How Meditation + Breathwork Helped Me Cope with the LA Fires

woolsey fire aftermath in la

I was driving home from my childhood best friend’s house after mourning the news of the mass shooting at Borderline in my hometown of Thousand Oaks. There was a plume of smoke in the direction of Ventura County that was confirmed to be a wildfire crawling its way up the Camarillo grade.

We get fires every year so it didn’t feel like a big deal. That all changed as the night continued.

By 8pm in Westlake Village where my mother recently moved, the sirens were nonstop. Another fire had broken out to the south of us and winds were picking up to speeds of 50mph.

KCAL News was playing in the living room - each time I’d walk in it seemed like another neighborhood I grew up in was being evacuated.

Oak Park.

Old Agoura.

Las Virgenes.

For the first time in my life, my body reacted viscerally to what I saw on the screen.

The deep orange and red flames, the black smoke, and the families evacuating their homes.

My insides started to violently shake and I felt my heart beating out of my chest. It was as if I was freezing cold, but add on the gut feeling of impending doom.

I told my mom it was time to go. That we needed to get out. We would be safe at a family house in the valley.

She thought I was paranoid so we went on with our night and the feeling inside my body eventually settled down.

At 12am her friend was evacuated and came to stay with us.

At 5am, I woke up to the sound of my mom packing bags.

The fire had jumped the freeway and the 101 was closed in both directions.

We were surrounded by fire and the cable had gone out so there was no way of knowing exactly where the fire was headed.

From 5am-10am, I was in a state of distress. I had never felt what it really meant to be out of control until this morning. We tried to evacuate and the roads were closed so we were forced to go back home. I felt stuck, terrified, and frustrated that I was robbed of my choice to stay or leave.

When we realized we would likely have to sit through the horrifying disaster happening in all directions of us, my mom decided to go to the grocery store to stock up on food and water. While she was gone, the conditions worsened.

Ash began to fly around us in the sky.

I could see flames on Lady Face Mountain, less than a mile away from her home. I could see flames across the freeway inching closer towards our home.

The sky was no longer blue. Instead, it was black with daunting shades of red and orange in the sky. It felt like hell on Earth.

It was in that moment where I knew we had to try and get out. The entire city was under mandatory evacuation and the firefighters and police were spread so thin that they couldn’t come around to every neighborhood telling us to leave. It was up to us.

Our cars were packed so the moment my mom got back from the store we left. Luckily, there was a back route around Simi Valley that would lead us to Reseda. There were two fires we had to pass, but the freeway looked open and promising.

That drive was one of the most stressful and frightening drives I’ve ever done. As we merged onto the 23 freeway, the smoke thickened and we could hardly see 30 yards in front of us. It looked like we were driving directly into a fire that was claiming homes in the neighborhood of Woodranch - another place I had spent time in growing up.

By the time we made it to Reseda, I was emotionally and physically drained.

The news played in the background of my thoughts. Homes were destroyed, the fire wasn’t contained, and the wind conditions continued to pick up.

We were safe, but it wasn’t over.

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I share this story with everyone reading so you understand what it is like to be in the midst of devastation. You may have felt those visceral feelings before in different circumstances in your life. You may have been another victim of the Woolsey fire. I share because it is cathartic for me to release it. I share because I have a way of coping with the trauma.

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Almost a week later and the fire continues to wreak havoc on Southern California. It makes me emotional every time I think of the people who lost homes, animals, and most importantly, lives.

Natural disasters don’t give a shit if you are a democrat or a republican. Fires don’t care what color your skin is or how much you make.

None of that matters -  we are all equally affected by the devastation that took place.

As a meditation teacher, it is my duty to share with you the tools that I’ve used to work through the trauma that was caused by the Woolsey fires. I don’t care who you are, where you live, or how much experience you have with mindfulness practices.

These are tools that you can use right now.

These are tools that will help you process what has happened.

Combining meditation and breathwork is a technique that will balance your autonomic nervous system - you may know it as fight or flight and rest + digest.

When the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is engaged, the entire body is thrown off. You’ll likely feel stressed or anxious, a tightness in the chest, or tension in the shoulders and jaw. Internally, the vital organs aren’t properly functioning together because the brain is essentially saying IT’S TIME TO FIGHT.

For example, when I had that visceral feeling throughout the body, my fight or flight was engaged. The body does this to protect you, but it’s not necessary once you are free from harm's way.

If you are not in danger, the parasympathetic nervous system is active as a signal to “rest and digest.” While I wish it was as easy as leaving an area of devastation or trauma, often times our bodies hold on to the tension, stress, and “fight” well past when necessary.

That’s where meditation and breath work come in.

By simply sitting, closing the eyes, and following your inhales and exhales, you are slowing down the heart rate, un-stressing the body, and returning back to your happy medium.

If you’ve never meditated before or used a breathing technique, follow the instructions below:

Inhale for a count of 4.

Exhale for a count of 5.

Inhale for a count of 4.

Exhale for a count 6.

Inhale for a count of 4.

Exhale for a count of 7.

Inhale for a count of 4.

Exhale for a count of 8.

By elongating your exhales, you are releasing stress and tension that is withheld in the body. You should feel your shoulders soften, your heart rate slow, and your mind begin to calm down. This is the parasympathetic nervous system engaging within you.

You can do this for as long as you like - the longer the more effects it will have on your entire body + brain.

Using Meditation To Process Trauma

While the above is an immediate fix for soothing the mind and body after devastation, there are permanent effects of trauma that are stored in the body. Meditation, in my experience, helps to release it from the subconscious.

Whenever we meditate and sit through discomfort, we are allowing trauma and stress related to the experience to be exposed at the surface of our consciousness. We can re-feel the experience and breath through it as a way to process what happened to us.

Now, there are certain traumatic experiences that require more than simply meditating and breathing, but for this specific instance, I’ve found this to be highly potent at helping me recover.

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What is happening in Southern California - and across the globe for that matter - is jarring. We often don’t know how to respond because we never thought it would happen to us. Because of this, I am opening up my Alchemy Online Digital Workshop to anyone in Southern California that has been affected by the fires. If you’ve lost your home, evacuated or dealt with the aftermath of this devastation, I am here for you and I invite you to join my workshop at no cost.

You’ll learn meditation, breathwork, and other mindfulness practices that will fill up your toolbox of healing, thriving and re-establishing your life after the fires. It is my privilege to hold space for you. Please send an email to hi@avajohanna.com if you feel called to join the workshop. We are strong and we will get through this.

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Please help us in supporting all of the brave firefighters that are keeping our city safe. Donations can be made at: http://supportlafd.org/