Like most long-term yoga practitioners and teachers, gratitude is the heart of my practice; yoga connects me to a wellspring of joy and brings meaning and depth to my whole life.
Practicing yoga has changed me, made me calmer, less anxious, more equanimous. It's given me a physiological way to deal with trauma that was otherwise unavailable to me, and as a teacher, I now have some tools that I can share with others who've experienced trauma.
Everyone experiences trauma on some level, it's part of life. Many of us walk around in a low-grade state of fight-or-flight (the body's response to real or perceived danger) because we don't really know how to deal with the way trauma lodges in the body. It's only in the last few years I've come to realize that I've been stuck in a semi-anxious survival mode for a lot of my life. Yoga has helped me embody a different way of being by helping me become at ease in my body and giving me tools for when I feel anxious.
For the record, I come from a normal family (whatever that means) and had a pretty regular childhood. The thing is, I've been in a lot of accidents! It's kind of funny, but also kind of not because looking back I can see how patterns of anxiety stuck in my body from the time I was a child.
Let's just say it began with me falling off my highchair onto an old iron key, protruding from a door, that went right through my cheek, and continued to me falling forehead-first onto a plank with a rusty nail sticking out of it, which punctured my skull, to being thrown out the back window of a car as it rolled on a two-lane highway and being trapped beneath the car until I was cut out by the fire brigade. That was the big one -- multiple fractures, concussion, punctured lung, severe bruising, cuts and swelling.
In between there was the time I went over the handle bars of my dad's bike while cycling downhill very fast -- 50 stitches in my face, front tooth knocked out, most of the skin torn off my right hand.
So let's just say I've been pretty tweaked.
But here's the thing: Yoga helps immensely. Because trauma and anxiety are physiological events that leave physiological residues, resolving them needs an approach that includes the body -- talk therapy isn't enough. Our bodies remember everything that happens to us, although those "memories'" may not be available to us as discrete mental events; they are neurological (biochemical) pathways that cause changes on the cellular level. But those changes affect our emotions and our ability to deal with stress.
Neurobiologists describe memory as a stored pattern of links between nerve cells.
These links are actually chemical packets called "neuropeptides" or "neurotransmitters." They are messengers by which one cell "talks" to another using an electrochemical charge to transmit information. These chemical secretions have specific effects in the body, for example, oxytocin makes us feel relaxed, expansive and trusting, while CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor), known as the depression peptide, stimulates production of stress hormones. Our minds (via the limbic system) translate these neurobiological changes as an emotion. Think of an iceberg: One-seventh of it is above the waterline, the rest is submerged. So it is with what's available to us as direct experience of our bodies in all their complexity. Our emotions are the top layer of the iceberg, molecular changes beneath our skin are the biological substrate of our emotions.
But back to memory. Every time a memory is recalled, the same neural pathway gets initiated with the accompanying emotional tone. The more robust and sensory the memory, for example, the smell of cookies baking that remind your of your beloved granny who used to make you laugh so much, the butterflies in your stomach that come with hearing a song you associate with being really excited about going to prom, the more neural pathways are activated because more parts of yourself are tethered to the memory. The whole body is in on the game!
The experience of trauma can leave a somatic residue, a feeling of being unsafe that is deeply unsettling; stress chemicals flood the entire physiological system and there's a concurrent feeling of not being safe. The experience is visceral, naturally enough since physical trauma is experienced viscerally, and the imprint of the trauma remains lodged in the body. So, to dissolve trauma, we need a protocol that includes the body and not just the mind.
Yoga is perfect.
Yoga and meditation are key in dissolving the somatic residues of trauma and anxiety for many reasons, but fundamentally because the practices alter our biochemistry. When we change our biochemistry, we change our mood. And, we affect the homeostatic balance between the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic), and the immune, respiratory and digestive systems. It's beyond the scope of this blog post to explain in detail how this works, for now suffice to say that all of these systems use the language of neurochemistry to communicate and they all affect the top layer of the iceberg. In other words, what's going on with these different functionalities in the body determine our experience of wellbeing.
Cultivating a regular yoga practice over time means we can directly intervene in our well-being, we can choose empowerment rather than victimhood.
We get to reclaim our bodies as holy ground.
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 Pert, Candace B. Molecules Of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1997.