A few days ago, my friend Anita was stalked and menaced in New York’s Union Square Station. Union Square was a familiar stop, but she had travelled on a different train than usual and didn’t know exactly where the stairs, the exits and entrances, were located on the new train’s platform. She walked along feeling a bit confused. It was early afternoon.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw, or maybe just sensed, that there was someone behind her, but when she turned to look no one was there.
Anita stepped into an elevator and was swiftly cornered by a very tall, slim man, the same man she had seen a few moments before. It was just the two of them.
At first, she thought he was going to rob her, and she figured, fine, take my purse, I don’t care. Then Anita realized that he wasn’t interested in robbing her, he wanted to hurt her. He waved a lit Bic lighter in front of her face, right in front of her face and eyes. He screamed, “I want to steal your soul. I’m going to steal your soul.”
Anita pictured severe damage to her left cheek, and she thought he would burn her eyes. She was glad she was wearing glasses, they felt a bit protective– even if they might not have been that effective their presence was a comfort. Anita said she pictured what it would be like to be hospitalized in a burn unit. She thought about the effect this would have on her family. She was scared she might go blind.
Somehow Anita understood that her best protection was to avoid eye contact and to hold very still and stay as calm as she could. She sensed that beneath this man’s violence he was very frightened and was trying to turn the tables and make her as scared as he was. So, she breathed deeply and tried to stay centered. She thinks this saved her from serious harm.
I’d like to pause this story for a moment of explanation. You might be wondering how Anita could stay calm at all. She probably wasn’t all that calm inside, but she seemed calm from the outside. Anita was a long-time meditator and yogi. She kept her breath long and regular. How did she hold still? Again, she has a steady yoga practice of many years’ duration, and staying still and centered is part of it.
He roared at her, “I want to steal your soul.” He was clearly psychotic. She wondered if he might have been following her for some time, waiting for his moment of opportunity. Or maybe it was just her bad luck to arrive at the station while he was lurking there, looking for a woman to terrify.
When the door to the elevator opened, she strode out resolutely, careful not to run.
She walked quickly but did not run because she thought if she ran he would run after her and attack her. Later she told me that she felt the man was like a wild animal, and that running away from him would be as dangerous as running away from a mountain lion who likes to chase its prey. She knew she wouldn’t be able to outrun him.
The man continued stalking Anita, hiding behind the subway columns and jumping out at her. She felt threatened and off balance. She looked for a police officer but didn’t find anyone.
Anita walked quickly to a safe area and called 911, where she reported what had happened. The officer who responded was consoling and said the police would be on the lookout. They took her phone number in case they found him, which was unlikely given the numerous tunnels and train lines that converge on Union Square.
Anita was saved by her ability to remain calm, which really means saved by the breath. That breath is the simple deep breathing technique called “deergha swassam” in Sanskrit, and “three-part breath” in English. The three-part breath is a handy resource when you’re feeling scared or anxious; it is also the foundation of meditation. Anita knows how to focus on her breath. She meditates every day; it was instinctual to turn to the breath to help her stay present emotionally and survive an ordeal.
How did Anita recover from her trauma? She felt scared and her muscles were tense for days. She was easily startled. Restorative techniques, including neurogenic yoga (a type of yoga developed to help people with trauma) and continued breath work helped her recover. Neurogenic yoga reaches deep into the body’s tissues to release the clenching and holding that comes with trauma. Breathwork helps people relax. Guided protective meditations were part of her support system, as were her loving family and friends.
Anita is also in therapy. Together with her therapist she put together the connections between the current traumatic events and earlier trauma that she had experienced, and those connections helped alleviate her fears too.
Anita is grateful to these two great traditions, psychotherapy and yoga therapy