Foreword by Rob Schware, Co-Founder & Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation
I first met Dr. Nicole Schnackenberg when she came on board as a trustee of the Give Back Yoga Foundation UK in 2019. During our first meeting, I was immediately struck by her warmth and wisdom. In this heartfelt interview, Nicole reflects on her yoga journey: what stimulated (and sustains) her appetite for yoga, and how her personal therapeutic work informs and supports her ability to offer a therapeutic space to others.
Now, here’s her interview:
What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?
I vividly remember sitting on my sofa in tears one rainy, gloomy Sunday afternoon in winter 2012. I was a Special Needs teacher at the time with numerous children in my class on the autism spectrum. I was weeping for the students who so often seemed to be in considerable emotional pain; acutely dysregulated, disconnected and distressed. I had explored many ways of reaching and soothing them with varying, though disappointing, levels of success. An element of my tears that afternoon was helplessness and frustration. What else could I try?
I opened my heart and put the question out to the universe. Softly yet unmistakably the word ‘yoga’ came into focus. It took me rather by surprise. I had long desired yet resisted walking into a yoga class due to fears related to personal experiences of trauma. Yet my heart began to beat faster, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled and I knew deep within me that the response I had felt made sense.
A matter of weeks later I was on a plane to Texas from the UK to engage in a weeks’ intensive training in Yoga for the Special Child. I was blown away. I discovered not only efficacious ways of connecting with and soothing the children and young people in my care but also an avenue of tremendous healing for myself.
My appetite for yoga had been stimulated! I soon had a daily personal practice, enrolled in yoga teaching training and further therapeutic yoga trainings and found my way onto the Eat Breathe Thrive facilitator programme, drawn as I was by a past diagnosis of anorexia and an ongoing felt sense of discomfort in my body. My personal and professional journey continues to unfold and flourish while the motivators remain the same: to soothe and regulate the nervous system; to increase heart rate variability and thus expand the Window of Tolerance; to support the development of interoceptive awareness; to connect heart-to-heart with others, particularly those who feel disconnected and misunderstood; to experience and offer an insight into the true self; and to envelope the seemingly finite within the infinite.
I love seeing how people are taking yoga into service and therapeutic realms. I am also wary of the pitfalls of hierarchies and assumptions that come with a desire to “help” or “serve.” Those of us who choose to serve must commit ourselves to work deeply on ourselves before and during our service. Could you say something based on your experience about the dangers if you don’t do this inner work?
We are all mirrors to each other. On a basic physiological level, it is extremely difficult (one might even say impossible!) for a dysregulated nervous system to regulate another dysregulated nervous system. Through increasing my understanding and felt sense of my nervous system and finding ways to come into my Window of Tolerance, my conviction is that I can offer a therapeutic space within which clients are subtly invited into their Window too. Much of this takes place beneath the level of conscious awareness in the way in which the pupils of our eyes dilate and contract in response to each other’s nervous system states; the synchronisation of our breathing rate; the resonance of our heart rates and so on.
Working through my personal trauma has also been vital, supplemented by training in trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive therapeutic yoga approaches. Yoga classes and even, sadly, therapeutic yoga spaces can be re-traumatising without a sensitive awareness of how trauma can impact and show up in a person’s presentation and experience. I passionately believe we need to be ever mindful of power differentials and their potential ramifications; respectful and facilitating of clients’ sense of agency and choice; and careful to view every behaviour as adaptive and understandable: as a striving towards healing.
I’m also constantly inspired by the ever-changing application of yogic practices driven by the needs of students and clients. In what ways is your work an art and a science?
I view my work within the therapeutic yoga field as very much an art and a science in equal measure! I think the physiology will always fascinate and drive me to deeper understandings of how the systems of the body can be both stimulated and soothed by the various practices and approaches within yoga. I think yoga will also continue to be, for me, a primary space of creativity, exploration, playfulness and curiosity. I am constantly and infinitely amazed by the utter beauty which so regularly emerges from stepping into a space with clients without expectation; yet with a very present and palpable sense of the soul and of the indomitability of the human spirit: of hope.