Cultivate Awareness in Yoga to Encourage Healing from Trauma
When I took my first yoga class at Ana Forrest’s Santa Monica studio in 1992, I was quite proud of my straddle splits. I had been working with my genetically inflexible body for the previous three years in a home practice sourced from a library book, combined with some martial arts training I had picked up London—and I thought I was pretty darn impressive. That is, until the teacher—who I recognized from my childhood watching American television in South Africa as the actress who had shot J.R. on Dallas—guided us into a variation of pigeon pose.
I’ll never forget that first moment of intense burning tightness, and the feeling state of confusion and fear as I found myself in this new experience. My lateral hip rotators had simply never been stretched!
Worse still, I wanted to cry. Immediately. In front of one of my teenage TV crushes.
I was no longer a masterful egoic ninja showing off my splits. This was pure out-of-control vulnerability. It brought me directly back to the experience of being 12 years old and back in Johannesburg bending over the desk of our headmaster’s office as he prepared to punish me. I knew this would entail a thin and flexible wooden cane whipping across my buttocks six times. We called it “six of the best.”
Whether or not you have ever been subject to corporal punishment, you may be nodding along here, recognizing the similarity in the intensity of your first encounter with the relationship between yoga postures and the emotions-in-the-body.
The practice of yoga, with its tools of mindful present attention, self-compassion and breath, and the intention to grow, heal and become more free, will inevitably lead us to come up against the constrictions that trauma creates in our bodies and minds.
Perhaps it is helpful to share the standard dictionary definition of trauma: “A deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” A trauma can be any overwhelming experience that leaves an imprint on how we react to life. As such, trauma limits our ability to be present, to feel resilient, worthwhile and empowered. It blocks our ability to respond in fluid and self-aware ways to our world and to one another. On the yoga mat, the practice of being present with ourselves through shifting postures, breath patterns, thoughts, and emotional reactions can bring us face-to-face or body-to-body with unresolved traumas. I would argue, in fact, that if the practice is effective, this is inevitable.
Since my own experience in the first few years of my practice, I have been fascinated with studying this phenomenon. I have committed to doing deep healing work on myself and I have supported many others in healing their own trauma through the vehicle of yoga practice.
Our modern understanding of how yoga can be meaningful in addressing trauma is augmented by newer fields of study including somatic psychology and neuroscience. Yet these are not new ideas: both the Buddha and Patanjali discussed how the inner work of bringing awareness and compassion to kleshas (the perceptions and obstacles in the mind) and samskaras (patterns laid down by old experiences) can interrupt how old experiences and perceptions color our present time.
Scientific evidence is building up to confirm that the patterns sages observed through meditation relate to nervous system’s pathways; unaddressed, these pathways can still carry the associations of past events that were overwhelming or distressing.
Emotions, memories of traumatic experiences, and patterns of physical tension are all related. For most people, effectively traveling the path of embodied liberation that yoga represents will at some point include facing their own personal demons on the mat.
Even though yoga teachers usually don’t have the tools, education, or intentions of a psychotherapist, they still have responsibility to be aware that the arising of traumatic material on the yoga mat is a common occurrence. In fact, this may even be part of the work that emerges when people are guided into being present, reflecting on their lives, and observing the flow of embodied experience. The yoga room may be a place where healing of traumatic patterns takes place.
In this light here are some suggestions to support this healing potential:
Yoga students: Know that everyone needs healing in some way. Your practice is an opportunity to develop compassion for yourself and others; compassion is precious commodity to cultivate as life can be hard and painful. Allow the energies of bliss, empowerment, community, and gratitude that arise in yoga to come into contact with the places where you are wounded and your growth will truly soar!
Yoga teachers: Keep doing your own inner work. The more teachers continue to heal and grow, the more there is to offer students. The less judgment, denial, or ego teachers have around our own imperfections and vulnerability, the more students will intuitively feel safe to open up authentically in the space that teachers hold.
This can be tricky in a yoga culture that often expresses an unrealistic ideal of empowerment and positivity that can run counter to a compassionate understanding of trauma. As teachers we may be repeating some of these ideas and beliefs in an authoritative way, just because they are so ubiquitous in spiritual culture, and also because they can often serve a kind of defensive protection against acknowledging the reality that bad things can and do happen to good people.
Chief among these is the idea that attention on the present moment means that any thoughts about the past or future are wrong, illusory, or unspiritual.
Perhaps it is helpful to reframe: Being present does not mean disconnecting from our lives or feelings. Being present can include becoming aware of how we are affected by the past. Gaining mindful insight about the origin of our reactions and feelings supports healing and integration.
The popular New Age idea that no one is ever victimized because we all create our own reality may for some people feel empowering and metaphysically valid. But in healing trauma, there is a value to consciously honoring the feelings of in fact having been unfairly treated, violated, and harmed through no fault of our own.
Feelings of helplessness around such events is natural as are moments of deep grief, fear or anger. Healing happens when we find the safety and support to be with these feelings as they are, and then move through them —discovering resilience, self-compassion, and dignity in the process.
Creating a safe space includes not confusing students in those vulnerable moments with statements that may inadvertently imply that those feelings are wrong or shameful.
Our language as teachers can either shame, minimize or deny the reality of trauma and difficult emotions, or it can normalize, encourage compassion and support our students in being authentically present in ways that promote healing.
Acknowledging inner work as a process. It will contain the full spectrum of sensations, feelings, and thoughts; it does not impose a preconceived ideal or belief system.
Some of the following cues can support holding space for inner work:
“Bring breath and compassionate presence to whatever shows up in your practice today.”
“Come as you are, work with what is, and honor the journey that brings you into the room.”
As I say in most of my classes, any time we come together to practice, there are people who are grieving, celebrating, in love, heart-broken, disillusioned, or even inspired. All life involves change and transition and in community, we take turns experiencing the facets of the human condition. They are all felt in the body. Some of them are traumatic. Some of those feelings may surprise us in the middle of a pose, even if we have practiced many times before. Holding all of it in a non-judging, compassionate awareness is the heart of a yoga that heals.
Julian Walker is a yoga and meditation teacher, bodyworker and ecstatic dance facilitator in LA. He is co-founder of the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind yoga teacher training: ahemyogateachertraining.com.