Talking about "safety”

There’s a memorable moment in the film Silence of the Lambs when the FBI agent Clarice Starling enters the house where the serial killer Buffalo Bill is holding Catherine Martin hostage. As Clarice bursts through the door, her gun drawn, her arm shaking, she calls out to Catherine in a quavering voice: “FBI! You’re safe!” That line, I recall, got a huge laugh when I saw the film on its release nearly thirty years ago. We laughed, as the filmmakers intended, because of the absurdity of Clarice’s assurance. As long as Buffalo Bill was alive on the premises, neither Catherine nor Clarice could possibly be “safe”.

 I thought about that scene this morning when I set about to explain why, in teaching EMBER to students with a likely history of trauma, we never use the term “safe”. For some of our trainee teachers, this comes as a surprise. There is much talk in the media now about creating “safe spaces” in universities for class discussion or “safe containers” in therapy for difficult feelings. Psychologists, for their part, recognize the sense of “safety” as fundamental for human wellbeing: it is second only to food, water, and shelter on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We all want and need to feel safe. So why not use the word?

 The problem lies with the term’s connotations. Safety is an all-or-nothing concept. You are either safe or you’re not. You can’t be a little bit safe any more than you can be a little bit pregnant. The term “safe” has a finality about it. Once you’re safe, that’s it. “You’re safe” in baseball once you’ve tagged the base and the umpire flags that you have arrived. 

 Feeling safe, in other words, depends on an inner confidence that you will remain free from harm. For many of the students we teach, that confidence is often, with reason, hard to attain. Many of them live in institutional settings (prisons, jails, treatment facilities) where life is often chaotic and where they have little freedom of movement. Others live with limited means in households or neighborhoods where physical or emotional violence is a perennial threat. Almost all of them carry habits of hyper-vigilance cultivated for their survival over years of exposure to adverse conditions. To invite them to feel safe – to find a “safe space” even in their imagination – is to set the bar well out of their reach. Exhortations to feel “safe” can too readily invoke exactly the opposite: feelings of embattlement, anxiety, and fear.

 It is impossible to feel “safe” without knowing what safety actually feels like. Safety, in other words, is composed of sensations: a settling or loosening or softening in the body. Those sensations can take time to get used to. In EMBER, that is where we begin: not with “safety”, but with physical sensations of ease. Instead of urging our students to feel safe on command, we invite them to identify feelings of ease in their body. 

 At first, the easiest way for you to identify those sensations might be to create them: tensing up your shoulder muscles and letting them go and experiencing them grow loose and heavy, or letting your tongue be loose in your mouth and feeling any easing or softening in the jaw. In the first weeks of EMBER, we teach a tense-and-release body scan meditation where we sequentially clench and release the big muscle groups of the body, focusing on the sensations that follow, feeling the muscles of the legs and arms softening, settling, and letting go.

 From there, you can move to finding ease where it already exists, by following the breath, or more specifically the exhalation. When you inhale, you might notice a slight feeling of effort as the diaphragm tightens, but when you exhale, the diaphragm releases, and with that comes a sensation of softening and settling. You don’t have to make this happen. Those sensations will come on their own.

 Starting with feelings of ease in the body is a first step toward a feeling of safety. What matters is that it is an attainable step, with its focus on physical sensations that anyone can either create or find. With time, we can build upon those sensations to create a personal, reliable feeling of refuge. But at the outset, those physical sensations provide critical first steps toward that quiet inner sense of assurance, something anyone can tap into, even when abstract concepts like “safety” feel very far away.

Grounding Techniques

Sometimes we experience life in such a way that we might feel outside of the body or we feel that too much energy is present in our bodies.  When and if this is the case, bringing attention and feeling into the physical body and/or bringing attention to what’s happening in the present moment can be helpful and is considered to be grounding.

Anxiety and nervousness often ‘live’, or are felt, in the upper half of the body.  If these feelings become overwhelming it can be useful to ‘bring the energy down’. 

Bringing the energy down can be experienced by slowing your movements down and also in the very literal sense of feeling the lower body – most especially the places where your body makes contact with the surface beneath it.  Quite often this will be your feet.  Your feet are a great resource for grounding, partially because they’re often in contact with floor/earth/shoes and also because they have a large number of sensory receptors.  This means there is a relatively high probability that you can access physical sensation in your feet.  If not today, then likely this will be possible given some time.

 It is often, but not always the case, that with practice, grounding may lead to feelings of greater ease and stability.

 Here are some ways that you can explore and experiment with grounding:

·       Press the balls of the feet into the surface of your shoes or the floor while lifting the toes up.

·       Hold a foot in your hand(s) while seated in chair or on the floor.

·       Bring your attention to and feel the surface your body is making contact with (floor, wall, chair, etc.)

·       Rub a grounding essential oil into the soles of your feet.

·       Breathe in a grounding essential oil (earthy/dense tones.)

·       Look around you and name what you see: size, shape, color.

·       Hold a rock or bean bag or token, or really any object with weight and texture in your hand or hands and either just hold it, or press fingers into it or run your fingers across the surface…whatever you want.  There’s no wrong way to do this! :)  You might even name what your fingers are feeling – cool, warm, rough, smooth, bump, etc.

·       Get out in nature.

·       Touch the earth – take your shoes off and walk barefoot through grass or dirt.  Do some gardening or just dig in the earth, as you do this, notice the felt sense of the soil and the color and smell of the earth.

·       Hug a tree!  Seriously.  Plugging into a tree “friend” can align you with a slower, heavier more chill flow and vibration. 

Grounding Poses

More than 5 years ago, Marybeth Hamilton and I created a 12-week curriculum based on the principles of trauma sensitive yoga and mindfulness with the aim of helping people strengthen their capacity for resilience.  Since then, we have taught EMBER to hundreds of students, trained over 100 teachers in weekend trauma sensitive workshops* and over 50 additional teachers in the EMBER 100hr advanced certificate course.

Here are three ways, among many, that we’ve seen Yoga help to build resilience in our students:

1.      Yoga teaches students how to shift their perspective.

2.      Attention to breath, sensation and poses creates a framework for noticing impermanence – recognizing that change is a part of life.

3.      Yoga poses and breathwork offers portable tools for self-regulation – GROUNDING being chief among them.

Here are 4 Yoga Poses to experience GROUNDING in your own body:


Mountain Pose

Let your attention be drawn to your feet and feeling whatever surface is under them. You might press your feet down, or wiggle your toes to bring a bit more sensation.



This pose has the potential for grounding the front side of your body. Gently press your feet down as you simultaneously press your palms into the mat. Go for a gentle, even pressure. No gripping or strain. If it feels better, you might even let your forehead come down to the mat and stay for a couple breaths in this shape.

adho mukha w block and blanket.JPG

Downward Dog

Downward Dog with heels on folded blanket and head on a block. You will likely need to play with this pose a bit to get it just right. Aim for your head to meet the block at your hairline. Blanket can be folded and positioned to set right beneath your heels. This pose is active, reaching through both hands, pressing through both heels – while you continue to breathe and allow the sides of your neck to be relaxed.


Simple Cross Legged

Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position(or bring the soles of your feet together in front of you). Place a blanket over your lap and a block beneath each knee. You could take a moment to rub your feet or simply enjoy a few quiet breaths here.

*Our next weekend workshop is in November, 2019. (link )

Healing with EMBER - Survivor Story 2

Looking back, I don’t think there was anyway I could have known how powerful the EMBERseries would be for me. The freeing emotional release I experienced moved me in ways traditional therapy hasn’t in years. I was amazed to begin a process of re-discovering my body, and what it means to be really in it. After spending so much time zoned out from my body and my life, the power of the restorative poses has healed me in ways words cannot adequately describe. To engage with the idea that I can create feelings of safety and comfort for my own body speaks to a level of self-empowerment I have only dreamed of before. Michele has an innate capacity to create a safe place from which healing grows.

While participating in the series, it was as if the things I was talking about in traditional talk therapy were coming to life. I could use my body to really experience the concepts of mindfulness and grounding. I developed a sense of being present, and an increased ability to remain present, even when I felt strong emotions. Having a safe and supportive space to explore body sensations that were calming, and having control over how much I pushed myself physically, gave me a sense of control. As a survivor, having previously experienced years of trauma, the ability to develop the skills learned in EMBER has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my journey towards healing.

Anonymous is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and has tried various therapy approaches including Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The recent addition of body movement, mindfulness and emotion regulation through the EMBER series has improved her ability to reduce dissociation and anxiety associated with the past traumatic experiences.

Please visit our website here for upcoming EMBER classes -- Yoga on High Foundation scholarships are available for students with financial need to attend this series.

Healing with EMBER - Survivor Story 1

My first experience with EMBER Yoga was over a year ago. I asked the Ember yoga instructor, Michele, kind of tongue and cheek, if she would teach me how to do a headstand. It was at that time that my whole life had changed. I know, I know, this sounds too cliché. My life now is learning to embrace being present through yoga movements. With this presence, I am also learning to cope with past traumas, and I am now looking forward to a future. I never thought I could live a life that I would enjoy.

With the EMBER series and Ashtanga Beginner class, I noticed that I felt included. Michele always ask us if we had any questions, comments, or concerns. Well, yeah. We’re doing yoga, right? I would practice what I learned in class, but couldn’t do it like I did just a couple hours beforehand. I was told patience, everybody is overwhelmed, and learning yoga can take lifetimes. My questions weren’t ignored or not heard. Different. Like, I mattered.

Okay, now the tough part. The triggers. I remembered specifically that Michele said that yoga is sometimes weird. I think at that particular time she was talking about the Ujjayi breathing technique. I admitted to her that I felt I was not able to stay present hearing this breathing. She said that voicing my concern was appropriate and she would help me stay present and would give me some reminders on how I could do this on my own.

During my struggles to stay present, I noticed that within these classes I felt safe. This took some time. At the end of each class, when we would do the Savasana, I am not sure why, but in both of these classes, sometimes, tears would roll down my cheeks. This was a pretty new experience for me. Didn’t understand how this was to be, the absorption of what I just learned had turned to tears.

As in other parts of my life, I started to make goals, challenges, for a yoga future beyond the six weeks series. I really did want to learn to stand on my head. Michele sent me an article on how to build up strength by doing the dolphin pose after teaching it in class one day. I read the article and looked at the pictures and got on my mat. I got my butt up in the air and I immediately broke down and started to cry. It was at this very time I learned about acceptance. I finally accepted the sexual assault. I accepted that I was not strong enough to do a headstand NOW, but I would work on this endeavor so maybe in a month or so, I could be closer to having my feet up in the air.

I can now talk about what happened to me. I don’t have to be strong enough. I don’t have to be anything enough. I just…be present.

Laurie R.

EMBER at Tapestry: update

On June 25th, we taught the final class in our 12-week EMBER trauma-sensitive yoga and meditation curriculum to our first group of students at Tapestry, an extraordinary therapeutic community at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. The 11 weeks leading up to that class had been lively, sometimes sobering, and always moving. Most powerful of all was witnessing the sensitivity, tenacity, and courage of the twelve participants, who proved themselves willing to share, be honest, and take risks. 

At the heart of trauma-sensitive yoga is the practice of reclaiming the body. Many of our students had histories of overwhelming experience that left them vulnerable to intense and unpredictable agitation. Often, in response, they had learned to "numb out". In class, students progressed through gentle movement sequences that encouraged them to explore the ebb and flow of physical sensation, to feel and respond to the body's cues. The aim of the sessions was to help them develop a tolerance for a range of sensations, so that they could ultimately find steadiness and poise in the face of discomfort – and with that the capacity to take compassionate action to ease somatic and psychic distress.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the class was the students' eagerness to take that journey, even - sometimes especially - when it proved challenging. While practice in class could be fun and light-hearted, it was also grounded in painful reality, in the women's zeal to find effective means of responding to what was often unimaginable stress. In their generosity, insight, and hunger for change, they taught us - as yoga teachers, as mindfulness practitioners, and as human beings - at least as much as we taught them.

You can read their comments, and those of the Tapestry staff, on our "Testimonials" page. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all twelve of the women and to the brilliant Tapestry staff, whose support and enthusiasm for EMBER inspired us throughout. We are looking forward to returning to Tapestry, and to a second group of students, in September.



Why Ember

Here is some informal feedback we've received over the past 7 weeks.  The ladies have expressed the following as resulting from their EMBER training:

Decreased symptoms of depression

Decreased symptoms of ADHD

Increased ability to relax

Increased ability to feel (not "numb out")

Learning skills to deal with challenges

Learning tools to create space around intense feelings

Noticing self-destructive thoughts


Who is your hero?

What is the meaning of heroism? That’s a question that Michele and I were left pondering recently when we spent the day behind high walls and barbed wire at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. Our hosts were the staff and women of Tapestry, a therapeutic community that offers intensive residential treatment for inmates with a history of addiction. It’s at Tapestry where on April 9th we’ll be launching EMBER, our twelve-week course that uses the tools of mindfulness meditation and trauma-sensitive yoga to develop emotional resilience.


Tapestry is a sisterhood, a community where women live as a family and learn not just from clinical staff but also from each other. Our introduction to the structure of the program came from five of its current participants, who sat down with us to explain their journey through Tapestry’s five phases: from phase one, where they receive their initial orientation and assessment, to the final “cadre” phase, where they act as models and mentors to other inmates and assist staff with the program’s implementation and even its design. Through that gradual accumulation of responsibilities, the program works to build each woman’s capacity for self-awareness, problem solving, and skillful action. At its most effective, the program produces far-reaching and fundamental transformation, as participants deepen their ability to forge connections with others and to face the world in a spirit of honesty and trust.


The final hour of our day-long immersion was spent observing a group therapy session, where thirty women addressed the question “Who is your hero?” Each woman stood and read an account of the person whose heroism had touched her most deeply. What was striking about their intensely emotional stories was that the heroism described was not earth-shattering – not the sweeping, world-changing actions of a Mahatma Gandhi or a Martin Luther King. The heroism that mattered to them was simple and intimate: elderly grandmothers and teenaged nephews who stepped up in times of crisis, men and women who believed in them when they themselves couldn’t, and who, despite all their wrong turns and destructive behavior, were willing to sacrifice on their behalf.


What they described was unconditional love, and the heroism it prompted was indisputable. But as I listened, I was struck by another kind of heroism: a willingness to start over, no matter how difficult; a refusal to be defeated, no matter how bleak life seems. What permeated their stories – what made the atmosphere in the room so electric – was the sheer energy of that gritty, impassioned determination. It was a heroism borne of suffering, of having no choice but to look squarely at the demons that have shattered one’s life.


Joining the Tapestry program takes courage. Every woman who signs up to it commits to a rigorous schedule (wakeup call is 6 am), severe constraints on her freedom of movement, and round-the-clock monitoring by staff and peers. Above all, she commits to unflinching self-scrutiny and self-regulation. Through a daily regimen of encounter groups, topic-based seminars, and manual labor, members of the sisterhood learn to see, and to alter, patterns of self-sabotaging thought and action. It takes time, and patience, and, at times, superhuman strength.


In many ways, the Tapestry program aligns with basic tenets of yogic philosophy. In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali sets out three foundations for purposeful (or, one might say, heroic) living: tapas (which literally means fire), svadhyaya (the study of self), and ishvara-pranidhana (surrender to the divine). Tapas means will, determination, the power of self-discipline. In Tapestry, it is present in the program’s emphasis on rigorous scheduling and disciplined labor. Svadhyaya means the cultivation of self- knowledge. In Tapestry that forms the core of daily routine, in the therapeutic groups that encourage each woman to examine her habits, behaviors, and thoughts. Ishvara pranidhana means trusting in a higher power, be it God, or nature, or the universe, or the enveloping force of human kindness. In Tapestry, it means letting go of defenses that no longer serve you. It means learning to build a capacity for trust, in the understanding that some things in life are beyond your control.


In bringing EMBER to Tapestry, our aim is to use the tools of meditation and yoga to deepen each of those foundations. The very structure of the EMBER curriculum provides the discipline of regular practice: twelve 90-minute weekly classes, with practical and written “homework” in between. That curriculum consists of asana practices and guided meditations that offer the women a novel form of self-scrutiny: the minute observation of physical sensations and of the physical properties of emotions and thoughts. Above all, EMBER emphasizes surrender – a deep and profound acceptance of whatever sensations arise in each moment. In encouraging that attitude of acceptance, we aim to strengthen each woman’s capacity for resilience: her ability to ride out discomfort, to trust in her innate, basic goodness, to understand that whatever unpleasant feeling she is experiencing will eventually fade away.


The women of Tapestry face many obstacles: incarceration, addiction, and, very often, a history of abuse and trauma that makes it difficult for them to feel truly safe. Our goal with EMBER will be to help them develop a sense of safety. The first step in that direction will be learning to recognize what safety feels like. From there, they can build up a personal “tool kit” of practices that help them to cultivate safety within themselves. To us, every woman in Tapestry is already a hero. Our hope is that we can play a part in helping them embrace that fact for themselves.