Trauma, Yoga and the Journey to the Self- by Holle Black

“Yoga is the Journey of the Self,
Through the Self,
To the Self”~ Bhagavad Gita

When we talk about the transformative power of a yoga practice, “the Journey of the Self, Through the Self ,to the Self” what are we really talking about?

From the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali comes the idea that the true self is like a clear lake.  Our true nature, our true self, abides within,untouched by experience, untouched by circumstance. The center of ourselves is this clear, calm lake. Our experiences and thought patterns create disturbances upon the surface of this lake, like creating waves, clouding the clarity of the water. Sometimes the disturbances create such waves that the lake is in constant turmoil, the surface so choppy you cannot see what is beneath the surface. Sometimes the lake has been this way for so long, the disturbance is what we identify with, not with the calm at the center. These waves are the distortion from the true self, and our true nature. Still, the calm water exists and abides beneath the surface distortion.

“Yoga is the Journey of the Self, Through the Self, to the Self”. We use our yoga practice to journey through the distortions of our mind to come to the clarity within. We practice to develop a strong witness to notice what are the distortions . We practice to notice what we identify with, our story, our thoughts of identity and if we are holding on to the disturbances instead of the journey to clarity. Releasing what can be released, physically , emotionally and intellectually as well. After a yoga practice that sense of calm that resonates from within is the access to the calm water beneath the roiled surface of the lake; it is the feeling of connection with one’s true nature.

“I feel like the sunshine after a thunderstorm” ~ a youth detained in Georgia juvenile detention after a yoga class.

I have been teaching a weekly yoga class in the Georgia juvenile detention system for nearly a year. I have had the same core group of participants for the duration. These young men are 13-17 years of age, and all are charged with felony crimes. I do not mention this to discuss the crimes, but rather to mention, or consider, what might have had to happen to these young men in their lives, what experiences, trauma, life event or exposure to events occurred to form
these young men into serious criminals at such a young age? How disturbed is their sense of Self? More importantly can they find that sense of calm within, can the practice of yoga benefit them? I find it particularly interesting and effective to apply this Yoga Sutra model of the calm water beneath the roiled lake being the true nature of the Self, and disturbances of thought or experience distort this calm, to young people who have not only experienced trauma, but have also perpetuated trauma themselves.

There is considerable body of literature that documents the relationship between trauma and childhood abuse, and subsequent aggressive and criminal acts. Among the most common risk factors for post-traumatic reactions, aggression, and antisocial behaviour are childhood abuse and neglect, poverty, sexual molestation, and witnessing violence. Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. The common denominator of all traumatic experiences is that they involve some sort of threat to our physical,emotional, and/or psychological safety.

When we are faced with a potentially threatening situation our own body’s survival response activates. We know this as our fight, flight or freeze response. It is important to understand that this response is not an intellectual process, nor is it a choice. When the brain perceives a threat the survival response of both the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system are activated. The sympathetic nervous system is designed to mobilize the body’s resources to prepare the body to respond to threat. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system triggers increased heart rate and blood pressure, and accelerated respiration, all of which prepare the muscles for action. The physical stress response also involves the activation of the neuroendocrine response system, releasing hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that prepare the body for action.

When people are exposed to intense, chronic, or repeated traumatic events, their threat response system may become altered. Research has indicated that people with post traumatic stress disorder show a sensitization of several biological systems, including a more reactive autonomic nervous system and neuroendocrine system. These alterations in the biological threat response system show up as trauma-related symptoms, including anxiety, intrusive memories, triggered reactions, concentration problems, and nightmares among others. In other words, the traumatized person is stuck in the fight, flight or freeze response. They are continually living in the traumatic event.

Trauma hijacks the body and the mind. There is much research on the powerful benefits of yoga on those who suffer from PTSD and the effects of trauma. The practice of yoga can help us calm our autonomic nervous system response and bring it back to a healthy state of homeostasis. As we use mindful movement to physically release the tension of being in a hypersensitized mode, we also use breathing techniques to help calm the nervous system. Deep, conscious breathing has a physiological effect on the nervous system that relieves stress and anxiety. Slow, mindful breathing activates the neuroendocrine system to send out neurohormones that inhibit stress-producing hormones and trigger a relaxation response in the body. When the body is released from the hold of the physiological effects of trauma, the distortions upon the surface of the lake begin the calm. The true nature of the Self, the vast calm that abides within is accessible. Maybe for the first time, the true nature of Self is revealed and felt.

The potential to no longer be simply what we have done or what has been done to us, the potential to become more than our stories, and to not identify with the distortions, is achieved through perceiving the calm that resonates from within, the calm water beneath the roiled surface of the lake. With practice we gain greater and greater access to the true nature of Self, and learn to notice what is distortion.The journey of Self, through the Self, to the Self, is sensing the calm waters beneath the surface of the lake. And feeling like the sunshine after a thunderstorm.

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