Addressing Trauma Through Yoga Practice

Addressing Trauma Through Yoga Practice

Interview With Hala Khouri

Courtesy of Hala Khouri

Hala Khouri has been a yoga teacher for over 25 years. She is a therapist and somatic experiencing practitioner. She uses her practice to address trauma, stress, and anxiety on a spiritual and physical level.

Hala Khouri has been a yoga teacher for over 25 years. She is a therapist and somatic experiencing practitioner. She uses her practice to address trauma, stress, and anxiety on a spiritual and physical level.

S&H: How has your childhood and your past informed your work?

Khouri: I always say that I come to this work by way of Beirut, Lebanon, which is where I was born, in 1973. In 1975 civil war broke out. So we ended up leaving Lebanon because of the war and coming to the United States. So even though we weren't there for a really long time. I think that our roots are in our trauma, and I use the word trauma to describe any life experiences that push us and they can make us grow, they can break us and everything in between. I think that, coming to the US when I was young but still, having my roots in the Middle East is probably, like, the most formative thing that brought me to where I am.

I spent many years on a quest for personal and familial self-awareness. Studying psychology, trying to figure out why my mom was depressed and why my dad was how he was. There was a really long time of self-help, navel-gazing trying to really figure myself out, without this critical lens of also this larger context that I'm a part of.

Then as my work and my awareness shifted—really in the last 15 years—being married to a Black Jewish man, having children who are Arab, Christian, Jewish, white, black, having family members who are Muslim, and queer,just in my own familial lived experience, I had to reflect on people's identities and how that shapes them in terms of how the world perceives particular people simply because of certain parts of their identities.

So on a really personal level, I think that my path is wanting to understand the world so I could be less anxious.

Then my studies in psychology and trauma and then going back to do a degree in community psychology with an emphasis on social justice and eco-psychology. On an academic level, really had me re-examine my training and mental health and traditional mental health models that are really centered in whiteness and industrialized Western culture and values and individualism,and they really caused me to problematize what I'd even been taught about, what mental health is because I was really taught to think that mental health was something you did alone: you go to therapy, you figure yourself out, you try to get into some healthy relationships. But well-being is something we do together. It requires community. It requires people to have access to what they need to be well, and so I think in terms of my studies that really asked me to re-examine what I have been taught about mental health.

Context is not being recognized. The Western yoga community is not looking outward and recognizing the community and people who are different and also the availability and accessibility of yoga for different communities..

I started to use my yoga practice, my spiritual beliefs, and my psychological beliefs to continue to insulate myself more and more from anything that corrupted that or didn't fit into it. I have enough privilege that I was able to do that. I lived in a place where I could have economic stability through teaching yoga to, have a job, and be around people who agreed with my views.

I didn't have to confront discrimination head-on because of my skin color. I work in a female-dominated career, so I wasn't even having to directly confront patriarchy just in my own small world, I could think, “It's easy” Living in Los Angeles, which is a really, multi-cultural, multi-racial place, I got into my own little bubble. And I could afford access to healthy food, and then I would only go to places that serve healthy foods that only be exposed to people who could afford healthy food, so my world got really small, and I had the privilege to make it small. Not everybody can do that. For some people, the world is tearing down at the doors, and they can't protect themselves.

I started to step out of that and to really see my own complicity in that. If I was unwilling to step outside of my comfort zone, I was part of the problem.

What precipitated your awakening out of that insulated state? Was there an event or a specific catalyst?

It was a gradual evolution. A lot of it happened within the context of Off The Mat, into the World. Seane Corn, Suzanne Sterling, and I created this nonprofit in 2007 which was meant to offer leadership training for folks. It started with so many people who practice yoga wanting to do service. Saying, “yoga is helping me feel good and I have extra time on my hands.” At that time, the people that Seane and I and Suzanne were exposed to were affluent white women. They had extra time, extra money, extra energy, and they were wanting to then go out and serve.

We saw that a lot of harm was happening when people were going outside of their own communities trying to help. So we started developing trainings that were really about developing your own self-awareness so that you're really aware of what is motivating you to go out and do that work, so you wouldn't be coming from a place of charity or ignorance.

Every year we trained hundreds of people, and we learned more about what was going on. We started to realize the gaps in our own pedagogy and our own approach to training people. We realized we had to do some really important work on recognizing power, oppression, racism, able-ism; these larger structures of oppression.

Through off the map, there was this next level kind of schooling that we all got. Mostly from people who were generous enough to give us the time to say “Hey, this is where you're really fucking up. This is what people in my community would never resonate with or do.” It became about building relationships with people who come from marginalized communities and having to see what we didn't know. We don't know what we don't know. it’s true for everybody.

So a lot of the evolution happened through OTM to the cultivation of relationships with other leaders and faculty members through having to constantly reflect on the work we were doing with other people. Then really have to be more explicit about holding an anti-oppression lens. It's one thing to say to folks “You wanna go out and serve, you have to know yourself, otherwise, you could do harm.” And then there's the next layer of,” you want to go ahead and serve? What's your analysis of the problem? Are you just looking at symptoms of the problem?” For example, people are homeless. We need to get them homes and beds. Or are you stepping back to ask why it is like this? And who are the people that are dealing with this the most, with housing insecurity and what are the larger structures at play here? That was a big part of that journey.

How has that evolved in the last few years?

It’s evolved in so many ways. I would say that for me, as a clinician, as a trauma therapist, as someone who's often working with people that are dealing with the impact of trauma, it has really evolved my own paradigm of what trauma is, and what well being is.

A lot of my work is training clinicians and direct service providers to be trauma-informed. This is outside of the yoga world and again typically mental health models have this blame the victim mentality. Like, we're gonna look at people's personal lives, but we're not going to really look that they're dealing with systemic racism, housing insecurities, or that they don't have health care. And they have chronic illnesses that put their lives at risk. We also don't look at the systemic stressors that people have to live under. We sort of think that if they're stressed, it becomes some sort of personal failing or lack of resilience on their part.

An area that I'm doing a lot of work is helping people deal with anxiety or how to deal with trauma or trying to figure out how to be well, which is what the book is about. It’s really about interrogating well being, you know, interrogating what our concept of that is especially in these times. The political war that we're in right now feels, on some level, like a clash between individual well-being and collective care.

I think that on one side of the aisle are people that say in order to be well, we need walls, we need guns, we need to separate. They believe that's the only way we can be well and we can’t take care of each other because there isn't enough. You just have to work hard. If you work hard, you'll be okay. It’s a very individualistic paradigm that’s connected to the American dream: you come to America, you work hard, and you can be well.

Then there’s the other side, which, in my view, would be ideally saying, how can we be well together? How do we build structures that support our most vulnerable to be well? How do we, you know, depower ourselves if we've had all the power so that there's equity. And again, I'm not idealizing like the Democratic Party. I think it's super corrupt, but energetically, I feel like that's the tension right now.

You teach an online course called Radical Well-being, what does that term mean to you?

This is something that began to get visioned way before COVID hit. So many people were asking me to access my work more easily. I started to build this model for a monthly membership community where I would create content every month with different themes. We have live calls and are in community together, exploring different themes of what it means to be well. Ironically covid hit as this was about to launch. It felt even more important to launch something online once people were having to do physical distancing.

This month's theme is the politics of well being, where I'm inviting folks to think about not Democrat or Republican, who you're voting for, but more like, if politics is the system that deeply influences who has access to the things that they might need to be well, then well being is political. And we want to think about that. What does it mean to be well together?

How do you define radical wellbeing?

Radical means root and so radical is about getting to the root of the issue. In this community, we talk about what are we sold that being well is? What we're sold is that it's being perpetually young and thin and able-bodied, wealthy and have the perfect partner and the best hair. We want to push back against what we're told makes us well and we want to get to the root of what actually makes us well. That's part of what it means to be radical.

The other part is that it's about cultivating critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is about exploring the socio-political context we are in. What does it mean to be well, if you're black, if you're indigenous, if you're disabled, if you're queer, if you're white, if you're wealthy, without pitting people against each other at all. If you're a wealthy white man, that doesn't mean you're any better off than somebody else. You're privileged by the system, but it doesn't mean you're well in your heart.

So how do we examine these systems and stay together as we work to change them versus dehumanize either the person on the top end of that system on the bottom of that system. That’s a big piece of it.

What do you see happening in the space that feels like forward movement?

I'm really interested in culture change around well being. I think we need that because our world is so sick right now, our culture is so sick right now. What I see happening on a grassroots level is incredible. My metaphor is, ironically, it's like when you get really sick, your body has to create antibodies. So we're at that phase where we're still feverish and headachy, but antibodies are being created. I don't know how much I see the results of the antibodies yet.

What's really visible are symptoms like division, anger, people not knowing how to talk to each other. But I do know because I'm also part of this really healthy antibody response of people, things that I'm learning from people in my community.

I was saying to my 10-year-old the other day when he asked, “Mom, what do you think the future is gonna be like?” And I said, “You know, I don't know. I don't really know what it's gonna be like, but I am excited for your generation because I think our generation kind of fell asleep. We thought things are getting better, we're just gonna get lazy. And I feel like your generation is seeing what's going on now and is going to be really awake, really politicized, and thinking about this stuff.”

Maybe this is like the antibodies that get inspired in this generation, and we'll see the next generation and they'll look back and be like, Wow, like that was a shit show. I feel hopeful in that usually it's extreme tragedy that wakes people up. And I do feel like people who had the privilege to be asleep have woken up. People are thinking about oppression, power, and whiteness; these systems that harm so many. Covid has been a really tangible illustration of this idea that if our most vulnerable aren't cared for, nobody can be okay.

We see the invisible people that keep our lives comfortable are essential workers. Of course doctors and hospital folks, but also the people picking up our trash, bringing us our groceries, and keeping our infrastructure alive. There's a highlighting of the importance of that vital work. So those are the things that I see as positive. It's kind of like when you get really sick, you suddenly appreciate your health. You suddenly notice all the things you didn't have to notice before. So I feel I feel hopeful. I don't know if I'll see it in my lifetime, but I do feel really helpful for something.

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