What you really need to know about harnessing the power of yoga for trauma resolution and healing.
Trauma is not rare. In fact, the definition of trauma is any experience our nervous system cannot handle in the moment. As renowned NYC psychiatrist Mark Epstein writes in his recent book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, “trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people; it is the bedrock of our psychology.” At this point in our lives, we’ve all touched obvious suffering: heartbreak, grief, car accidents, health scares, perhaps even abuse. But, everyday fears, loneliness and disappointments are also traumatic. Trauma can be our greatest teacher, if we let it.
Every yoga class you teach or attend draws a room full of people carrying around various amounts of stress and trauma masquerading as tension in their body. In fact, when we learn to work wisely with trauma, it can reveal our greatest capacity for insight, self-knowledge, courage and compassion.
You may have heard the phrase: “Your issues are in your tissues.”
One of the greatest secrets of yoga is that it unlocks cellular memory in order to integrate unresolved emotional issues. As we stretch, breathe and unwind tension, circulation increases and the underlying energy (prana) flows. Often our constriction and knots encase emotional entanglements, repressed thoughts and blocked energy. As we release physical holding patterns, the emotional distress stored in our bodies naturally rises into our conscious awareness, ready to be seen, released and healed.
The trick is: you can’t heal what you can’t feel. Yoga provides a safe container for feeling all the feels. We practice staying awake, aware and compassionate in the presence of intensity. Learning to soften, allow and let go. When we learn to sit with a difficult feeling (physical or emotional sensation), instead of pushing it away, judging it or needing it to change – we alter our relationship to discomfort. Instead of instinctively reacting, we learn to pause, create space and wisely choose our response. This is emotional freedom.
It’s crucial for yoga teachers to have a basic understanding of trauma to support their students when they get triggered.
Life is tough. Suffering is universal and unfair. Trauma unfolds on a scale from basic, garden-variety to acute/extreme, and can be caused by a wide range of events. Childhood abandonment, neglect, emotional, verbal or physical abuse, serious injury, break-ups, sexual assault and death of a loved one are all examples of more intense traumatic experiences. While a minor car accident, shaming, disappointment at work, fear and loneliness account for more moderate trauma.
Even if we personally have not experienced direct, intense trauma, we may inherit “ancestral karmas” or the residual effects of trauma passed down from generation to generation. For example, if parents carry unresolved emotions from around an acute trauma (ex: genocide survivors, abuse, addiction, neglect), it is common for their children to display some effects. This might manifest as low-level depression or anxiety whose source cannot quite be placed.
Acknowledging the complex emotional history of your students and recognizing the signs of when they are being triggered are fundamental responsibilities in your role as yoga teacher.
Common Symptoms of Unresolved Trauma:
A trigger is any event that evokes the original feeling (or even memory) of a past trauma. When we’re triggered, our emotional response can mimic the intensity of the original injury. This may manifest as a flashback memory, emotional outbursts, defensive armoring, disproportionate responses (intensity of emotional response does not match the current situation) and any of the stress/startle responses (fight, flight, or freeze).
The more you know and “own” your triggers, the greater capacity you have to meet and “hold space” for your students. Shine the light on your own past trauma and triggers through mindfulness, self-reflection, compassion, psychotherapy, and of course, your personal yoga/meditation practice. Seek counsel, support and guidance from peers, teachers and mentors. Most of all, be kind to yourself. Forgive. Be gentle, understanding and loving.
Identify The Trigger Button
We can only take others as far as we ourselves have gone. When we study our triggers and traumas we gain an even deeper understanding of humanity and growth. Bring to mind the last time you were activated, with as much specificity as possible.
What was the last thing that happened or was said when the negative emotion hit?
The next time you notice yourself getting triggered try these 4 simple steps:
Simply allow things to be as they are. Seek clarity on the specific situation or statement that upset you. Notice specifics of how the emotional response is affecting your body. Can you neutrally name any sensations.
Specify Your Emotion
Reflect on your episodes and ask yourself which emotion came through the strongest or “held the most charge.” Anger? Sadness? Fear? Rejection/insecurity? Be willing to look a little deeper, one layer underneath the strongest feeling, for what is really wanting to be expressed.
For example, anger often masks hurt. Practice going to the most vulnerable, tender truth. What are you really feeling? Underneath of that? And, underneath of that? What are you really afraid of? Write it down. Or consider verbalizing it to a trusted source. Simply naming the emotion or edginess helps move the energy up and out of your body. It releases the emotion/energy into a space to live and breathe outside of you.
Remember: You are not your emotions. Just because you feel something, doesn’t mean it’s true. Lead by example. Once you live it, you can offer these practical tools to your students. Help them cultivate neutrality.
Search Your Personal History
When you experience an intense trigger, often you’ll find a backlog of emotional history behind it. Reflect on your personal history, even back to childhood, looking for resonant events that may have inspired your current trigger. Without judgement, start to piece together how present events mirror difficulties in your past, so you are better able to face them in the future.
Ask: Where have I felt this before? When else in my life have I felt this way? Around whom? Why?
Stay patient and compassionate. Become an archeologist, gently sifting through the dust of your memory with a curious, beginner’s mind just noticing what you find. As you become more proficient, you can teach your students the same.
Yoga practice is an incredibly powerful tool for healing trauma. A common pattern for trauma survivors is disembodiment — a coping mechanism characterized by dissociating from one’s physical body to avoid directly experiencing a traumatic event.
As soon as we feel discomfort, the bodies natural response is to clench and constrict. Instinctively, we turn away. Shut down. Resist. Yoga provides a safe and active process for guiding consciousness back to the physical body to fully feel, allow and release.
INHALE = Receive. Simply allow things (or people) to be as they are.
EXHALE = Release. Let go. Unwind. Soften the whole body, heart and mind.
When an emotional experience occurs, your body immediately catalogs is,receives and stores the data from the nervous system in the muscles. You have over 600 skeletal muscles in your body, which contract and soften in response to neurological stress. When your nervous system is overridden by a perceived threat, your muscles lock in a perpetual state of contraction. Regular yoga practice gently softens these holding patterns, and with it releases the blocked emotions they’ve stored.
Frequently Triggering Asanas
Your responsibility as a yoga teacher is to create a safe, open space for your students to know themselves and their bodies from a place of wholeness. This means embracing all the feel-good benefits of yoga, but also encouraging a loving exploration of the uncomfortable emotions and sensations coming through as well.
Your main ally for supporting triggered students is their breath. Guide them to allow the rising emotion to be fully felt, resisting the urge to push it away, and rather breath deeply into the emotional sensation and physical pose. Can they feel expansion in every direction?
Additionally, offering personal acknowledgement and support after class is a critical way to let your student know the importance and impact of their emotional breakthroughs on the mat. Often, all they need is to feel seen and heard with a basic statement of encouragement.. If a student had an emotional breakthrough, encourage additional self-care practices to allow them to fully integrate the emotions and thoughts released in class.
As you help your students work more mindfully with their own physical and emotional discomfort, they will gradually become more stable, and release unhelpful coping mechanisms and build radical self-reliance when adversity inevitably arises.
For an even deeper dive on healing emotional pain through yoga, watch my video interview with Dr. Ron Alexander hosted by Wanderlust TV