Everyone experiences some degree of grief, violence, and heartbreak throughout their lives. Meditation and yoga are tools we can use to ride the waves of traumatic experiences and help heal the wounds of past traumas. Research has found that yoga and meditation are effective strategies for managing trauma symptoms and positively impact those who have experienced trauma similar in magnitude to that of anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants. Holistic healing at its best!
Anne (name changed), a friend of mine from journalism school, was the sunshine everyone hoped to befriend in life. She loved to talk, laugh, and tell stories. For the longest time, none of us knew that behind this cheerful veneer, there was a past, a story that would send shivers down the spine of anyone who heard it.
Anne had an abusive mother who would beat her and her brother, locking them outside the house together for days. They would often seek out their neighbors for help and food, who were shocked and scared to see the wounds on the necks and waists of the children.
Anne was saved by being sent off to a residential school. Days turned into years, and she was able to secure a good education that she paid for herself. She went on to become a journalist covering gender and startups for a popular Indian platform. While on the surface, life seemed to get better. The mental and physical trauma of domestic abuse and deprivation would frequently rear its ugly head, and she would freeze, panic, and become breathless. She would attribute her cynicism and general lack of hope in life to her childhood experiences.
“One day, I grew tired of going through these repetitive cycles. I needed a way to accept, forgive and move on. I knew until I forgave my mother, I would never be able to live peacefully,” she says. Anne had been through her fair share of therapy and medication. Now she was looking for ways to heal her whole being. In 2017, I convinced her to enroll in a basic Art of Living yoga and breathing class.
“It was an experience that belonged to quite another dimension. I had never felt peace on such deeper levels. I used to think, how hard can breathing be, and why do I need to learn it?! That was until I learned how to channel its exemplary power to silence my mind,” Anne shares.
What does trauma mean?
“Some of us think trauma is what happened to us,” writes Darpan Singh, “…Trauma is how we deploy our defenses, based on our past traumatic experiences, to respond to events in the here and now.” Trauma could come through in excessive ways in the face of triggers that may seem insignificant currently. For example, a mildly critical message from your superior, loud noises, or having someone not notice you can immediately trigger a trauma response. And responses can be quite disproportionate to the current trigger.
Emerging research shows that trauma can manifest in the body in the form of psychosomatic signs and illnesses, including psoriasis or some other forms of inflammation that do not have any physiological root causes. While externalizing it through therapy and related interventions can help us deal with it on the level of the mind, the treatment needs to happen from a deeper level for the psychosomatic scars to heal. Then, one can begin to befriend one’s body and mind more holistically, which we tend to grow distant from after going through traumatic experiences.
Become more Self-Aware with Yoga
Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, shares that yoga can stimulate parts of the brain that are concerned with self-awareness, these are parts that get affected and close up due to trauma. Once you are more aware of the workings of your mind and emotions, it becomes easier to witness how current situations can trigger an irrational response in you and then work on it.
Embrace and Loosen Your Body
Years of trauma can tighten up your body, and make it numb and sensitive in places. The practice of yoga is a hugely effective way to make friends with your body once again and start feeling the sensations that so far you never had time or strength to feel and be with. In the gentlest ways, it helps you ease into your own self, and find flexibility and openness both in your body and emotions. “When you slow down your breathing with yoga, you can increase your heart rate variability, decreasing stress,” Dr. van der Kolk writes.
More Empathy and Better Social Behavior
Dr. van der Kolk also points out in his research that when you do yoga with others, it can rev up the mirror neurons (they are called so since they mirror or imitate an action performed or observed) in the human nervous system, which have a say in specific types of social behaviors including empathy and understanding.
Going Beyond One’s Thinking Self
Often we live our entire lives associating ourselves with our thoughts and emotions, while the truth is they are impermanent parts of our higher selves. Just a small glimpse of this reality through meditation can quicken our healing.
We need to meditate to reduce the power our past holds on our current mental states and reactions to our past. Meditation can help you see the emergence and disappearance of thoughts and difficult associated feelings sometimes, which have nothing to do with who you truly are.
Reduces the Stress Response
Mind-body practices like yoga and meditation rewire the way we deal with stress. Stress from trauma affects the working of several important cognitive areas like the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex in the brain. It keeps the amygdala region, which is responsible for our fight or flight response, actively running, which can be compared to a rope or wire that is constantly in a state of tension and stretched beyond its capacity, leading to stress-related conditions in the future.
Meditation reverses this by increasing the time our nervous system spends in relaxation when the parasympathetic nervous system is active and the amygdala slows down. The parasympathetic system is responsible for relaxation response after the body has been through stress or other risks.
Points to Remember During Meditation
There are a few things that will be helpful to remember before embarking on the most transformative journey of yoga and meditation in healing our past trauma.
Love your journey as it is. While this may not be the case with everyone, for some trauma survivors, even shutting one’s eyes and being with one’s emotions and physical sensations can be triggering, as they confront possibly long-repressed emotions and feelings.
This can come up for release in various ways that we may have never thought of. But know that it is okay and that we all have our own journeys of healing. We are not on a clock to heal quickly. There is no rush here. Some days will be better than others when we sit and work on ourselves, our minds, and difficult parts of our past. But even on the bad days, just trust the path and the technique and know it is working for you. For this, it is very important to learn meditation with a trained instructor who knows and has experience in working with trauma survivors.
Be regular with your practice. Consistency is an important way of telling yourself that you are in this for the long haul and that you are committed to your healing. You will see as you meditate every day after practicing some yoga, the stress will be lower, your body will become stronger and more flexible, your emotions will be happy, and your mind will become clearer and relaxed. You will feel energized and more open to all that the day brings your way.
Know when to stop. We all function within our boundaries of safety and tolerance. While you can stretch yourself a little out of your comfort zone if you see that it has helped you in the previous classes, do not feel the need to suffer through excessive pain or discomfort. In this, you are your best judge, with a little guidance from your instructor. What matters is you nurture a daily practice that you feel safe with, where you feel relaxed and peaceful at the end. If those goals are not being met, then maybe it is time to have a conversation with your teacher and try a different method or technique that gives you peace and stress relief.