Reclaiming Joy.

Via Dearbhla Kelly
on May 7, 2013
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Rain Dancers... Mumbai June 2012

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 which 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.

Not to mention the two car crashes on the same day in Santa Monica. Oh yeah, then there was the time a guy was killed in front of my eyes on Pacific Coast Highway. It took well over a year before I could drive down that stretch of road without clenching my hands on the steering wheel and feeling panicky.

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, which leave physiological residues, resolving them needs an approach which 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!

774 - Neuron Connection - Pattern

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 article 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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Ed: Kate Bartolotta




About Dearbhla Kelly

Born and raised in Ireland, Dearbhla Kelly M.A. is a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, writer and neurophilosopher. She began her academic training in Amsterdam and received degrees in philosophy in Dublin and Chicago. She is particularly skillful at marrying the more esoteric teachings of yoga with modern scientific insights and the practicalities of everyday life. Her writing has been published in the Huffington Post, Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal and Origin Magazine. A dedicated ashtanga practitioner, she teaches yoga and neuroscience workshops worldwide. Her lilting Irish accent and Dublin wit make her classes uniquely enjoyable.


22 Responses to “Reclaiming Joy.”

  1. Elsie says:

    Fell in love with you. What an awesome post. I love the mixture of what you offer in this post with the scientific insights. Nicely done. And that whole memory in the cells business…work with my clients on that ALL THE TIME. Thank you!

  2. Julian walker says:

    Magnificent metaphor! The iceberg and the biological substrate…. Perfect way of describing the mind body relationship.

    Great writing D, love this article!

  3. Scott Miller says:

    Great description of what happens with "the iceberg." Personally, I love focusing more on what happens beyond "the top layer of the iceberg," but the iceberg does matter and it's a positive thing to recognize how yoga makes us all better Eskimos. Thanks, Dearbhla.

  4. Dearbha says:

    Thanks Julian.

  5. Dearbha says:

    Thanks Elsie.

  6. Dearbha says:

    Cheers Scott.

  7. jasonb1382 says:

    Love the article! I feel my blog might be of interest to you:

  8. Tina says:

    A really interesting piece and wonderfully wriiten. You made me think about stress in totally different way. I love your mission with this blog!

  9. Heather says:

    Bottom-up processing, the triggering of trauma starts in the body, and the triggering of happiness that comes from the practice of yoga, breathing, and meditation are both bottom-up processes. Beginning in the body and ending up in the mind. Thank you, I'll be sharing this one with my patients.

  10. Judy says:

    Thank you so much for this!

  11. Jennifer says:

    This is a such a lovely article, thank you so much for sharing! Im definately not envious of your injuries, sounds like you've been through it all!

  12. Freda says:

    The whole body is in on the game! Thank you so much for this! It explains so well why chiropractic works. It influences the nervous system (because your spinal cord, part of the central nervous system, is housed in your vertebrae) and resolves aberrant nervous system activity… yes yes yes! Yoga and meditation are amazing tools for accessing this system and assisting in healing physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. So are acupuncture and chiropractic. It's fascinating stuff. Thank you so much for this!

  13. Jane says:

    Such a great article and really relevant at the moment. I had a breakdown last year and I am still healing. Dealing with my depression and anxiety is a huge thing for me and I find yoga to be so nurturing. It's the one thing that challenges me, keeps me present and also makes me know that everything is ok.

  14. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks Jason. I'll check it out over the next couple few days.

  15. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks Tina. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  16. Dearbhla says:

    Awesome Heather!

  17. Dearbhla says:


  18. Dearbhla says:

    Hi Jennifer, thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  19. Dearbhla says:

    Hi Freda,
    I love that you've brought chiropractic into the conversation!

  20. Dearbhla says:

    Hi Jane,
    sorry to hear that you had a rough go last year. I think you're right that yoga is key for healing. Bless you love.

  21. Lucy says:

    I think your article is fantastic – I too have been healed through the practice of Yoga on it's numerous levels. Now a yoga teacher (and once a sufferer of PTSD – also involved in too many accidents to mention) I've found the healing benefits and art of transformation through a deep and nourishing practice are so valuable to this life. Thanks so much for writing and sharing.
    Warm heartfelt wishes, Lucy

  22. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks so much Lucy. I think it's so important that those of us who've (mostly) recovered from PTSD speak about our healing journey because, as you know, being in multiple traumas can leave you feeling like you're deficient and it's somehow your fault…