The Trauma Survivors Guide to Yoga: Understanding Your Nervous System
I came to yoga in a state of spiritual crisis.
I didn’t have the understanding or the language to call it that twenty years ago; then, I was just angry. I didn’t know quite how full of rage I was, or that buried underneath my acid sarcasm and tomboy toughness was a black hole of sorrow, grief and shame.
What I did know was that when I practiced yoga I felt better.
Until one day, I didn’t.
I was in a backbend through a chair, totally supported and able to relax. There was a pulling sensation across my throat and my clenching against it gradually began to loosen.
Tears welled in my eyes, overflowing, spilling across my face and into my hair. There was no accompanying memory, not even a feeling really. I was caught off guard.
This is the nature of trauma.
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.
This description of trauma, given here by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, a renowned leader in this field, is one most people, even clinicians working in the field of psychology, have never heard.
Trauma is stored in the body and no amount of talk therapy fully resolves the dysregulation of a trauma survivor’s nervous system. But this aspect of healing is largely ignored in modern psychology.
Whether consciously recalled or not, the body stores traumatic memories in it’s magnificent nervous system. Let’s look at what is happening on a physiological level during trauma.
The Nervous System on Trauma
During a traumatic experience, the part of the nervous system responsible for survival kicks into overdrive. The reptilian or lizard brain, as it’s sometimes called, triggers the “fight or flight” response and stress hormones, like cortisol, are released into the blood stream.
In many cases, for instance living with recurring trauma or in a completely unsupportive environment, the “rest and digest” side of the nervous system can’t revert back to a state of relaxation and recovery.
In this situation, and often well after the trauma is over and the person who experienced it is safe, the nervous system remains in survival mode and stress hormones continue to be released.
When this happens, the brain can’t differentiate between actual threats and threats that are simply perceived. If a new trauma or injury occurs, the old memories can potentially be triggered, starting the cycle all over again, and making the new experience seem worse than it may actually be.
As an imbalanced or dysregulated nervous system holds the unresolved memory of trauma, it creates feelings of either anxiety and hypervigilence or sluggishness and exhaustion. Physical symptoms—everything from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to high blood pressure to a weakened immune system—can manifest when the body is in constant distress.
Coming Back to the Body
The survivors of unhealed trauma tend to be disconnected from themselves, their bodies and how they feel. They have trouble self-regulating in high states of arousal and intense emotion, both happy and sad ones.
When I was hijacked by my emotional release in the supported backbend, I had no connection to my pain. I knew my childhood was challenging, I’d even gone to therapy to try to break the silence and denial that was rampant in my family of origin.
I knew I was angry.
But I didn’t know that my own Spirit was what was missing. Shut down and turned off, in order to cope with the pain, I was in the midst of a spiritual crisis.
It was yoga that brought me back to my body, restored my relationship with the Spirit inside me and gave me the skills to face the emotions and physical sensations I had stuffed away for decades.
Trauma & Yoga
Pain is the greatest of motivators, and many people begin their yoga practice because of it. So many people come to yoga feeling broken either physically or emotionally, or both.
While you may not know you’re doing it at first, yoga is helping you re-integrate back into your physical body. The process releases held memory from your physiology; don’t be surprised if you end up in tears, angry or depressed after yoga class.
This is when many people decide yoga is not for them. But the truth is, this is when the yoga practice has really begun to work.
Holding yoga asana teaches you to be present with intense sensations. It also gives you tools, like smoothe, ujjayi breathing or meditation, to find ease and relaxation. In this light, yoga (and other body-centered and mindfulness practices) gives you the chance to make peace with your traumatic experiences and weave them into the architecture of your life as an opportunity for growth and development.
In my observation, those who’ve been through the most horrible trauma have both the greatest capacity for hope and the biggest desire to serve and help others.
In the next article on this topic we’ll talk more about coping mechanisms and ways to work with the stress of rewiring the nervous system. In the meantime, there are several useful links below for more reading and research.
Waking The Tiger by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D.
David Emerson’s Trauma Sensitive Yoga program
Trauma Informed Yoga with Hala Khouri
Article on facing the intensity of the “shadow” in yoga