Healing Yoga Through Trauma Part 2 The Power of Restorative Yoga
Because trauma impacts the nervous system, it can be difficult to address the symptoms and effects of trauma by just talking about it, even if the person listening is supportive, sensitive, and validating. The mind/body complex responds to trauma on a visceral level, over activating the brain stem and its function in ensuring our survival. On an emotional level, trauma can create an imbalance in the part of the brain that connects emotions with interpretation of events. As discussed in Part 1, feelings can be intense and overwhelming or completely numb. If the trauma symptoms don’t resolve and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder develops, (or, as I prefer to think of it, the stress response embeds itself in the survival and emotional parts of the brain) the stress and tension from the trauma will also lodge in the musculature, fascia, and tissues of the physical body. This is why we often see poor posture in trauma survivors, chests collapsing in an effort to protect their emotional vulnerability or necks craning in an attempt to embody the hyper vigilance of the survival mechanisms.
A vast and ever expanding body of research has found that yoga practice reduces stress, including the stress held in the body and manifested in the mind and emotions after a traumatic event. And anyone who practices yoga knows that it relieves stress and supports recovery from trauma. Breathing and meditation techniques can help calm the nervous system. Practicing self study, one of the ethics of yoga, can help you identify when your body is going into a trauma response. And the physical practice (of the postures of yoga) seems expertly designed to release stress from the muscles, tissues, and fascia while also strengthening mental concentration, physical and emotional stamina, and overall resiliency.
“Trauma-informed yoga” has become a buzzword in recent years and it both amuses and annoys me because yoga is naturally trauma informed. Hala Khouri writes in Yoga Journal: “The foundational intentions of a trauma-informed yoga practice are to help you find a sense of grounding and support in your body, to connect to sensations in a safe way, and to use the practice to help you trust your body’s signals again.” Leave out the last word “again” and you have just described the natural outcomes of traditional yoga practice. It is unfortunate that so many yoga teachers are not trained or informed about trauma and so much of western yoga seems more about overriding the body’s wisdom and overextending beyond the body’s safe limits. So, we have to say "trauma-informed yoga" to assure trauma survivors that this kind of yoga will not push or pressure you in any way physically or mentally. It is not competitive and it is not a sport or an exercise that you need to excel at. Yoga does not aim to fix us and is not a self improvement contest. Yoga is about acceptance of yourself as you are, including your nervous system’s natural response to trauma.
However, as you accept and begin to know yourself, change will inevitably and almost effortlessly occur when you practice yoga regularly. Restorative yoga is an especially powerful tool in recovering from trauma and bringing the nervous system towards self regulation, a deeper sense of physical, emotional, and psychological safety, as well as presence and balance. The practice is less about specific poses or sequences and more about focusing on how to feel supported and comfortable as the mind relaxes and the body opens. This creates a safe way for practitioners to feel sensations and emotions without becoming overwhelmed. Or if trauma has left you feeling disconnected, restorative yoga can help you learn to tolerate discomfort so you can move through it rather than run away from it. Restorative yoga promotes the ability to be truly present in an embodied way, experience authentic emotions, and loosen the grip of the past as you move toward freedom from the symptoms and effects of trauma.
Restorative yoga brings you into the present moment by giving you time to pause and notice what your senses are telling you. As you drape yourself over blankets, bolsters, and blocks your body downloads a wealth of feedback and your neural circuitry learns to listen and interpret the information. Rather than constantly transitioning to the next posture (which can also be a beneficial practice, for sure, in learning to surf the constant change that life brings,) restorative yoga teaches the nervous system to take the time to process a situation. Instead of reacting immediately or finding ways to numb the feelings or sensations, you learn to give yourself a meditative pause, reflecting on what provoked the emotions, rather than finding ways to deflect them.
As you rest in a supported pose, you can pay close attention to the breath and begin to develop a slow and steady rhythm. The ability to observe and regulate the breath is one of the most effective and immediate remedies for trauma symptoms and effects. When you practice volitional control of the breath on a regular basis, you naturally notice when you are stressed and your breath becomes rapid or shallow and you know what it really means to “take a few deep breaths” and calm down. (Most people, not trained in yoga, take a sharp shallow inhale into the chest when you ask them to take a deep breath, completely excluding the ribs and the belly). And restorative yoga helps you become very familiar and compassionate towards the areas of your body that are especially tender or tense. In this place of deep connection, you can feel and release your emotions.
I am continually amazed by how much happens in a restorative posture. I find that I need to adjust every minute or so as my spine elongates, shoulders widen, or hips open. Yet, it is usually not until I come out of the posture that I feel how much really happened physically, mentally, and emotionally while I stopped moving and melted into the supports beneath me. As exhilarating as a more vigorous asana practice can be and as much as I have seen any form and all the practices of traditional yoga provide relief from trauma symptoms, I believe what we most need now, whether managing stress or trauma effects, is to pause and unwind. As a global society, we have been going over the speed limit for a while now and if we don’t slow down, we are going to crash.