoga in an UpRising capacity acknowledges and honors the role of trauma in participants’ lives. In this way, she sets a distinct and unique course that has been so successful it goes beyond juvenile hall, the probation department and group homes. Her nonprofit now has community classes in Long Beach, Carson, Inglewood, Hawthorne and Wilmington.
“Sometimes we have three generations of families coming to these classes—people who might otherwise not have access to yoga. It’s remarkable,” Jill tells me later. “It helps build communities. In one of our classes, participants were talking about how a streetlight was out in their neighborhood, but because they are primarily Spanish-speaking, there weren’t really any resources for them on how to call the city to get the streetlight fixed. So before class, they would talk about it, and they found a way to contact the city to get the light fixed. And you know what? Once the light was fixed, the drug dealer who had been using that corner to sell went away, and people felt safer walking home at night.”
At the end of my time at the workshop, the group had split off into smaller sets to perform mock scenarios of what it’s like to teach in a juvenile detention center. Some actor-students were disruptive, some were disinterested and some were nosy about the personal lives of the mock instructors. One group in particular shined when it came to acting out disruptive attitudes. An actor-student asked,
“Do you have a boyfriend? Where do you live? Why do you want to teach yoga?”
Without skipping a beat, the actor-instructor said,
“THOSE ARE GREAT QUESTIONS, BUT I’M HERE FOR YOU TODAY. THIS IS ABOUT YOU.”
And with no rebuttal to that, the student went into a flawless and silent smiling tree pose.