Category Archives: Trauma

Cultivating Resiliance with Ayurveda

When I share Ayurveda with people who have no prior experience of this 5,000 year old science, I begin by saying that Ayurveda is a practice of noticing. We learn to notice the qualities in our environment such as temperature or humidity. Is the wind blowing or is the air still? We learn to appreciate how nature and our bodies change with each season of the year and each season of life. We become aware of how different times of the day may affect our energy levels and digestion. Ayurveda asks us to notice how different foods either support or diminish our vitality. We reflect on our lifestyles; are you taking time to care for yourself with compassion or are your hours filled with a task list of never ending things to do? This reflection helps us to decide what changes may be necessary to bring greater balance to life.

Ayurveda can be a very important practice to use to cultivate resiliency and to create a connection with self that is lost due to trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, Medical Director of the Trauma Center at JRI in Brookline, MA states that “[people with trauma] have a very cut-off relationship to their body. They may not feel what is happening in their bodies. They may not register what goes on with them.” He also speaks about resilience. The American Association defines resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. In Bessel’s words, “What makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully.”

We know that trauma dysregulates the interoceptive pathways of our brain. These pathways allow us to sense the physiological or visceral condition of our body. Are we hungry? Are we cold? Are our muscles engaging or releasing? Ayurveda can help to strengthen these pathways by turning our focus back to our body. Self-reflection can be strengthened with the addition of the sister-practice of Yoga, done in a trauma informed way. In time, restoring a sense of self may allow a person to be less reactive to what is happening outside as the boundaries between external events and internal awareness are strengthened.

Ayurveda views trauma as a disturbance of the Vata dosha. Doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) are biological energies found throughout the human body and mind. We are born with a certain constitution and combination of doshas. Life experiences can also elevate the traits of any one of these doshas. Vata is characterized by movement and is comprised of the elements of air and ether. When a person experiences trauma, vata increases and with it comes a sense of erratic movement, coldness, constriction, dryness, loss of creativity, anxiety and fear. Ayurveda offers a number of ways to counteract the effects of trauma and to create more grounding and less movement.

To reduce Vata energy, eat food that is cooked, moist and warm. Eliminate raw foods, remove ice from your diet and consider soups, stews and foods that include a bit more oil. How you eat is as important as what you eat. Create time for meals where you can sit down and focus your attention just on your food. If you like to cook, use this as a time to nurture yourself. Consider making yourself a cup of hot milk with spices in the evening before bed. You can add a bit of turmeric, nutmeg and maple syrup if you like. You can substitute almond or coconut milk for raw milk in this recipe.

Vata is pacified by moving in slow and mindful ways. Taking a moderately paced walk where you notice your feet touching the ground can be very supportive. Yoga done in a self-aware and respectful way is also a good choice. If you have a regular running practice, consider slowing down a bit or interspersing walking with running. Tai Chi can also be a wonderful way to allow for mindful movement.

Vata responds well to creating rhythm and routine. Look at the flow of your day and see if you might create structure. Rising between 5:00 and 7:00 am supports your inherent energy. Meal times can be planned and a regular pattern established. Bedtime is ideally by 10:00 pm. Consider adding a sense of ritual to your day. Perhaps you cultivate a morning practice of sipping tea, writing in your journal or practicing yoga. You may find that a bedtime routine of self-care and reflection helps you to settle in for the night.

Ayurveda has a practice of self-oil massage called Abhyanga. Using warm oil to massage your feet and head or perhaps your entire body has a way of calming your nervous system and providing self-love. The rhythmic movement allows the erratic vata energy to be pacified. Different oils have different qualities and so you may change oil with the season or with your sense of well-being.

Ayurveda offers a lens through which we see the world and is also a tool to help restore balance and awareness. Peter Levine, author of many trauma related books, offers the following thought. “Resilient strength is the opposite of helplessness. The tree is made strong and resilient by its grounded root system.” Ayurveda may offer you a way to restore your relationship with self and allow for grounding to occur.

Seeking the Subtle

There is a word that I fell in love with while studying Ayurveda: suksma (pronounced sookshma). Even when I say it in my mind I elongate the oooo sound, I land on the second syllable. It may well be my mantra. Uttering this word grounds me and begs me to disconnect from a life that can be too full, too chaotic and anything but simple. Suksma means subtle. Suksma sarira is a phrase used to describe the subtle body, the inner wisdoms that are part of each of us. Accessing that inner wisdom allows us to find our unique path of healing and a way to more deeply know ourselves.

Suksma is like an umbrella under which I walk into the world. Remembering to both be subtle with my words and to interact with others in subtle ways is my practice. Less is more. Being is more important than doing, listening takes precedence over quick action. Suksma asks me to pare back, to get to the heart of the matter. It is a pause, it is open space and a bowing to what is sacred in each person and in every moment.

One of the most important tenants of offering yoga to people who have a history of trauma is to be non-coercive. Any instruction that supersedes a person’s ability to listen to and act on their own inner wisdom can be harmful. Offering a client an opportunity to explore their present moment experience in safety is the highest goal I hope to achieve. It is simple. It is subtle. It is the most challenging part of this work. If I am sitting on a mat and preparing for a forward bend, I could introduce it by saying “Stretch your legs out and press through your heels. Draw your spine upward and begin to hinge forward, reaching your hands to your feet. Keep your back straight, your arms engaged, your breath moving through your side body and your back. Pull slightly with your hands to move more deeply into this form.” Here is another say to share the very same form.  “You are welcome to explore some forward movement from a seated form. You are welcome to keep your legs straight or introduce a bend to your knees. This is your choice. You may choose to tilt forward a small amount or perhaps you choose to bend deeper. You are in control of the movements you make. You are welcome to pause in this form or to come back to a neutral seat at any time.” Can you hear the difference in your mind? Do you feel the difference in your body? I have learned that using words that invite rather than command and offering a choice rather than a fixed instruction are subtle ways to let another know that I trust them to do what is best. I am empowering them. I am offering them a sense of personal agency. This is suksma on the mat.

Sharing Yoga and Ayurveda with others has helped me to understand the importance of humility. Every day I realize that my role is not as a healer but rather as a facilitator of healing. I open a door and the other person may or may not choose to walk through it. I must be willing to allow for both possibilities. If I am true to my practice, I am both present to others and transparent at the same time. I am there for support and I give them permission to explore their own world at their own pace. Some days this work is easeful, other days it challenges me in profound ways.

I would like to share with you a quote that has been a personal touchstone. It was written by Thomas Merton, a man who chose to live a very simple physical life in order to leave space for seeking his spiritual truth. He welcomed the subtle, invited it in with open arms. “We have what we seek, it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.”  May you continue to explore what is subtle and important within you.

 

Offering Safety in Relationships

In her book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, states:

“The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.”

The very first time I read these words I understood the validity of this statement.

My training in Trauma Sensitive Yoga emphasized that forming a relationship based on authenticity and safety is paramount. Recovery only takes place in the context of safe relationship.

How, then, do we offer empowerment and create connection with those who are on a path to recovery from trauma?

When I greet someone for the first time I notice the feel of their handshake, the warmth of their smile and the cadence of their voice. The Ayurvedic part of me is aware of face shape, physique, anxious movement or serene stillness. I feel the energy of the person in my presence. This happens in a matter of a few seconds and the process is quite unconscious and visceral. I have precious little time to wordlessly assure them that I honor their presence and that my compassion is real, my desire to help a heartfelt one.

I understand that my new acquaintance may have a distinctly difference experience of our meeting; trauma profoundly affects a person’s view of the world. Anxiety may rise, a desire to flee may be present, hypervigilance will cause them to look at my expressions and mannerisms to decide if I am judging them or appearing insincere. They wonder if I am a safe person. In these seconds, they discern if they will stay or go, trust me or consider me another person who may hurt them in the future.

Ayurveda teaches me that every person is unique and has a story that belongs only to them. The most important thing I can do when meeting another is to compassionately listen; I believe that the act of listening is often where healing begins. This listening happens with my ears and more so with my heart. There is an intuitive understanding that helps me hear the story behind the story. This is where authentic connection begins.

When I am working with a person ayurvedically, I hear a spoken story. When I am working with a person who has experienced trauma I rarely know the details of their history. My work is about saying to them in multiple ways, “You are safe with me. I will allow you to come to me just as you are, welcoming you to try a practice that may help your healing.” This is both simple and complex, visceral and subtle. Sometimes I form a relationship and sometimes I understand that now is not the right time, that I am not the right person. I am drawn over and over to the yogic teaching of Aparigraha or non-grasping. I must walk into each new interaction with a sense of presence and open-handedness. I can never be coercive and can never assume that I have a powerful sense of knowing what is right for another.

In a tangible sense, safety is created by the space we occupy. I am conscious of some of the ways that a person might feel unsafe: open windows that allow others to look in, the sounds of the environment which might include road traffic or human voices, the air temperature, the size of the space which is optimally large enough to offer room for each person to move but not so large that it feels cavernous, the colors and objects that are placed within. Safety is also created by how I present myself. The tone of my voice, its cadence and modulation, eye contact, the distance I stand from the person in front of me and the clothes I wear all affect how another person sees and understands me. I have learned that many things may be a trigger for the people I work with. I cannot anticipate all the possibilities. However, I do my best to create a space that is welcoming. I also invite those I work with to let me know if there are ways that I can adjust to allow their anxiety to lessen.

Whatever teachings I lean into, whatever language I choose, I circle back to the need for grounding, curious self-observation and few distractions. When I share Trauma Sensitive Yoga I am fostering a present moment experience for my clients and myself. The words I use to invite a person to continuously come back to how they are experiencing their bodies, what their muscles may be doing, where they have sensation and where they do not are ways to invite presence. My job is not to ensure an outcome but rather to offer a safe experience in the here and now.

I am honored to be doing the work that I do, to have come, at this point in my life, to a new understanding of what relationship is, how it hurts and how it heals. Ayurveda opened my eyes; my work with people who have experienced trauma opens my heart. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “The source of love is deep in us and we can help others realize a lot of happiness. One word, one action, one thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring that person joy.” Namaste

PRACTICES TO SUPPORT YOUR INWARD JOURNEY

This is my favorite time of the year. It is not because of the gatherings nor the Christmas lights. It is my favorite time of year because it is a time of drawing inward and a time of quiet. We have lived through some very unusual months and many of us are wondering where solid ground is, whether our lives will change in big or small ways. If I am not careful I will slip into a place of fear with no known recourse. I am a “do-er”, an action oriented person who has been socially engaged to create positive change in our community. At this moment in time I am unsure of what action to take or how to make my voice heard.

And so, I am choosing quiet. In Ayurveda I have been taught to treat a complex presentation with a simple remedy. I have heard that when you don’t know what to do it is best to pause and wait. Inspiration always comes. The truth always makes itself known. I firmly believe that within us is the wisdom of the universe. I am waiting to hear that quiet inner voice that will lead me to do the next best thing.

Until I know, and while I wait, I will choose practices to support and ground me. This next month can be fertile ground for renewal of spirit and for clarity of mind and heart. I share with you some suggestions that have nurtured me.

Wake Early

The wee hours of the morning are both mystical and auspicious. For many years I spent considerable time at a Benedictine Monastery. I loved waking very early and stumbling into the chapel with my eyes full of sleep to chant prayers with the Monks. There was no hierarchy. We were all welcomed to gather and lift our voices or to stand and listen while others did. Somehow it felt easier to hear my inner voice during the pre-dawn hours. Consider rising between 5:00 and 6:00 to savor the silence in your home. This may be all the meditation you need. Pad around your kitchen in your slippers, sip warm water and let the dogs out. If you crave more, sit in prayer or meditation. You may use words or not. The act of being present is enough.

Cook Soup

I love when Fall is upon us. It is as if someone is saying to me “Stock up on root vegetables, good olive oil and warming spices. Make soup every day.” Do you hear this message as well? One of my Ayurvedic teachers shared with us that she could not both meditate and cook for her family in the morning and so she chose to crush cardamom, to roast turmeric and to generously add ghee to her pots as each day began. She would chant while she cooked. Food is medicine you know. The fresher your ingredients, the more love you add as you stir and grind and the blessings that you impart all add potency to your creations. As you sip your soup or eat your stew, feel its healing power. I always know when I am out of sorts. I stop wanting to cook. When this happens, the symptom speaks to the remedy.

Apply Oil

This is the season of ether and air; in Ayurveda we know this as a time when the Vata dosha is present. Winds are strong, there is dryness in the air, the temperatures have dropped and we feel a sense of constriction and drawing inward. My favorite antidote is to apply oil. Some days this means giving myself a top to bottom self-oil massage with a warming oil (sesame is appropriate for most in these cold months). Today it meant warming some scalp oil and rubbing it on my head and throughout my hair. I tied up the ends and wrapped a bandana around my bun to keep the heat in. I used an herbalized oil that helps to calm my nervous system and clear my thoughts. I left this on for a few hours and then took a warm shower using an oil based shampoo bar. Can it get any better than this? I think not.

Take a Walk

It is easy to walk when the sun is shining and you feel its warmth on your face and back. Now that the temperatures have dropped it may seem counter-intuitive to bundle up in a warm coat with a scarf and gloves but, trust me, it is well worth it. Take a moment to inhale deeply. There is something wonderful about the crispness of the air right now. Notice the smell of the leaves and the chimney smoke. I am blessed to live close to the ocean. When I make time to walk on the sand in the off-season I am aware that although the waves and the horizon seem timeless, they too change when summer turns to winter.

Befriend Your Body

Yoga has become not only my personal practice but also what I offer to the world. It is a very special type of yoga that is, at its core, a hatha practice. It was developed to help people whose lives have been affected by trauma. It is also what heals me every day. One of the core principals of Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) is that it offers a way for me to be present to my body, its sensations, its movements and its stillness. Practicing in the manner that I do strengthens pathways in my brain that allow me to know what it feels like to be hungry, to sense anxiety, to need rest and to know how my muscles engage and release. Sometimes my practice looks a lot like I am lying on my back resting. Sometimes I practice in repetitive flows of simple movements and breath. Sometimes I twist and sway and balance and fold. What remains constant is my awareness of my body in each moment.

Give Thanks

There is so much to be grateful for. As I type these words I have two dogs curled up beside me assisting my writing process. They feel safe and cared for. I am grateful for them. I have a working computer and fingers with which to type. I have a sense of curiosity and a large imagination. I am loved and I love. I can breathe deeply and I can sing. I am grateful for each of these gifts. Find what you are grateful for and acknowledge it, sit with it, breathe it in. In the words of Anne Lamott “Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention: mangoes, grandnieces, Bach, ponds. Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Let it be. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.”

I wish you silence, the gift of looking inward and the awareness that in darkness there does exist light. May your practices feed you and support you in this coming month.

Uncovering Our Stories: Steps Along a Trauma Journey

There was a time when I read nothing but novels, beautifully written fictional tales about people’s lives. I savored stepping into a different time, a far-away place. It was a lovely diversion, one I am sure I will return to at some point. Now however I am exploring story from a much different perspective. I am reading about how the narrative of some people’s lives, the reflection of days and events and relationships that make up their past, is fragmented, painful and often hidden from their consciousness. Trauma does this to a person. The more trauma that one has endured, the more patchwork their story becomes.

In the book “The Body Keeps the Score”, Bessel van der Kolk writes “What one sees, the presenting problem, is often only the marker for the real problem, which lies buried in time, concealed by patient shame, secrecy and sometimes amnesia – and frequently clinician discomfort.” This sentence struck a deep chord within me. As an ayurvedic practitioner I am very aware that I am called on to help people reframe their illness or imbalance. A rash that suddenly appears, a restless sleep pattern, an inability to feel grounded are symptoms that provide a road map to what lies beneath. We can learn to soothe the rash with Neem oil, drink warm milk and spices to enhance sleep and practice walking meditation for grounding, yet these remedies are merely treating the result of something else that our bodies are bringing to awareness. How then do we find the root cause of our dis-ease? A larger question still is, can we begin to heal our bodies without consciously understanding all that we have lived through?

As a way of considering this, I offer you these thoughts by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, therapist and educator. She describes trauma and stress as forms of information overload. She further states that during these distressing moments, impulses are rejected by the brain and bounced back to other areas of the central nervous system where they are stored in both the autonomic and somatic tissues. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates our heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, waste removal and sexual arousal, all largely unconscious functions of our body. The ANS is also in charge of the fight-or-flight response. Why is this important to consider? Trauma by its very nature does not create a cohesive and available story that we can later access. Because it resides in our tissues and our nervous system, we often “remember” traumatic events through our senses. The smell of a certain perfume or a whiff of alcohol on someone’s breath can trigger a response. The sight of a child interacting with a parent or viewing a scene in a movie can bring a sense of panic to a survivor. Hearing a loud noise or a strain of music can instantaneously transport a person back decades to an unsafe time and place. Bodily sensations can be overwhelming reminders of how one felt during a traumatic event.

We all have stories that can help us to heal; some stories are verbal and have a cohesive narrative, others are more fragmented and are represented by how we sense the world around us. Surely exploring the latter takes bravery, patience and time to navigate. I offer some thoughts for your journey.

  • Recognize that it may not be possible to know all that you experienced in great detail.

Memories are not always accurate and surely not always available. It is thought that a memory remains perfect until it is first accessed. Each time we remember, our brains slightly change the detail and we end up with a diluted version of the actual event. Can you find a level of comfort in knowing that your healing is not dependent upon fully revisiting your past?

 

  • Find a way to express your story.

Allow what you do know to inform your present life. Do you keep a journal and might this be a way for you to explore your memories? Are you artistic and drawn to sing or play music, paint on a canvas or dance in your living room? Perhaps you might practice a body focused form of yoga. What appeals to you? What if you knew that you didn’t have to be good at this or get it right?

 

  • Work with an Ayurvedic Practitioner.

Perhaps the most important trait of an ayurvedic practitioner is their ability to listen and to help discern what your body is telling you. Your story is written on your cells and presents in all manner of ways. A term used in Ayurveda is Prajnaparadha which translates to crimes against wisdom. Simply put, we already know what heals and support us yet we often circumvent this wisdom and follow our senses down a different path. Learning to witness how you are affected by the food you eat, the activity you partake of, the environments you live in are all key to creating a life that will nurture health instead of undermine it.

 

  • Create a network of safe people and places.

Any time we choose to uncover that which is scary or uncomfortable, we can best support this journey by knowing how we can retreat when we have had enough and need rest. Before you begin to explore I might suggest that you have at least one friend, one family member, a clinician or a group that can act as your safety net. You might also think about a safe space where you feel able to rest without worry. This might be a spot in nature or it may be your soaking tub. It may also be a place in your mind that you can refer to when you feel ungrounded.

 

  • Read a novel.

Yes, knowing when to disconnect from our inner work is as important as feeling forward movement. I give you permission to read a light book, watch a rerun or sit idly by as your animals chase each other around the living room. It is invaluable to know that you have worth whether you are being productive or are lying on the couch catching your breath.

I have, over my lifetime, read many stories of people who have endured that which seems unimaginable. I read these autobiographical words because they give me hope that in releasing our stories into the universe, as imperfect as they are, we create space for new life and a more aware present journey. I wish you blessings as you walk your path.

What to Expect When You Are Accepting: Taking the Brave First Steps Towards Healing Trauma

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Wouldn’t it be great if there were a primer for moving through the process of healing trauma? How amazing it would be if there were clear cut steps, if the emotional pathway was laid out in black and white, if those around us were readying a celebration for the new you that is being birthed. After all, the journey to wholeness is similar to welcoming a child into the world. In this case however, the child is you and a life of greater resiliency is the gift.

If these words strike a chord, I want you to know how brave you are brave for exploring this path. When a person suffers trauma there often comes a moment of clarity, a second when they say to themselves “There must be a better way.” I think of this as a divine tap on the shoulder. Perhaps you choose to view this as a stepping stone on your karmic journey. One crack of sunlight, one moment of sensing that you deserve more is all it can take. If you are nodding your head in agreement, I will offer you thoughts on what might come next and how you can support and nurture yourself along the way.

Unconscious Reactions

Before getting into the specifics, let me take a moment to share some basic information about our brains. There are three parts to this most amazing organ I would like to discuss. The first part is the brain stem and is referred to as the reptilian brain. It is first to be formed and it controls breathing, eating, sleeping, pooping and peeing. Positioned above the reptilian brain is the limbic system which is the seat of emotion and perception. This part of the brain monitors danger and decides whether an action should be initiated to ensure survival. These two parts of our brain which  Bessel van der Kolk calls our emotional brain, are all about survival. This is where we determine, unconsciously, if we should fight, flee or freeze. The third part of our brain is the frontal cortex. It is where cognitive decisions are made. This area also helps us to modulate emotions, regulate responses and is the seat of empathy and compassion.

Trauma resides in our emotional, unconscious brain. This may help you to understand why the functions of this area are most affected by trauma and are stimulated when we are in our healing journey.

Erratic Emotions

One minute you might feel elated at the thought of finally moving past this old pain. The next minute you may feel weepy. The following morning a sense of heavy depression may take over. Because trauma affects the unconscious parts of the brain and shuts down the analytical cortical area, a narrative story may not exist for what you experienced. What does remain are the imprints left on the cells of the body. Memories are not cohesive story lines but are rather fragments of smells, sounds sights and body sensations. You will invariably stumble upon triggering elements in the course of your current life that return you instantaneously to an emotion experienced long, long ago.

Ayurveda considers trauma a vata imbalance, a disturbance in the ether and air elements. Vata governs movement; the erratic emotional rollercoaster you may be on is indicative of ungrounded movement in a psychological sense. One way to find more balance is to create a sense of routine in your day. Perhaps you might start with sleep and rising times. Consistently going to bed around 10 and rising between 5 and 6 will help your body reclaim its natural rhythm. Consider eating your meals at the same time each day, dinner being your lightest meal. Limit your choice making as your mind may not be able to nimbly jump from possibility to possibility without creating more distress. How can this be done? Simplify your life. Create one dish meals of warm cooked root vegetables. Curtail your busy social schedule and share tea with only one or two friends each week. Put off making major decisions until your mind is clearer. Take a break from technology; poring over a computer screen catching up on everyone’s posts and emails can send you into overload in short order. Allow yourself to rest and to shed what you do not need to handle for now.

Anger

Anger stands alone. It is one of those emotions that I used to feel I didn’t experience. Ever so optimistic I walked around for years thinking that I had skirted that red headed monster. The reality is we all experience moments of anger. How we express our anger varies; sometimes we manage anger, sometimes anger manages us. When someone is hurt or traumatized it is reasonable to think that anger at the injustice would come to the surface. But what if you are a little child when this happens? What if you are an adult who is fearful of the repercussions of voicing your emotions? What if you have been taught that anger is an inappropriate response? As you open yourself up to healing, this long repressed emotion may rise to the surface. It is old stuff, it is hard stuff and if it is oozing out of you it is likely a necessary purge. Welcome this as a harbinger of more lightness and coolness of spirit.

Ayurveda views anger as a hot Pitta emotion. How can you best manage the physical manifestations of excess heat? Be gentle with yourself. Try not to push too hard, demand too much or set unreasonable goals. Exercise should be moderate to slow and grounding. Appropriate food choices can help tremendously during this time of transition. Caffeine and alcohol, both stimulants and irritants, will not be tolerated well nor will hot spicy foods. Nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes, green peppers and white potatoes should be minimized. Consider adding coconut oil to your cooking, incorporate turmeric which reduces inflammation and drink aloe vera gel or juice.

Fatigue

This is hard work and it is not for the faint of heart. Recognize that as you begin to work through dense painful emotions and patterns, you are stretching muscles of a different sort. Due to the excess vata, your sleep may be irregular and perhaps more sparse than you desire. This will add to your sense of exhaustion. This is a time to nurture yourself and to lean into those around you who love and support you. When you are tired, rest. Do not feel that you are being slovenly or lazy. You are doing important work so that you may live with less fear, less anxiety and less avoidance. Give your body what it intuitively needs.

Ayurveda offers some ideas for insuring a peaceful night’s sleep. About a half hour before going to bed you might warm a cup of milk with a ½ teaspoon of turmeric and a little bit of maple syrup. Allow the mixture to come to a low boil and then remove it from the heat. If you have access to raw milk this is a wonderfully healing choice. If you are dairy free you can substitute almond or coconut milk. Experiment a bit to find the blend that appeals most to you. A little grated nutmeg on top is particularly yummy and sleep enhancing.

If you like you might also warm up a bit of oil and give yourself a foot massage. Coconut oil is cooling, sesame is warming, and sunflower is balancing for most people. You can add a drop of lavender for its calming effect. Work the oil all over your feet, pausing if you hit a tender spot and adjusting your pressure accordingly. When you feel complete, put on a pair of cotton socks and slip between the sheets for a restful night’s sleep.

Constipation

You may find that your digestive system is erratic and that you are prone to constipation. Trauma by nature is constricting. It causes us to be more dry and less elastic. Our digestive tract which is normally plumped up with cells that absorb nutrients and flush out toxins in the forms of urine and feces, is now arid, cells lying flatter against the intestinal walls. If we cannot regularly rid ourselves of toxins because we are constipated, we will feel more sluggish, our brains may be foggy and we can feel bloated and uncomfortable.

Constipation is another vata symptom according to Ayurveda. The colon is the seat of vata and so is often disturbed when trauma is present. Along with constipation or dry stools you may also notice an excess amount of gas which is the air element so prevalent in vata. One simple remedy is to drink one or two mugs of warm or hot water in the morning when you wake up. This will help prime your pump so to speak, adding more moisture to a dry system. Eating warm, cooked foods and avoiding raw fruits and vegetables will also help. Stew an apple or some prunes and have this compote 20 minutes before or after your breakfast. Add a bit of ghee or coconut oil to your diet understanding that this can help to moisten your tissues from the inside out. Incorporate gentle movement into your morning routine. Squats, Goddess, wind relieving pose and belly massage can all help to enhance apana vayu (the downward flow of energy). The digestive system is often called the second heart, another seat of emotion and so nurturing this area of your body will benefit you in a myriad of ways.

There is no true road map that anyone can provide, no primer to will walk you through your experience. Finding teachers along the way and reading words of inspiration will help you to know that you are not alone. Celebrate the smallest moments of progress and recognize the opportunity that each new day brings. I offer you blessings for your journey.

Trauma on the Mat: How to Bring the Heart of Yoga to Your Students

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The next time you gaze out over your yoga class, silently bless each student for many of them are carrying heavy loads that are imperceptible to the human eye. According to the CDC, 29% of women and 10% of men have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner. The CDC also reported in 2012 that U.S. state and local child protective services received an estimated 3.4 million referrals of children being abused or neglected. A national sample of over 2,200 children in child welfare found that over 70% met exposure criteria for complex trauma. The hallmarks of complex trauma are that it is longitudinal (occurs over time), more than one type of trauma is experienced and the events occur in the context of relationships. Often these traumas begin in childhood when psyches and spirits feel the impact in deeper and longer lasting ways.

According to Bessel van der Kolk, MD and founder of the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA, “What most people do not realize is that trauma is not the story of something awful that happened in the past, but the residue of imprints left behind in people’s sensory and hormonal systems. The process of being in a safe space and staying with whatever sensations emerge and seeing how they come to an end is a positive imprinting process. Yoga helps traumatized people befriend their bodies that have betrayed them by failing to guarantee safety.”

We are in a unique position as yoga teachers and ayurvedic practitioners to help those around us who are imprinted with the marks of trauma. There was a study published recently in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry that details the effects of an 8 week, 1 hour per week trauma sensitive yoga practice with people who had treatment resistant PTSD. 52% of the people studied no longer qualified as having PTSD at the end of the 8 sessions. Studies continue with domestic violence victims in MN and veterans at Emory University in Atlanta. We have the tools to help our students continue their journey of healing.

The type of yoga detailed here is taught at the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA (www.traumasensitiveyoga.com, www.traumacenter.org). This article will introduce you to some of the precepts of TSY. Perhaps the most important aspect to keep in mind is that we must do our best to not retraumatize people who are carrying the imprints of trauma in their bodies.  How can we avoid this?

  •  With our Language: In TSY the facilitator uses language that is invitatory and welcomes self inquiry. You will hear phrases such as “in your own time”, “as you are ready”, “perhaps you may want to”, “notice … watch … experiment …focus on”. Students in TSY classes tell their teachers that they cannot hear these words enough. Remember that people who live in abusive situations feel as if they have no choice. They have learned how to deny their needs in order to placate the abuser. Offering choice and steering clear of commands has a profound effect on a TSY student.
  • Staying in the Present Moment: It is said that the main goal of TSY is to help people to live in the present. As TSY teachers we do not use metaphorical statements (Envision the sun shining down on your head …. Envision yourself lying on a beach …. Move into tree posture and feel your legs as roots of a tree, your arms as the branches). Using these types of phrases encourages people to take their attention away from their bodies and travel into their minds. This can be a scary and unstable place for trauma survivors. They already have a deeply ingrained skill of dissociating from the here and now; this is perhaps what allowed them to endure what they experienced in the past. Our job is to use concrete, body focused words to direct our students home to their bodies.
  • Employ Interoception: Interoception means to sense the physiology of the body. We pair the phrases “notice” or “focus on” with muscles or sensations. We might say “notice the weight of your body on the floor and see if you can feel where you press into the ground” or “when you fold forward, focus on the large muscles in your thighs and experiment with the sensations in these muscles. “  Trauma survivors may not have feeling or sensation in their bodies. It is often important to remind them that one way to “sense” a movement is to look at the moving body part. Understanding the manifestations of trauma helps us to find optional ways of teaching so as not to cause fear or insecurity.
  • No Physical Assists: Most yoga teachers have deep compassionate hearts. In a “normal” world, touching someone on the arm, helping them to press deeper into child’s pose or laying hands on a student’s forehead or shoulders during savasana is thought to be a reflection of this compassion. Quite the opposite is true for survivors of trauma and abuse. When you provide an adjustment it implies that their version of a form is incorrect thus adding to their sense of inadequacy. When you lay your hands on someone it can be a visceral reminder of an unsafe touch that they have experienced. Most especially if their eyes are closed and you startle them, they will leave the present moment and retreat back to the past. TSY facilitators are taught to refrain from teaching a certain alignment or position. They will offer options so that students can practice in a safe manner; the focus is not on getting it right but rather is on experimentation. We take great joy in knowing that our students are having a present moment body focused experience and so let go of the need to interfere in any way.
  • Help Students to Take Effective Action: People who have survived trauma have been imprinted with the reality that they could not extricate themselves from a situation nor could they change what was happening. Through yoga, a realization that they can regulate how they move and breathe is powerful medicine. Encourage students to have their own experience and to know that if they are in pain or are feeling a sense of anxiety or discomfort, they can back off a bit, change the placement of their bodies or lessen the intensity. Verbally offering students different manners to adjust can be very helpful. This will help them strengthen a different muscle, one of learning that they can effectively change a situation if they so desire.

 

In Bessel’s quote above, he speaks of the “residue of imprints left behind in people’s sensory and hormonal systems”. Seemingly we are only helping people to move their bodies. The impact of this work however, goes far deeper. When people feel safe, when they learn that they have choice, when they understand that there is no right or wrong version of their movements, they can begin a cycle of healing and a return to wholeness.

 

Returning to the Present: Ayurveda’s Wisdom in the Face of Trauma & Dissociation

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How wonderful it was to be a child and to pretend you were a princess with magical powers, a dragon that could breathe fire at a moment’s notice or Peter Pan with the ability to fly through the air. What a pleasure it can be to sink into a novel that completely takes you away to a fantasy world that doesn’t have dirty dishes in the sink or stacks of paperwork on your desk. For many however, the ability to step through Alice’s looking glass into an alternative reality is a way of survival.

When life becomes scary and dangerous and there is no obvious way to escape, the universal biological impulse is to shut down and dissociate. This is a natural and protective response. When you cannot physically run away, you find ways to mentally and emotionally take your leave. What does dissociation look like? From the inside it is a softening of all the edges, a fogging of the mirror and a separation of self from that which is harmful. From the outside it often comes across as a blank stare and an inability to connect in real time; it has an elusive quality. Those who have lived through trauma understand how in the face of real or perceived danger, all but survival is put aside. Dissociation is a means of saving self.

Surviving one trauma may also be considerably different than surviving multiple traumas. Consider the reality of many in our world who live in a soup of extreme stress every day of their lives. Some bear the marks of childhood trauma, some live in households colored by substance abuse or are victims of domestic violence and some are combat veterans. In these cases and more, the word dissociation takes on new meaning. The diagnosis of PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is one we hear frequently. Less well known is the diagnosis of Complex PTSD. In Complex PTSD (also called DESNOS or Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified) the trauma is longitudinal and relational. People with DESNOS demonstrate histories of prolonged and severe interpersonal abuse according to Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. This is most heinous when the trauma begins in childhood as the marks are deeper and longer lasting. For people who are diagnosed with Complex Trauma, dissociation becomes a way of life.

How do the practices of Ayurveda help people with Complex PTSD to heal?

  • Do no further harm. Ayurveda embraces the teaching of Ahimsa or non-violence. Treat yourself with gentleness and empathy. Try not to judge past experiences or choices; judgment is a subtle form of violence. A dear friend of mine would tell me “The past is perfect”. She meant that the past cannot be changed, it simply is. Reviewing actions over and over will not bring events to a different ending.
  • Start from where you are. In Ayurveda we speak about removing that which is harming a person as a first step to healing. For example if we know that coffee is exacerbating symptoms of acid reflux, we remove it from our diet. In the case of trauma we may not always be able to immediately remove the offending agent. If someone continues to live with their abuser and has not yet made clear plans to leave, there is still much that can be done. Ayurveda offers ways to strengthen a person’s constitution so that they can return to a place of wholeness and come to a decision in their own time. A small first step might be to consult with a practitioner to find out what your Prakriti or constitution is. Once you have this awareness you can adopt one lifestyle guideline that is in harmony with your deepest self. If you find out that you have a lot of fire in your constitution you may find that breathing into the center part of your body will help to release heat that builds up in your solar plexus. If you are told that you are Kaphic in nature you might want to counter the abundance of heavy earth and water qualities with a brisk walk. If your mind constantly chatters and you are aware that you have a lot of the air quality in your constitution, removing raw food from your diet will help to ground you. Each step that you take back to your true nature is a step to wholeness.
  • Allow for your natural urges. In Ayurveda we are taught to listen to our body’s impulses. If we have to go to the bathroom, we should honor that urge. If we need to sneeze or cough or yawn we would do well to honor these as well. When people live with or through trauma, they are often so shut down that what comes natural to some is foreign to them. They have learned to be strong and to hold back tears. They have learned to internalize anger. If, on the other side of a traumatic moment you are able to literally and figuratively shake off the occurrence and allow your body to experience its physical reality (which can include tremors or involuntary muscular reaction and tears or hysterical laughter), you may walk away with fewer symptoms. If however you are unable to allow for this process, there can be life-altering consequences. In the words of Peter A. Levine, Phd, “when these discharges are inhibited or otherwise resisted and prevented from completion, our natural rebounding abilities get stuck.”
  • Find ways to be present to the moment. When we dissociate we escape to a world that is anywhere but here and now. I often define Ayurveda as the science of noticing. Here a few places you might turn your attention to. When you rise in the morning, what is your energy like? When you eat hot spices, what is your experience? Do you like the cold weather or do hot temperatures most appeal to you? When you are dissociating you are intentionally moving away from noticing your bodily sensations. Perhaps you may want to spend a few minutes each day sitting in a comfortable way and noticing how you physically connect to the chair or the floor. What parts of your body have sensation and which do not? You can always choose to look at your foot if you cannot actually feel it. Maybe you choose to twist to one side or another and see how your breath changes. Perhaps you allow yourself to feel muscle tightness or relaxation. Learning to be present to your body and the world around you takes time and patience. Allow each new awareness to be a gift that you give yourself.

Trauma evokes in us a sense of fragmentation. Conversely, Ayurveda welcomes us to a world of connection and presence. Perhaps in time you might find the healing you seek in this timeless science. David Whyte is a poet that speaks directly to my heart. We have never met yet he understands what I would say if I could find the eloquence to do so. Here he extends us an invitation back to life.

“Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last. All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you.”

The Ayurveda Path to Trauma Treatment

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When I first began to explore Ayurveda, I had no idea where my journey would lead. Six years later I am still letting it all unfold. After completing a 750 hour program at Kripalu I went on to take summer intensives at the Ayurvedic Institute and attended a program on Ayurveda Yoga Therapy at the Sivananda Ashram outside of Montreal. For the past year I have been a part of a mentorship group led by Dr. Claudia Welch where we explore cases and topics of interest. I have a deep and personal interest in trauma and addiction and the ways that Ayurveda and yoga can be of help, thus the newest twist in my road. I am a current student of the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA where I and 24 students from around the world are learning to teach Trauma Sensitive Yoga in a way that has been scientifically studied and consistently applied. We recently embarked on a 110 hour, 8 month long mentored program. It is strangely wonderful how powerful opportunities keep appearing when you tell the universe that you are ready.

I distinctly remember a night 10 years ago when my life was so out of control that my body forced me to stop and take notice. My heart was racing, my mind a jumbled mess of disconnected thoughts, my mouth dry as a bone and my hands shaking. I picked up the phone to call a friend and then sat back to wait for her to arrive. My symptoms were random in the eyes of the western medical world yet I knew how related they were. I also knew that healing would not occur unless I took control of what had disturbed my life and spirit. I really didn’t know how to do this but I vowed that I would figure it out. In a moment of pure divine inspiration, I signed up for a yoga class at my local hospital. I was the 40 year old woman amidst mostly elderly students, one carrying her oxygen tank. They were all so grateful to be there even on the days when movement was painful. Little did I know how this sangha would help me to heal. The teacher went slowly and so did I. I can still clearly recall the first time that savasana brought me to tears. You never forget that first time. I had begun my healing journey.

Let me first say that trauma is complex and cannot be entirely defined by events or by symptoms. My experiences are undoubtedly different than yours just as your path to recovery will be different. Trauma leaves a deep mark on a heart, one that echoes in many ways. In the simplest of terms it is an external experience that becomes internalized. Something happens that rattles your world and instead of shaking off the effects as animals do, you embody it. It is not unusual to feel increased anxiety, to become easily triggered by sights, sounds or smells, to feel unsafe in the world, to disconnect in a variety of ways and to detach from bodily sensations. It is easy to understand why a person who has experienced the unimaginable would want to escape both physically and mentally.

At some point during my early yoga years the word Ayurveda began appearing in random ways. Someone gave me a book for Christmas; another person sent me an article on the subject. In 2005 I found myself traveling through Albuquerque which is the home of the Ayurvedic Institute. I wanted to visit but I couldn’t even pronounce the word. I was sure that without the secret password they would not let me in the door. I was so wrong. Now I understand that the practice of Ayurveda provides us a way to return to who you were before life took a left turn.   No matter my illness or imbalance, I now have tools to reach for that are life- giving. I love knowing that I have the power to heal myself in so many ways. In the words of my teacher, there is always reason to hope. Allow this sentence to wash over you.  This is powerful medicine.

In the eyes of Ayurveda, trauma results in a derangement or an uptick in the Vata characteristics of a person. Vata is the dosha or the constitutional make up that is governed by air and ether. It is the part of us that, in a balanced state, provides inspiration and creativity. Vata when deranged creates anxiety, sleeplessness, disturbed digestion, rapid heart rate, weight loss and many other symptoms of depletion.  Someone who has experienced a trauma, whether it was a one-time experience or an ongoing life pattern, will find that all of their physical and emotional resources are used to deal with this event(s). Our bodies are not meant to be in a constant state of fight or flight, on alert to quickly respond. Over time this type of reality changes our hormone responses, impacts our digestive abilities and tires us out mind, body and soul. Little by little it is possible to shift this pattern.

One of the most beautiful parts of Ayurveda is that it recognizes each person as unique. What worked for me might not work for you however with time and attention you will find your own path. Ayurveda speaks of diet, lifestyle and herbal therapies as ways to swastha or health. Here are some ayurvedic ways to calm Vata and promote doshic balance:

  • Create a routine that you follow day in and day out. Rise at the same time each morning. Go to bed at the same time each night. Enjoy your meals at about the same time every day. Incorporate a daily walk or some form of exercise either in the morning, at noon or in the evening. Think of this as the steady beat of a drum that underlies your day. Create your own rhythm that you can count on. Bring order to what might currently be chaotic.
  • Welcome morning self-care into your day. In Ayurveda we spend deliberate time nurturing ourselves. Some of the ways we do this are by having a morning ritual of cleansing our mouth, eyes and face. A tongue scraper is used to remove undigested food from the prior day. Rosewater can be spritzed or dropped into our eyes to cool and refresh them. Warm water splashed on our face takes away traces of sleep and enlivens us. You might even gargle with some warm water and a little bit of either salt or sesame oil. Showing kindness to yourself can be a first step towards healing.
  • Add oil to your day or week. In Ayurveda there is a practice called Abhyanga which translates into self-oil massage. This can be as simple as rubbing a bit of sesame or coconut oil onto your temples or your feet. It can also mean giving yourself a more complete massage. Abhyanga is a way of nourishing your tissues and soothing your nervous system. You choose whether this practice in any form is appropriate for you. You can also choose to practice this daily, weekly or as the need arises.
  • Eat warm, cooked foods. Warm foods are less apt to put out the fire which transforms food into nutrients. Cooked foods are easier for us to assimilate. Remember that we are striving to nourish that which is depleted and weary. Allow your digestive tract, which is greatly affected by emotional stress, to do as little work as possible for a while. Think in terms of grounding foods such as root vegetables, yummy soups and stews, cooked grains. As you eat, be present to the food. Perhaps you might offer a silent thank you to the farmers that grew the veggies you are eating. Perhaps you might taste the spices in the dish. Perhaps you might enjoy the warmth in your belly. Food is medicine on so very many levels.
  • Allow your physical practice, be it yoga, walking, hiking or any other form of movement, to be gentle. Think of this as a way to become grounded. It is also a way to invite deeper breath into your body which nourishes each and every cell in your being. While moving, place attention on where your body comes in contact with the ground. Notice if your breath is shallow or deep, fast or slow. Allow this to be a time of inquiry. There is no right or wrong way to move, there is simply what is. Try not to compare yourself to another or even to your former self. Each day is different and deserves to be welcomed in its own perfection.
  • Simplify your daily life, simplify your physical space, simplify the amount of things you do, people you meet, technology you use. Allow yourself to choose what serves you and what nourishes you on all levels. This alone is a powerful practice and one that takes a lifetime to explore.

I offer these practices as starting points. You have the ability to choose any or all of these suggestions. There is a book that I read many years ago titled “Always We Begin Again” by John McQuiston. I love the title and marvel at how it comes back to me again and again. This book is written about the Benedictine way of life which is filled with rhythm, simple tasks and respect for self and others. I now understand that this is also an ayurvedic way to live. May your own exploration of Ayurveda lead you to the healing you desire.