Re-Connecting with Body, Emotions and Self:
Moving Beyond Trauma with the Help of Yoga
By Nicole Schnackenberg
“Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard …In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
– Bessel van der Kolk (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. London: Allen Lane.
Trauma is the description of any event or set of circumstances within which we experience intense feelings of terror and helplessness whilst being unable to escape or fight back in any way. Taking this interpretation, many of us will have experienced some form and level of trauma at some point in our lives. Many of the refugees and asylum-seekers we walk alongside here at Ourmala have experienced extreme traumas of a myriad of kinds including war, displacement, abuse, oppression and unthinkable violence. Whilst some of what they have been through can be difficult to fathom, many of our staff here at Ourmala, taking the above description, have experienced some level of trauma in their lives, too. As we come together as a community to practice yoga, barriers drop away and we enter into a shared human experience of connection and greater peace around the events that have hurt us the most.
Yoga can be so very healing to those of us who have experienced trauma for a plethora of reasons. Traumatic events often take us outside of our bodies, typically divorcing us from the experience of visceral aliveness. Interoceptive awareness describes the sense we have of our bodies from the inside, and encompasses such phenomena as breathing rate, heart rate, body temperature, hunger signals and blood pressure among other processes. Trauma can cause us to disconnect from these bodily sensations and thus from our emotions, since our emotions make themselves known and play themselves out through these internal processes. When we are cut off from a sense of our emotional world, emotions very rapidly have the propensity to overwhelm us. The feeling of being overwhelmed by one’s emotions is a common experience for people who have been traumatised.
Many scientific studies have shown that the practice of yoga can increase our interoceptive awareness and, therefore, our sense of embodiment and the ability to notice and feel our emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. Just as importantly, trauma is proposed to be stored in the body by many eminent researchers including Bessel van Der Kolk and Stephen Porges; yoga can be an exquisite way of beginning to release and relinquish our stored-up anguish and emotional pain.
When we offer yoga to people who have experienced trauma, we are mindful to use invitational language, thus putting the locus of control firmly at the feet of the other. We also approach any use of touch with great sensitivity; touch can be very reassuring and grounding for some people, whilst it can re-ignite traumatic memories and trigger dissociative episodes in others. As well as being invitational, yoga practice for people who have experienced trauma tends to be slow with an emphasis on breathing practices which stimulate the parasympathetic (‘rest and digest’) as opposed to the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) branch of the nervous system.
A simple practice that can be beautifully beneficial for people addressing traumatic events in their lives is the extension of the exhale. Making the exhalation longer than the inhalation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and, thus, can bring the body and mind into a greater state of equilibrium and calm. You could try breathing in for the count of 6 and out for the count of 8 for example. As you become more comfortable with the practice, you could try extending the out-breath even further, perhaps breathing in for the count of 6 and out for the count of 10.
Traumatic experiences can lead to a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is characterised by a cacophony of distressing symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares, frightening thoughts, emotional numbness, guilt, depression and memory suppression. We will look more closely at PTSD and yogic practices to support people with this diagnosis in a future post.
Trauma can be deeply disturbing, yet its effects do not have to haunt us indefinitely. Many people testify to moving completely beyond the grips of their trauma having re-connected with their bodies, their emotions and their sense of a transcendent Self. Our hope and our vision is to make this a possibility for all those who come to seek refuge and support at Ourmala.