It is more common than we think that people with a significant degree of trauma will turn to yoga for healing and even more common for trauma survivors to turn to strong and disciplined physical practices. Unfortunately, most yoga teachers and most students aren’t fully aware of how to support themselves and others in the process of unravelling the complexity of the trauma in a safe way. Students walk in and out of yoga classes everyday without sharing their feedback with teachers. So, sometimes, as teachers, we simply don’t notice or know that a student may have just walked out of class feeling exposed, raw, vulnerable, and confused about how a practice that has a potential for healing has just surfaced the very adverse emotional state that he or she has spent so much time suppressing and masking. Or sometimes, the immediate feeling after a class is a lifted energy. The adverse emotional state may surface a few hours later, making it seem like the emotions have nothing to do with the practice and leaving the student even more at risk for derailment of suffering if there is no context for understanding what is actually occurring.
I know many people are told to practice yoga for their healing, but when strong emotions surface they want to run out the door. We also don’t name or notice the students who shut the door to the potential benefits of the practice, because they simply don’t come back. I see these people in my private practice and hear their stories. If a student experiences a surfacing of emotions and doesn’t know that it is a natural and expected part of the healing process, the student may simply conclude that the practice isn’t for them, or that the practice made it all worse.
Yoga has tremendous healing benefits, but I recommend it to people as a complimentary practice during a process of counseling or therapy in order to integrate and understand the changes that are occurring. An expression I strongly believe in is, “you need to heal it to feel it”. You need to allow the sadness that underlies anger, for instance, to surface and process the sadness if you want to let go of the anger. Conversely, to allow the emotions to surface without having any context to what is going on psychologically and physiologically in the process can be equally unhelpful.
Before addressing how to support your own recovery from trauma and trying to understand someone else’s healing, first let’s define trauma or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). In a sense, trauma is self-defined. What one person experiences as traumatic, another may experience as trivial. What one person copes with easily, another may live negative effects for years to come. There are no degrees of trauma – it is not caused by a specific type of event or with any specific severity. Whether we are talking about emotional neglect, abuse, war, a car accident, a devastating break up, the loss of a loved one, or a severe abandonment is not important. Some incidences in our lives are remembered as more traumatic than others because they are influenced by the context in which they happened, how we felt about life at the time, as well as our emotional resiliency. In general, trauma is present when our nervous system is hijacked by stressors, and regardless of association, they can send us right back to the very incident that reflects the origin of the trauma. Trauma can be experienced as a result of years and years of repeated exposure to significant stressors, resulting in the nervous system getting locked into a particular default pattern of fight, flight, or freeze.
The fight, flight, or freeze response
Generally speaking, the “fight, flight, or freeze” responses to events happen under real or perceived threat (the threat sometimes being a misapprehension of reality), our system tends to respond in one of three ways. We either exit the situation (flight), aggressively confront the threat (fight), or we become physically frozen and psychologically dissociate from reality in order to protect our system from experiencing any pain (freeze). If a person has experienced trauma where one of these responses allowed them to cope, that response may become a default whenever they are in a stressful situation. For other people, they develop a default pattern that represents the very thing they wish they could have done in the moment of the trauma.
The physiological existence of trauma
The body has a memory for these responses, which from the autonomic nervous system. When we are under threat, the brain knows that there is no time to communicate back and forth between the mind and body to make a decision. The brain simply responds, sending signals more quickly and efficiently in order to ensure survival – clearly, our response to threat isn’t necessarily one that is consciously and mindfully made.
There are two aspects of the physiological existence that are important to note: fascia tissue. Our fascia tissue is our psychological armour as well as the tissue that holds our physical body together. Our fascia tissue holds on to things, tightens, becomes dehydrated, whenever there is a lack of mobility in certain areas of the body. A lack of mobility can sometimes be caused by psychological holding patterns in the body.
With a consistent physical practice, the body releases and begins to let go – resulting in emotions surfacing
So, the information above hopefully gives you a little bit of context in regards to the relationship between emotional trauma (psychology) and it’s presence in the physical body (physiology). When turning to mind-body practices such as yoga, it is important to focus in re-integrating the connection and communication between the mind and the body. The suffering, or the traumatic hijacking feeling of re-experiencing events of the past is due to a lack of communication between your mind and body. Your body is experiencing something and your mind thinks you are reliving a negative experience when in actuality, it’s not. As you begin to let go of some of the stored tension in the fascia tissue, your body might say “hey, I need that for protection!”. The body, in this case, might resist change. If you can remain present, conscious, and allow the tissue to release and let go of the holding pattern, all of the emotions that were stored in the body (in other words, the emotions that you suppressed in order to not feel the pain related to the trauma) will come to the surface. It is normal, it is natural, and it’s healthy.
When you increase your breath, emotions may surface
In addition to the movement part of the practice, the lengthening and opening of your breath can also bring suppressed emotions to the surface. This is fairly simple and straight forward. When we are under stress, we hold our breath. When you let that go and increase your breath to free up the held tension, all the emotions related to the stress aren’t being controlled and contained anymore. On several occasions, I have done some deep relaxation work with people and we lengthen and deepen the breath. In the moment of the relaxation and immediately afterwards, they report feeling amazing and not having felt so relaxed in years. I always give them the disclaimer, however, that emotions may surface in the next 48 hours. I provide this disclaimer for a reason. In times when I haven’t explained and warned them and the person experiences all the sadness and emotional suffering that was underlying their stress, the person thinks, “oh my goodness, I can’t go back”. When providing the explanation and warning, it allows for people to ask questions, understand it, and to expect the ups and downs without fearing the arising of the emotions. With the disclaimer, the person needs support in understanding what to do with those feelings: how to be present to them in order to allow them to arise and pass.
Supporting your practice with complimentary counseling
Turning to yoga as a complimentary approach to healing trauma requires us to build a container for our practice where we can go into the experience of an emotion and take some relief from it, then go back in, take more relief, and continue to go in and out of the emotion until it feels safe to stay and allow the emotion to rise and pass. The ebbs and flows of the difficult emotions subside overtime. The practice requires an intention of being non-reactive to the emotions that surface, staying present in order to remember that you are not in the past event but in fact in a present and safe location. If you or someone you know is turning to yoga as a healing modality related to a history of emotional trauma, I always recommend supporting the practice with therapy or counseling. Ideally, with a counselor/therapist who has a background in yoga, meditation, or mindfulness or with a yoga therapist who understands mental health. There are more and more practitioners specializing in the mind-body connections and the combined therapies are a great recipe for sustainable wellness.
For teachers who witness students going through or disclosing symptoms of trauma, support them by normalizing the process, keeping your students present, and making referrals for therapy to support them in the process of their healing if they aren’t already receiving support.
For students who have a past of trauma and who are turning to yoga, be courageous, be present through the ups and downs, be loving toward yourselves and be accepting of your healing as a beautiful process or re-connecting.
I share this evolving understanding of trauma from a place of love and from my commitment to contributing to the happiness of each and every person who wishes to heal. If you have any comments, questions, stories to share, or if you have any knowledge or experience that can contribute to my understanding of this topic, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Mind-Body Counselling & Education