In many parts of Ohio, competitive speech and debate is a sport. I caught the bug my sophomore year where I tagged along with my best friend to a tournament. There was something about the pageantry of even a run-of-the-mill weekly speech tournament that was magical—and I wanted to be a part of it! I was transitioning out of figure skating, deciding to focus more on academics, and competitive speech seemed to be the perfect fit for me. I got to dress up, perform, and be my geeky self…how could I not fall in love? I went to a city school with a very small speech team and it made me proud when I was able to represent and often best kids from the Catholic schools and the big suburban juggernaut teams. It felt like I was a skater from a small country going up against the Russian powerhouses! In my competitive days I was never the best of the best, although I got a chance to try out many new ideas that would be the root of what I now identify as my professional voice. Junior year I made it to state and senior year I made it to nationals. Although constantly stuck in the second or third place slot my senior year and bitterly let down at some big tournaments, I remember my time on the speech team as my most precious in high school. Some of my dearest friends, many from those powerhouse schools, were made during my time in competitive speech.
So it’s no wonder, like any obsessed sports fan, that I spent the better part of fifteen years after leaving high school involved in high school speech in some manner as a coach. And coaching young people on several different types of teams proved even more transformational than my own high school speech experience. Yes, I was a “speechie” in high school, as we are often called, yet being a coach crystalized the power of that identity in my being. For this reason, I dedicated my newest book Process Not Perfection: Expressive Arts Solutions for Trauma Recovery to my students, the “speechies” that I coached between 1997 (the year I graduated from high school) until 2011. As I reference in the dedication, they truly taught me the power of expressive arts as healing.
I coached on four teams during that time—I assisted at two schools while I was an undergraduate. I had the privilege of being the head coach of Chaney High School, my alma mater, when I was in graduate school and during the first two years of clinical career. To coach a Chaney kid to a state title, and coach another to three state final rounds in three different categories during his tenure, brought my “small team” kid experience full circle. I thought I was done…what could top that? Then in 2008, when I moved to one of those suburbs I once growled at when I was a city school kid in Youngstown, OH, the head coach of that team (an old friend of mine), pulled me in for one more go as his assistant. I got to coach on two state championship teams, a new experience for me having always either been on a small team or having coached one.
During all of these stints I met such awesome young people—I can think of no other adjective for their spirits or for the experiences I had coaching them. Coaching is not quite the best word. Rather, I had the privilege of guiding them through process, the construct I now celebrate in my work as a trauma-focused expressive arts therapist. To be in process as you prepare for competitive speech, especially if you want to see good results, is to be constantly willing to engage in trial and error. As a coach I often guided my kids through one sentence of their speech or performance piece in thirty different ways, just to test it out and notice what best popped. This same idea applies whether a student is in more of a performance-based category like drama, humor, or poetry reading, or one of the classic speaking categories like original oratory.
Working with my students is where I really developed the competency of listening with my body, a skill that has served me well as a trauma-focused therapist and expressive artist. You listen and you notice with something that often can’t be put into words for a sense of “That’s it!” These moments can happen at 7:00pm at night in a high school classroom, long after other students have cleared out. And then your student may take it to a tournament, try it out, and it falls flat, which can be an invitation back into process. Or, they may take the fruits of their work to a tournament and, following the flow of their intuition, may create even more magic than you or they even thought possible during those hours of practice.
I wish that I could tell stories about all of my students in this piece, but there is simply not enough room! A book wouldn’t even suffice. In reality, they all taught me something. Even the kids who resisted the depth of practice it would take to be competitively successful taught me about process, whether that was getting to explore resistance or to realize that for some kids it’s never about winning. The process is in the having fun, enjoying friendships and trying something new in their high school speech experience. In expressive arts therapy we talk a great deal about the work not being outcome-focused. Because competitive speech is, well, competitive, the end result was imperative to many of the students I coached. It was to me at the end of my high school speech career which is why I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I could have. Yet I inevitably found that the students who were willing to dive in and embrace the process—the trial and error, explore the range depth—ended up being most successful in terms of trophies and titles won. I think there is a lesson here for those of us who pursue the arts professionally in one way or another—the power is in the process. Focus on the process, and you may be utterly amazed at the outcomes you are able to achieve.
And then we can pick apart what it even means to be successful. In reflecting back on my own high school speech career, I never came close to achieving the success that many of my students did. Yet I now have a professional career and public image that is based largely on my ability to speak publicly. I remember the first time I offered a continuing education training for other professionals in 2007, one of my colleagues asked, “Where did you learn to hold a crowd like that?” I chuckled and replied, “You have no idea,” thinking fondly on all of those hours I spent preparing with my own coaches and friends in high school, talking to walls (a common warm up practice on tournament day), and then working with my own students. The trophies have been thrown away or recycled and yet the fruits of the process remain.
Now looking back, the students who had the most impact on me are those who were never major contenders for awards. Yet I saw them blossom in terms of confidence and ability to stand tall and speak their voice. I remember one student who came to me during my second stint as an assistant, asking me if he could still be on the speech team even though he had a speech impediment. I adored his spirit right away and welcomed him aboard. He is now a lawyer. The person I coached to the state title at Chaney is a teacher and speech coach herself in Baltimore, and I beam with the pride of a mother when I see the pictures she posts at tournaments with her own students.
So many of my former students are making a real difference in this world, regardless of their chosen profession. Through the wonder of social media and texting, I am still in touch with many of the young people I had the joy of coaching through the years. Instead of talking about gesture placement and intonation, we now talk about life. It warms my heart that they can still seek out my experience, strength and hope… and it’s a two-way street. When I hear some of the young people, I coach make such intelligent life connections that I wish I would have made at 22 or 23, I smile and thank them for sharing a lesson with me.
And this is what I mean by all life being a chance to engage in process.
“I have to do what?!?”
My gut squelched as I voiced my protest in the form of this question. For years I yearned to take a full 200-hour yoga teacher training. Because of my hectic schedule with my own training work, arranging one never seemed possible. In the interim, I committed to taking many weekend modules in trauma-informed and recovery yoga, in addition to deepening my own practice. In 2015, I formally discovered the Amrit Yoga system developed by Yogi Amrit Desai, carrier of the Kripalu lineage to the United States. Having been invited to Amrit Yoga Institute (AYI) as a guest teacher in a recovery program, I immediately fell in love with the Integrated Amrit Method and knew that when the time came to take a full teacher training, it would be at AYI. Several amazing things fell into alignment and I was able to take the full 200-hour program in the Summer of 2018, split into two, ten-day modules. When I presented for the first module, my teachers informed me that when returning for the second module, I would be tested on the Amrit method script… and 70% compliance was required to pass!
After my initial question, more protestation flowed: “They can’t box me into a script!,” “I am anything but a scripted person, what the hell did I get myself into?!,” “I haven’t had to do this kind of rote learning since graduate school…what do they expect me to learn from this!?!” Then it dawned on me: the teaching methods employed by the AYI team are not too dissimilar from what I ask my eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) trainees to do. In EMDR therapy training, even in a system as mindfulness-infused as my own Institute for Creative Mindfulness curriculum, trainees are asked to stick to a script. In the heart of EMDR therapy, often referred to as the trauma reprocessing stages, the script is very precise as required by the EMDR International Association. While there is room to adapt in some of the other phases, we still ask our trainees to follow a prepared script as we have found this to be the most solid method for educating the majority of our adult trainees who pass through the program. A key difference is that I was being asked to memorize the Amrit Method script and we don’t expect memorization from our trainees, simply that they read from the prescribed script until it becomes second nature to them.
While my challenge felt slightly more difficult, I knew the process would allow me to step into the shoes of what I’ve been asking my trainees to do over the years. A key factor in what helped me to stay optimistic about learning the script is that I as the teacher was allowed to use my own words to teach what is called the second part of the pose in Amrit Yoga. The second part of the pose is the artistry—giving students the time to bask in the stillness of the pose after taking deliberate movement in the first part of the pose (what I had to memorize). A similar process occurs in learning EMDR therapy. There is room for bringing your own clinical judgment and artistry into the practice of EMDR; yet this ought to only come in the context of first assuring a solid technique in one’s set up.
In my several month process of studying on my own and then returning for the second module of intense practice before being tested, I threw every tantrum possible. In addition to the standard issue “I can’t do this” and “I’m incapable,” I found myself beginning to resent the yoga method that I really loved very much and credited with changing my life. I did not feel the same allegiance to Yogi Desai that many of my fellow students and teachers felt and the challenge to “respect his words and his language” didn’t particularly resonate. I did, however, resonate with an explanation given by a teacher that the scripted portion of the pose is designed for us to know how to get people into and out of poses safely. By learning time-tested language for this, the burden of having to grasp for optimal language was removed. As Kalindi, my small group mentor whom I resented many times during the process, taught: “When you don’t have to worry about the language you’re using, something Higher will come through.”
I fought the notion that using someone else’s words—granted words and concepts that I liked very much—would allow my Higher Self to come through in my teaching. By the end of the training process I realized that my dear Kalindi was right. The moment of realization didn’t even come when I took my exam. Although I got through it well and was even able to correct an error that I made with a reasonable degree of elegance, it was in our final class for the whole community that the magic happened. Each of us in our group got to teach a pose and at the relative last minute, I was assigned what I perceived to be one of the more difficult poses in the Amrit sequence: Warrior I. There are a lot of moving parts in the script for Warrior I even though this is a yoga pose I’ve practiced for almost a decade. Getting up in front of my entire cohort and other members of the community, I breathed into it and didn’t experience a shred of nerves. The pose just flowed through me and the experience in my body was one of the most powerful I ever felt as a teacher. And I teach for a living! By time the second part of the pose rolled around and I shared from the organic learning of my own practice, it clicked why Yogi Desai and the entire AYI team put me through this process. I felt a freedom within the structure, and it was glorious!
Throughout the process, and especially in that final class, I realized the power of why we have EMDR trainees learn from a script. For many years I bristled against this teaching methodology. Sure, I learned from the script when I did my own EMDR training in 2005-2006 because I had to. From that initial learning, I found myself resisting the technique of it and improvising a great deal. Much of this adaptation was clinically justified, artistic, and especially needed in serving the most complex clients whose processing work in EMDR therapy will not be very likely to follow a textbook flow. I had a fabulous early consultant who helped me to navigate the finesse around adaptation and modification. After I finished my consultation period, however, I was drawn to other approaches to EMDR therapy that were even more modified and less structured. There was a period of a few years where I taught and even advocated for many of these less structured approaches to EMDR therapy. In becoming an official EMDR trainer, a role that I resisted accepting for years out of fear that I wasn’t “technical” enough, I learned to fall in love with the scripts and the protocols of EMDR in a new way. I discovered that in working with the majority of adult learners that we serve, having the scripted core protocol as the base is the foundation from which a successful EMDR practice in built. As I discuss with my co-author Stephen Dansiger in my latest book EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness for Trauma-Focused Care (2018), the standard protocol is rich with mindful language and concepts, evidence of Dr. Shapiro’s own foundation as a mindfulness practitioner. Granted it took years to work through my initial tantrums about not being a person who exists well in a box to see the beauty in the technical aspects of EMDR. I learned to appreciate that the principles, techniques, and protocols were not the boxes I once feared them to be. Rather, they are tools like paintbrushes, paints, and canvases that allow my clients, with my guidance, to create works of art.
The words of Nirali, my lead teacher throughout the yoga teacher training experience at AYI, sum up what I’ve come to learn as both a yoga teacher and an EMDR therapist/trainer. In one of our closing classes she said, “Learn the rules so that you know how to break them elegantly when you need to. But if you don’t learn the rules you just come off as amateur.” For anyone currently struggling to learn any system that makes you feel boxed into a script, I encourage you to consider this wisdom. If years down the road you are still feeling boxed in and stifled there may be a larger issue to consider here about whether the approach in which you’ve been trained is right for you. My hope is that after an initial period of practice in any scripted or protocol-driven approach you will feel more liberated to be yourself instead of less liberation. This is the art of allowing your Higher Self to shine through in your work, in your life, and in all that you do!
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.