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My journey of yoga was not always happy and definitely not easy.
It is the path of the warrior, the spiritual warrior, as the Buddhist monk and teacher Pema Chödrön states so eloquently in her book, When Things Fall Apart. It is the ability to sit with your hot loneliness and know that it is going to be okay.
Imagine the experience of signing up for the talent show at school. In the privacy of your bedroom, you practice and practice until you are sure you have nailed whatever your act is. You are so talented. You will blow them away with your Grammy-worthy performance.
Then you get up on stage and you freeze. You forget what comes next, your voice cracks, you stumble, you falter. Next, you hear some of the kids laughing, or maybe observe some of the audience members whispering to each other (surely, they must be commenting about how awful you are). And suddenly it is no longer bearable. You run off stage—scared, embarrassed, overwhelmed, and traumatized.
So here is the thing about psychological trauma, specifically Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or in the more severe and prolonged cases of trauma, Compound/Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD).
First of all, trauma is not reserved only for soldiers on the battlefield or survivors of sexual assault. Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mind as a result of a distressing event. It is the result of one’s inability to cope, or to integrate the emotions involved with a particular experience.
Many of us, with the help of caring and supportive teachers, parents, or guardians are later able to integrate the emotions behind the experience. We process and soothe the embarrassment, or the feelings of not being good enough, and then the trauma is resolved. We feel it, we process it, we assimilate it, and ultimately come back to seeing ourselves as worthy and okay. This is a healthy trauma experience and it contributes to building resilience, which we will need later to survive all of the various traumas that we experience throughout life.
Then there is the other scenario—when trauma remains unresolved, untouched, unpacked, and not integrated into a healthy human mental process.
When trauma is so profound, so violent, and so sensitive, and we lack the proper loving environment and emotional support, it remains stuck and mostly hidden from conscious awareness.
But “out of sight, out of mind” does not apply here. Quite the opposite. I would propose instead, “out of sight corrodes the mind.”
Our unwillingness or inability to look at and resolve trauma, especially compound/complex trauma (trauma that occurs regularly over long periods of time) becomes a deep part our conditioned, subconscious mind. It sits in the dark recesses of our consciousness and whispers reinforcing falsities like, “I am not good enough,” “I am not pretty,” “I am not smart,” and worst of all, “I am not lovable.”
This kind of trauma is devastating, not only to the one who experiences it, but because it spills over into all of their relationships. Unresolved trauma is like a ripple effect. Eventually it touches everyone in its wake—friends, co-workers, spouses, and family members—are then indirectly having to cope with the survivor and their maladaptive behaviors.
People who suffer from PTSD, and specifically CPTSD, are not fully connected to their bodies and struggle to self-regulate normal stress, minor anxiety, and temporary depression because they are not attuned to the natural biorhythms of the body that result from a healthy autonomic nervous system. They live in a perpetual state of “fight-or-flight.”
Survival mode begins the moment they wake up and follows them into sleep, which is often elusive. They will struggle with unlinking violence and love, and often recreate the same harmful relationships because quite simply, they are familiar.
People with PTSD and CPTSD tend to be highly sensitive to stimulation and criticism, and ironically play out patterns of being hard on themselves through eating disorders, unhealthy relationships, self-berating thoughts, hyper-anxiety, overachieving, perfectionism, or obsessive-compulsive disorders, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, could include apathy, demotivation, recreating depressive situations, lacking a sense of purpose, or hopelessness.
Many common medical conditions are now being attributed to unresolved trauma: asthma, digestive issues, and autoimmune diseases like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia, among many others. These are all signs that point inward to the original wound and our primal human need to feel safe, validated, valued, accepted, and loved.
Due to the rise in awareness of PTSD/CPTSD along with the cultural trend of yoga sweeping the Western world, meditation is now one of the most accessible, readily available, and affordable methods to approach healing and restore balance to the nervous system.
As medical researchers continue to gain evidence-based research about the scientific healing benefits of this ancient practice, new fields of yoga are emerging, such as yoga therapy, T.R.E. (tension, stress, and trauma release), and neurogenic yoga (based on the work of Dr. David Bercelli, creator of T.R.E.). Holotropic breathwork and “rebirthing” are other effective modalities used to work with trauma, heal childhood wounds, and release overall tension from the body.
Pranayama or kriya used in various lineages of yoga can produce similar (or greater) results as these ancient practices have been known for centuries to work directly on the nervous system. In the field of yoga and yoga therapy, breathwork, or pranayama, is the fundamental accessory to meditation—the practice of stilling the mind.
As a yoga teacher and practitioner who has lived through complex/compounded physical, psychological, and emotional childhood trauma from my early youth well into my young adult years, I cannot recommend strongly enough to explore your trauma.
You deserve it. You are worth it. Freedom from mental or psychological oppression is ours for the taking, and it begins in the mind.
The yoga mat is a wonderful, supportive, and non-confrontational place to start. It allows us to connect to the body, to feel ourselves, and then to feel our feelings. Much of my transformational healing happened on the yoga mat, or in the after-effects of a yoga class as I continued to integrate in my body and mind what was happening long after the yoga class ended.
Yoga, in combination with a supportive psychotherapist or social worker, was the winning combination for me. I still have triggering moments, but far fewer. I do not live in a constant state of anxiety, fear, and unworthiness. I know I am loved. I love myself and I belong here.
My yoga mat was the safe space where I was allowed to crumble and collapse and fall—not apart, but fall open. My inner “stories” about why I might have deserved to be abused and neglected over and over for so many years were given the space to surface and then they gradually began to dissolve.
I was able to cultivate a loving connection with my body, my mind, and my self. I connected to a higher power (Source/God/Essence). I found forgiveness for myself and the “offenders.” I found peace.
I felt gratitude for my whole life experience—for who would I be without it?
Certainly, I would lack much less dimension, depth, and compassion for others. Certainly, I would never have recognized the perfection behind everything, every moment as a teacher—that I was being polished like rough diamond into a shiny, brilliant one. I was able to cultivate mindfulness, and I learned about self-regulating my emotional reactiveness into thoughtful responsiveness in any given situation.
With persistence, consistency, and dedication to my healing, my yoga mat soon became the altar of my resurrection and my rising. I did the work (and it is work). I sat in the therapist’s chair week after hellish week for years. I looked at all the ugly things. I felt them. I breathed them. I cried them until I was limp. I dragged my weary body to yoga class after yoga class and sometimes just laid there and sobbed for 90 minutes, feeling so grateful that they played music to muffle the cries of my aching heart.
I thought it would be like this forever. Therapy, yoga, therapy, yoga, on and on without end. And finally, I let go of my expectation that there would ever be getting to the “other side.” I surrendered that this is what it is.
For some of us, we spend our entire adult lives healing from our childhood wounds. I accepted that at least it was a life of more healing and less suffering.
Then, one day, without grasping or trying, without expectation, there was just surrender.
Stillness descended upon me, in me, and through me. I knew my life was on purpose. A deep abiding gratitude flowed through me for all that I had lived through, knowing that I would not have the ability to receive this expanded conscious awareness without even one of those horrific moments.
It had all been for something. Like a conveyer belt, every moment of my life carried me forward to the next moment—every one so crucial, so vital, so necessary. And I experienced the ultimate recognition, the highest truth in two ways:
The first is that everything, every single thing, every moment, every person is directing us back to love.
And the second, and for me the most profound, was that the whole of my trauma, my suffering, my loss, my violation, all of it, was not only my gift, it was in fact my grace.
“To be a spiritual warrior, one must have a broken heart. Without a broken heart and the sense of tenderness and vulnerability that is in One’s self and all others, your warriorship is untrustworthy.” ~ Chogyam Trungpa