Trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people. It is the bedrock of psychology and 2020 brought that to our attention with blinding clarity. While it’s hard to fathom pain, despair and trauma as blessings, there are gifts to be gleaned from having experienced them. For instance, some of the early lessons of the pandemic were an appreciation for a slower pace of life and spending more time in nature.
Additionally, sharing the burden of trauma helps lighten the load. Knowing the world was going through the same struggles, temporarily brought us together as a human family. But as the tension of duress quickened, our various coping strategies became a source of division. And herein lies the message: how we deal with stress and trauma determines the value of the “gifts” it may bring.
Trauma comes in everyday forms, including: loneliness, lack of purpose, pace of life, or fear of death. There is also the impact of collective trauma that comes from the state of the world, such as the pandemic. One can even experience it from what has not happened, as in the longing for a love or the desire to have a child. The suffering of everyday life takes endless guises and very few are immune to it.
The challenge of healing trauma is to re-establish ownership/connection of our body and our mind. Because trauma manifest as tension in the body, that is where we ultimately have to resolve it. We must learn to feel and deal. This means knowing what we know, whether we can name it or not, and feeling what we feel without apology. There is no shame in pain. It’s a part of life.
Know Pain, No Shame
Our physiology is changed by trauma. It alters our feelings about ourselves and the way we experience sensation. That’s why talk therapy alone isn’t enough. The body must be included to realize the fullest potential of healing, transformation and joy. In this way, yoga is a powerful tool for discharging “everyday” trauma in the body. Though the real power of yoga lies is in its ability to access and heal trauma that occurred at precognitive or preverbal moments in our lives.
That’s because it’s not always possible to articulate the feelings, name the memories, or find the words to explain the pain. This is especially true when our wounding occurred at a young age or in such a way that we had to “leave the body” in order to survive. Somatic therapy can circumvent language to jumpstart the process of healing.
Leaning Into Discomfort
Yoga shows us how to unwind the nervous system from within. It viscerally teaches us that we can open up to difficult sensations, tolerate, release and even transform stuck places. Because trauma resides in the body, muscle and fascia are used as pathways for healing. One of gorgeous perks of moving toward tension is that it can heal physical aches and pains people have lived with their entire lives in addition to the emotions contained within them.
While there are benefits to practicing any style of yoga, yin yoga is a perfect fit for somatic therapy. That’s because the focus is on how the pose feels. Yin yoga is not an aesthetic practice. One’s unique skeletal variation determines the shape of the pose. Respect for human variability couples with internal awareness is what makes yin yoga an exceptional therapeutic tool for healing trauma. By learning to lean into discomfort, safely and compassionately, the body can finally release what it’s been holding for so long.
Tell Me Something Good
Love is a balm for trauma. To be fair, it’s the medicine for most ailments that assail the human psyche. After years of working as a psychotherapist, I’m convinced that at least half of the healing process comes from honoring what feels good and celebrating what is going right.
It’s critical that we recognize what’s working in our life. It’s equally important that we find ways to release tension so we can discover pleasure in our body. And this isn’t about sex. Far from it. For those healing trauma that violated their boundaries, learning to enjoy the sensation of a warm breeze against their cheek or melting into the warmth of a hot bath can be a challenge.
Feeling and Dealing
To thwart pain, it’s natural for the body to lower or, in some cases, cut off sensation entirely. This is a brilliant strategy for survival that occurs unconsciously. The problem is that the nervous system doesn’t just lower one feeling. It blankets them all.
When this strategy continues unchecked, muted sensation becomes the norm. Feeling “empty,” “overwhelmed,” or as if “going through the motions” are all ways I’ve heard people describe their daily life. The key to awakening embodied living begins with the practice of loving-kindness. Just as you put the oxygen mask on yourself first, we kick start healing and transformation by extending tender love to ourselves.
Far too often, the emphasis of therapy is on what is broken. And, yes, we absolutely need to face painful emotions. It’s how we own our story and rewrite the narrative to accurately reflect our personal truth. We also need to address and dismantle toxic shame with compassion and understanding as part of the healing journey. But as difficult as these important life tasks are, they often pale in comparison to how hard it is to apply self-love.
Paradoxically, it takes time to become what we already are.
Love is the Drug
Energy, prana, flows where we focus attention. This is the guiding philosophy when working with trauma. We place just enough attention on the wounding without overemphasizing it. Let’s use cooking as a metaphor. We barely have to dip the spoon in to sample the flavor. So, too, when processing trauma. We just need “a taste,” to get a feel for it. It’s a mistaken belief that we need to remember the details, recall the exact situation or have a huge catharsis to heal wounding. The mind doesn’t have to know because the body remembers.
More often than not, the best medicine is love. Psychological wounds and physical tension respond more effectively to gentleness than force. In this way, self-love isn’t frivolous or indulgent, but at the very heart of healing.
Self-compassion is an embodied form of self-love. Kind words, a gentle voice, warm bath or walk in nature are all ways to engage in self-soothing thoughts and actions. A fun fact about yoga is that the first limb of the tree is ahimsa. It’s often translated as non-violence, though another way to interpret it is kindness. Think about it. The entire philosophy of yoga – which is ginormous – is built on kindness.
Those old yogis had the power of love dialed in a long time ago.
The Gifts of Trauma
The more we face our pain, the more wisdom and resources we gain. If we can sift out the gifts, we can plant seeds of growth that will line the path of transformation. The four gifts are:
If we can keep our hearts open even as they are breaking, we develop a strong heart that is able to feel and connect with others better than most. Psychologist John Welwood says that a broken heart is one that breaks open and becomes enlarged through the pain. People who have suffered from trauma can often access great empathy for the suffering of others. Through the work of therapy and yoga, this skill can be a tremendous resource. People long to be seen, felt and heard. Attuning to the pain of others has a magically way of diminishing your own. In this sense, empathy is a true superpower.
People who have experienced trauma tend to have hyperawareness. For example, it’s common for children of alcoholics to discern how much a parent had to drink by the sound of their keys. The yoga practice brings our attention inward. This keen ability to discern then transforms into energetic awareness. Someone with heightened sensitivity has the ability to attune to not only tune inward, they also have the ability to attune to the energy of others. Like empathy, this level of sensitivity empowers our ability to connect.
Trauma often breaks people open at an early age. Being naturally vulnerable, it often leaves them struggling with fundamental questions about love, connection, meaning, and healing. Sometimes these children grow feeling porous, as though there is no solid “me.” But this same permeability can be a doorway into our own embodiment, as well as the soul. Because we are not hardened, we are more open to what cannot not be named but is felt. Doing the hard inner work enables us to access this profound gift without risking the pitfall of spiritual bypassing.
In Jungian psychology there is an archetype called the Wounded Healer. According to Jung, the person who has suffered and who has enlarged their consciousness through that suffering, has the power to heal. In this way, those committed to their inner work are able to reach their potential as teachers and healers, even if that means simply living as an example of wholeness. It’s empowering for others to know that recovery and healing are possible.
Love In Action
No matter who we are or what life has dealt us, every one of us has a complex and varied emotional life by virtue of being human. Similarly, we all share a need to love, belong and thrive. If we can foster these with compassionate awareness, we can peel away the barriers that separate us from ourselves, others, and life itself. Doing so is a tremendous act of self-love that is within our reach when we integrate yoga and psychotherapy.
With safety and skill, we can learn to sense the body and lovingly turn toward emotions and experiences that we’ve feared feeling our whole lives and transform them into authentic gifts.