Trauma is by definition undigested impressions, or an overwhelming experience which one did not have the tools or resources to know how to assimilate what was useful and release what was not. So the trauma settles into the tissues of both body and mind, causing progressive mental and physical disease, until one finds resources to assist in trauma discharge and stepping off the cycle of reenactment into a vortex of healing. Yoga can be a portal to receive and assimilate healthier lifestyle habits because as the body feels better, the easier it becomes to make other positive changes. Many have no idea they could live in a little less pain, so their first moments after a first class can be profound.
Many people are aware of yoga’s benefit to the body’s musculature, fewer are aware of the effect on the nervous system and even fewer know about its assistance in metabolism/ assimilation and elimination. There is very little taught to children (who grow up to become adults) about mindful eating, healthy digestion or elimination, both physical and mental/ emotional. But we all know if there is a backup, everything is thrown off. And we also have all experienced that when we are full, of our own story, or a sensation like pain, whether a headache, bellyache, or depression, we have no energy to attune to anyone else or even listen to another bit of news- we are exhausted. Sleep helps us to process stored emotion as much as the subconscious can make sense of it. But learning how to ‘let go’ or just ‘let be’ is complicated, often not taught and generally unknown. It is considered by many in our culture to be so much more “powerful” to retaliate. And resentment is a major cause of stress and likely drives many diseases like cancer to their end.
Some people step into the cycle of healing by hitting a bottom of some kind, and choosing life. Often the “bottom” involves a substance, habit or addiction, usually involving intense emotion. Sometimes a person may notice a hurtful or destructive pattern on their own, or a loved one will point it out, and perhaps they will seek counseling. Sometimes it is a “lower bottom” like jail or homelessness, which will make someone want to reflect on their lives and emotions. However healing comes, it will be incomplete if the body is left out. This is why talk therapy is limited and therapists are often wondering why people continue to enact the same patterns. Healing is also incomplete if the mind and story is left out, like a yogi or dancer who doesn’t get talk therapy.
One can remember what happened, and even know intellectually that they are not at fault. But on a subconscious level, we may still feel we deserved or even asked for the trauma, that something is wrong with us and we still need to be punished. Whatever destructive forms the expression of self-punishment may take, the root must be uprooted, and new self-constructive habits must be put in place. Often, one does not need to know what happened to uproot the causes. For example, one can hit a bottom and have to go through some kind of treatment, but if they keep associating with the same people, and listening to the same kind of heavy metal or rap, smoking, and drinking, they will probably end up in treatment again.
We have to be inspired to make positive change. Sometimes, enough punishment will inspire that change, but too often not. Perhaps we will see someone who has made a change and they radiate a certain glow that is inspiring- people who don’t have that glow want whatever that person is doing or taking. Education can impart that inspiration if given with sufficient practice. Some people need to know the results of clinical trials to believe anything, other people can be inspired by a flash of a smile. Once we make the choice to make change, we must integrate the inspiration with daily practice. Obstacles always arise, and it is so easy to just fall back to old habits that seemed to work once. Having a guide, or several, is imperative for change to work. And only change made slowly will stick.
“Faking it till we make it,” that is: changing our daily habits, including our posture, is a way to sustain the practices until our negative self-beliefs shift. This is where yoga and five sense therapies like mindful eating, breathing techniques or aromatherapy can become important tools.
Yoga Offers Choice: Changing Posture Changes Mood
“Our belief that we need to fix or improve ourselves reflects our identification with a very limited image of who we are. Do not use this practice to perpetrate more violence. Let it end here. It is not skillful to tense towards understanding. Nor is it skillful to let your attention go lax, as it will most likely drift toward something potentially more interesting. Neither does agreeing or disagreeing help.
“Usually when we try to learn a skill, we focus on the activity or behavior, not on what is taking place inside our own experience. When we shift our attention into our listening, we become aware of the edge of our feeling, sensing, knowing. When we extend our presence beyond that edge, we grow our general capacity to learn, and mastery of the skill comes as a natural consequence.” (~Risa Kaparo, Awakening Somatic Intelligence, p87).
Yoga can be a portal for people to access the power of choice and the inherent wisdom of their body. Trauma, some substances, and technology disconnect people from spirit, sometimes their intelligence, and their body. Yoga and mindful daily habits can help reconnect these. The breath reconnects the mind to the body, and our practice of returning focus to a sweet place of choice harmonizes the two hemispheres of the brain, builds neuroplasticity, and through self-discipline, allows real freedom to emerge in time off the mat.
Like a chrysalis: if you cut the cocoon at the midpoint of its development, the fluid would leak out, and there will be no caterpillar. The cocoon is a metaphor for the safe space in which transformation can occur. Creating a safe space that is pleasant for all five senses is paramount for a traumatized person to be able to initiate a healing practice. In this way, we learn that by changing the stimulus in through these five senses, we can change the quality of energy out.
Restorative, or at least gentle, yoga can be an excellent, accessible place for a beginner to feel safe enough to start. It is excellent for seniors and most people with injuries. Especially for people with trauma, where the body has become the enemy, what we may have endeavored to numb or not feel, the first yoga class can create a profound awakening to feeling simply by slowing down consciously. Slowing down can also be a huge challenge to people who identify with doing and productivity.
In surrendering the body’s weight in a comfortable position with the support of props, and in transitioning between postures slowly, we are able to create an environment ideal for healing: a sustained duration of time where the parasympathetic nervous system repairs and restores damaged cells, nerves and tissues. It effectively demonstrates the principle that when we feel supported as people, we are most apt to make life-affirming, constructive choices.
Fascia, or connective tissue, and the nervous system take 90-120 seconds to affect in any given new posture, whereas muscles take 30-90 seconds. Trauma is held in every layer, but is known to be stored in fascia and the nervous system. So allowing the body to remain in supported positions, to the point of relaxation for the nervous system, affects change at a deeper, more lasting level.
Students will need reminding to listen to their body’s wisdom, and that they have permission to back out of a pose early if there is any discomfort, especially listening to sharp pain. Many students will stay in a pose through pain because they may have a memory of being punished for not doing what the teacher, or parent, or other authority, says. In a practice where people are encouraged to remain present, people are still apt to forget a recent suggestion in favor of their past conditioning.
When we have attended to our needs with enough inner listening, and used our breathing to release stress and trauma from its holding patterns, we open to the greatest gift we have for others in our lives: the ability to attune and empathize with others. Attunement is a balanced modeling of presence in the social engagement system.
Peter Levine mentions several studies in his book In An Unspoken Voice about how one cannot change their mood if their posture remains the same. Essentially, one cannot get into a good mood while remaining in a slumped, closed off position. One cannot be in a bad mood if their body is open and their breath is full.
Yoga and Mindfulness offer a choice, not limited to a restricted posture of pain, which many traumatized people’s bodies often become. We still have to make a choice to shift our own posture when triggered. And we will habitually close off to what we perceive as a threat. And if we have been traumatized, we will often perceive more threats than actually exist! But with mindfulness and practice there is an option and greater potential for recognition and making a conscious choice to shift.
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