They pop up when I least expect them to: those little triggers that shake my emotional ship like dangerous tsunamis I never saw coming. I don’t let them capsize me anymore, but they continue to give it their best shot.
There I am, standing on the deck of an-ordinary-day-in-the-life-of-yours-truly, when the gales of the past suddenly whip up against me, knocking the air out of me, squeezing my stomach and chest so damn hard I can’t breathe.
Not again! I thought I had moved past that! But here it is again: positively uninvited and tearing into me most voraciously.
It doesn’t take much for them to rear their ugly heads: a seemingly harmless little love song at the grocery store, a certain scent wafting through the air, feeling ignored by another person, a misunderstanding, a nightmare.
What does it feel like?
It feels like a threat to my safety, although there are no guns aimed at my head. It feels like I am alone and unprotected, even while surrounded by those who love me. And it overwhelms me, although a moment before I was fine.
This power seems to have no rhyme or reason, so I try to intellectualize it away. But I may as well be speaking Swahili because my logic has no effect over its determination to detain me. It acts like a ruthless dictator announcing its new reign over my being. The utter vulnerability is beyond uncomfortable, as anxiety begins to infect me like a parasitic virus.
That’s when I feel my solar plexus contracting. Ouch!
On any given day, five million people in the United States alone will instantly feel themselves gripped by the lingering effects of past traumas.
All over the world, humans are struggling with becoming emancipated from their own past, myself included.
Sometimes I think that if I trace it to its origin I will be able to reason my way out of it. If only I can search out and exterminate the cause, I’ll be fine. It sounds simple enough. But which one is it? I shamefully admit to owning quite a colorful collection of childhood fears I wasn’t very well equipped to process. Then again, why feel shame?
How should a child know how to deal with death, or alcoholism, or experiences that don’t match their level of development?
It wasn’t my fault, I tell myself. But this mental exercise feels as feeble as trying to hold down an exploding volcano with a canvass tarp. More Swahili.
We can’t self talk ourselves out of trauma because trauma doesn’t speak the language of logic and reason. Trauma doesn’t listen to the intellect. It is primal and savage and only recognizes the most universal language of all languages: that of the breath.
Our breathing patterns are like a record of our life’s experiences. In becoming intimate with our breath we begin to know ourselves more. Our breath is like a neon-colored, flashing metaphor for how we respond to life.
I used to compare myself to others. Wow! She survived that? How did she do it? That seems so much worse than what I’ve been through, and yet she seems fine and I am still rattled, still grieving, still waking up with nightmares! Why? But measuring the gravity of the event that may have traumatized you over those of others is like trying to squeeze apple juice out of oranges. It’s futile. Don’t try this at home. It’s dangerous.
Every one of us has our own unique make-up. For this reason, it’s not the specific events in our lives -and their perceived level of tragedy- that determine our level of trauma. It’s how we coped with them at the time.
And sometimes the way we cope with life is severely affected by past events we may not even remember! Like being left to scream your head off as a newborn in the maternity ward because the nurses had you on an unnatural feeding schedule, and only brought you to see your mother every few hours.
Some even believe we import the effects of trauma from our “last lives.”
“And then I think about my fear of motion which I never could explain: Some other fool across the ocean years ago must have crashed his little airplane.” ~ “Galileo” by Indigo Girls
Once, in my search for answers, a gypsy at a fair told me I had been murdered in my last life. It’s been a while since I’ve tried to make sense of why some things unnerve me more than others. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle you are missing pieces to. And judging myself for not always coping with things as gracefully as I’d like to, is just as pointless. In fact, it makes things worse.
Instead, I make efforts to consciously honor my own make-up; my own unique set of coping skills, and just breathe through life’s discomfort. Oh! And add a dash of compassion to that recipe please! Though it’s not always easy.
Once, I was alone in the little apartment I lived in at the time, in a seaside neighborhood that was on alert for a wanted rapist (every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the US).
My protective mother told me the rapist was targeting young, attractive females in their early twenties, which I happened to be. She asked me to be on guard. As I was showering, one late afternoon, I heard noises outside my bathroom window. There was a man there, fully unclothed, standing next to my bicycle, in my own private alley. He was peeking into my shower stall. Then he tried to open my back door.
I quickly jumped out of the shower, threw a towel around me, and as I didn’t feel safe alone, ran out my front door to ask my neighbor for help. It wasn’t until he called the police that I realized I had been holding in my breath that whole time. Suddenly I began hyperventilating, desperate for oxygen.
Fear had frozen my natural breathing pattern.
Every time we fail to breathe fully and deeply through an experience we stunt our processing of it. And every time something reminds of of it, we unconsciously duplicate the stunting breathing pattern.
The experiences in life that affect us most are those that have a powerful emotional effect upon us. The first place we notice this is in how we breathe.
Our breath charts the course of everything that’s ever scared, or surprised, or shocked, or excited or delighted us! When we disconnect from how we feel, all we have to do is connect with our breath to find out. Our breath’s speed and fullness are precise indicators of what’s happening to us on an emotional level.
When our breath is shallow we are shocked and guarded, when it’s fast we are excited. When it’s deep belly breathing the endorphins it produces have a deliciously relaxing effect on us, like after making love. We feel safe and confident. Lower abdominal breathing is emancipating!
One way to tell if you are holding on to trauma in our subconscious is to lie down on your back and see how hard it is to breathe from your abdomen. The degree of your body’s resistance will be commensurate with how many unprocessed emotions you have within you.
Our bellies are the seat of our subconscious minds on an energetic level. Loving our bellies is always a good idea!
In yoga, pranayama is used to help us love our belly and our breath by using them to connect with any lingering effects of subconscious traumas that prevent us from moving forward in life. Engaging the abdomen in calculated, rhythmic breaths often releases blocked breathing due to unprocessed or unacknowledged emotions.
If you feel like crying during a pranayama session, by all means don’t hold back! That means the yoga is reaching deep into your core fears and opening you up to living your life more freely.
The most frustrating thing for me to hear is when yoga students tell me they felt like crying in class, but didn’t, because they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. Instead, they tense up, sending their trauma deeper.
It’s okay if you cry. Just trust in the wisdom of your body and go with the flow.
Who cares if anyone is watching! The benefits you’ll get from going with the flow will far outweigh any embarrassment any stares from strangers may produce.
The flow of our breath during a pranayama session is connecting us with everything we are, and everything we think we are, so we can let go of the latter, once and for all. Holding it in just makes our grip on it stronger.
We might think we are going to die every time we ride in a car, because we survived a car crash once. But that is not our voice. That is trauma talking. The voice of trauma gets stuck in our bodies. And causes us to stumble at the slightest provocation. Our breath is the easiest way to free it. Our breath energizes us in our lives.
Seventy-five percent of our vital energy is supplied through our breathing patterns. The freer we are to breathe, the freer we are to live!
In becoming conscious of the way we breathe, we become more conscious of the way we live, and either react or respond to life. Notice the way your breath moves after an invigorating yoga session, or after laughing your head off with a close friend, or how about the way you breathe after singing your heart out in the shower, or dancing when no one is watching? It feels soooo good to inhale and exhale then, doesn’t it?
Then notice how you tense up your breath when in an argument, or when feeling nervous the minutes before you have to take a test, or when one of those catastrophic triggers goes off and begins to gnaw at your sense of security like a bird of prey on a defenseless little mouse. That’s when you can remember this:
You hold the power in your breath. Send it to your abdomen and b-r-e-a-t-h-e! I mean, really breathe!
And know that you are not alone. Most people you see around you are lugging around their own collection of past traumas. The whole planet is full of people who are sadly disconnected from experiencing the full potential of their life force (what they call prana in yoga circles).
And don’t be fooled by appearances either! Sometimes people expend so much of their energy just trying to look like they are in control, when their insides are actually tense, and their breath is stuck in a perpetual panic.
One of the easiest ways to connect with your core is through your breath.
Yes, it’s not that easy at first. In fact, it may even hurt. But the breath is a language you body will instantly respond to, so you will feel it working right away. This is when it gets kind of addictive. In a good way! We are all constituently wired to become addicted to the effects that come from deep, full, healthy breathing.
So, what happened with the naked man who tried to get into my apartment? It turned out he was not the rapist the police had been looking for. He was just a disoriented and drunk college student who got dropped off on the wrong block after a wild party. Apparently he mistook my apartment for his.
At times, we become like disoriented drunks ourselves, fumbling around with the doorknobs of our past traumas, trying to enter places we no longer belong in. When we deprive our brain of the amount of oxygen it needs through remaining stuck in inadequate breathing patterns, we wobble through life looking for home.
Our breath is the detoxifier that will restore our sobriety, drive us home and orient us around where we belong now:
Here. Safe. Healthy. Happy. Dressed up in confidence and breathing deeply and fully.
Now inhale and exhale—and you are free!
Editor: Kate Bartolotta