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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.