January 8, 2017

Yoga & Transforming Trauma: Why our True Practice doesn’t End on the Mat.


To be alive is a wonder and a blessing.

When we take the time to gaze up at the stars on a clear, still night we are mesmerized by nature’s mysterious magic. And when we take time to sit by the ocean, we are reminded of life’s simplicity.

Some days are stormy, some are calm, some are messy and others are full of clarity—it’s a constant flow of change.

With the endless beauty that life has to offer us, it is also inevitable that we are going to be faced with suffering—there’s no escaping this reality. We can all relate to experiencing times of challenge, frustration and even devastation. The resulting pain and trauma can be extremely debilitating and emotionally paralyzing, yet many of us grow up with this notion that life should be fair, and we even carry ourselves with a sense of entitlement and the expectation that if we put energy into something, there should be a nice payoff.

But life has made no such promise.

This belief system is what causes so much suffering, not only for ourselves but for those around us who bear the consequences. The truth is that as incredible as it is to be alive, we are all destined to experience suffering. We may lose a loved one, get diagnosed with a disease, suffer from abuse or lose ourselves to addiction.

Or perhaps our suffering is more subtle; we seemingly have everything, but somewhere down the line we realize that it was never our everything—it was someone else’s. We realize we don’t even know ourselves anymore, that we buried our soul long ago under defeat, trauma, competition, frustration, self-abuse and low self-esteem.

In high school I suffered from serious anxiety, low self-esteem, disordered eating and body dysmorphia. At 16, my weight dropped to 42 kg. At that age life should be full of wonder and possibility, not ruled by a number on a scale or what we look like in a mirror. Young and miserable despite my “thin” body, I began to realize that looking a certain way was not going to necessarily make me happy day to day, and that true happiness is found in areas that cannot be judged by simply looking a certain way.

We find joy in creativity and self-expression. We find fulfillment in giving and helping others enjoy life. While I wouldn’t like to be back in my 16-year-old body, I am grateful for the journey because just a few years later I found the practice of yoga, which helped me manage my stress and anxiety and enabled me to further understand the mind-body connection.

Practicing asana helps us connect with ourselves, unblock stagnant energy and release physical and mental tension—a result of our overly-stimulating modern lifestyles. Asana, pranayama and meditation became a positive outlet for me to develop inner strength, balance and confidence, and allowed me to let go of what was no longer serving me or those around me.

Yogic philosophy promotes an awareness of our attachments to that which brings us pleasure (raga) and that which brings us pain (dwesha). Furthermore, yoga asks us to find center among the two, without experiencing the constant push and pull of our emotional reactions to life’s ups and downsto find contentment and ease in the present moment, despite our circumstances. We then have the space, wisdom and insight to learn, grow and help others do the same.

One of the most healing actions that we can take in emotionally processing the hardships we face is to transform our trauma—to use each and every experience as a guide and a turning point, which then allows us to serve and help others. When we have space for understanding, awareness and empathy, and when we truly know what it feels like to go through something and feel the hurt and pain, we can connect with others who are suffering similarly through a deep and silent understanding.

There is true healing to be found in a steady yoga practice, especially when overcoming challenging experiences. Through the practice of yoga we learn how to connect with our bodies and our breath, and how to disconnect from judgement and emotional fluctuations. We soon begin to realize that what happened to us had nothing to do with life not caring or not wanting us to thrive, but life seeing that we were ready to open ourselves up to something bigger. The events that took place happened to wake us up and take a different road, one that comes with rich connection and true fulfillment.

In our asana practice, we can quickly become attracted to our physical gains, but we must be careful not to become so attached to our practice on the mat that we forget where this practice really matters—out in the big wide world, within every interaction, through every action we take and every word we speak.

Our purpose in life is to find happiness by living with the rhythms of nature. Genuine happiness is cultivated best when we extend a helping hand.

There is nothing wrong with feeling pleased with our asana practice as we begin to see it flourish after steady, consistent practice though. When we learn to hold a handstand or master an arm-balance that took months or even years of hard work, we should be proud. However, it’s important that our practice does not stop there. We should not fall into the trap of getting caught up in our own narrative and accomplishments.

Instead, we should extend the strength and grace that our practice provides to others and toward something greater. We must ask ourselves not how long can I hold a headstand or how deep can I go in a back-bend, but how deeply can I love?

How honest can I be with myself and others?

And how conscious am I of my actions and their implications?

The path of healing is a tough one, full of ups and downs. But there is light that is soon to follow from the darkness we all know and experience. Through self-care, healing and consistent practice, we learn that empathy can truly transform our trauma—and the connections we establish with others as a result of our past circumstances can enrich our lives in a way we never thought possible.

This is the reward of service. For it’s there that we are gifted with inner peace and happiness.


Author: Erin Stevenson

Image: Lena Bell/Unsplash

Editor: Nicole Cameron


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