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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.

 

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.