I wasn’t drawn to yoga because I thought it would be cool to develop my flexibility or do impressive poses. In fact, practicing yoga really hadn’t crossed my mind as something I’d ever considered doing until a 20-year emotionally destructive relationship left me with symptoms of Betrayal Trauma (a form of PTSD) and my health began suffering to the point that I spent five years in level 8-10 pain on a daily basis due to stress and systemic overload.
As a lifelong seeker, I spent many years searching for and applying various healing modalities. Many helped me build greater self-awareness, but none addressed the core issue of trauma or the role that trauma plays in the body. Eventually I was led to the life-changing modality of EMDR and experienced miraculous results in the way my brain processed past trauma and dealt with triggers, but I still found it difficult to connect with my body, to be present, and to feel joy. I knew there was more to be uncovered on my healing journey.
The thought of yoga kept coming to my mind, but I didn’t want to participate in just any type of yoga class. Having been introduced to energy practices and chakras years before, I knew I wasn’t interested in a discipline that accentuated the yang. I was looking for stillness, release, a way to sit with myself and my body and accept my life without judgement. When I found yin yoga, I knew I’d found what I had been looking for.
When a person has experienced trauma, or long-term high-stress circumstances they tend to dissociate from their bodies (Emerson, 5), become easily stressed, and get stuck in survival mode keeping the sympathetic nervous system on high alert. In this state high levels of cortisol are dumped into the body, and if those levels remain elevated it can result in a plethora of consequences, such as poor mental abilities, decreased memory, depressed immunity, heart problems, bone loss, insomnia, poor wound healing, weight gain, depression, fatigue, etc. (Clark, 260).
Yin yoga, which is a more meditative approach to yoga than most popular styles, requires participants to connect with the self, feelings, sensations and emotions. It taps into the parasympathetic nervous system and calms the body, teaching one to feel safe. It requires one to sit in stillness, accept discomfort in a controlled way, face emotions without distraction, and to listen without judgement.
Bernie Clark describes yin yoga in the following way, “Yoga. . .is an inward practice designed to build awareness, non-attachment, equanimity, and contentment. We do not use the body to get into the pose, we use the pose to get into the body.” (Clark, 29)
Biff Mithoefer describes the reality between the results of trauma and benefits of yogic healing, stating that “until we can feel some peace in our lives, some balance, it’s very hard to feel compassion, kindness, or joy for others. It’s especially difficult to feel compassion and acceptance toward ourselves.”
He also states that “the practice of yin yoga is a practice of reconnection.” And that is exactly the kind of healing that trauma victims need to begin feeling whole and living a life of joy.
Because trauma is held not only in the mind, but also deep in the body (Emerson, xiv and Mithoefer), it’s important to address the deep connective tissues of the body in a recovery program. We do this through yin yoga. As we hold the poses, we allow the body to relax and release tension. This, in turn, allows the mind and emotions to also relax and release creating space for observation, learning and healing.
Yin yoga works much like acupressure (Mithoefer), stimulating specific areas of bone, connective tissue, and fascia, releasing tension and blockage both physically and energetically. Because there is no “right” way to practice the poses in yin yoga it gives the participant permission to be different. When practicing yin yoga we don’t have to feel like we’re not enough or that we’re “wrong” somehow—feelings trauma victims already struggle with.
In yin yoga practice we are free to be exactly as we are, to offer what we are just as we are, and know that it’s okay. In addition, as we let our own body guide us through the process we learn to listen to and develop trust in our own judgment again, in the wisdom of our bodies again. We learn to reconnect.
My first experience using a yoga pose to treat my own trauma was with a Seated Mountain Pose. I sat tall and began breathing. I had no reaction. Then, as instructed, I gently rocked from side to side and observed the thoughts that rose into my mind. I immediately hated the sensation, it reminded me too much of my life—rocky and chaotic, even making me nauseous. Determined to push through, I began breathing through the movement until I calmed down. Then as instructed, I moved in a circular motion rocking on my pelvic bones. This too was uncomfortable to me for the same reasons. As I continued to work the same pose and motion over the next few days, the sensation began to lessen and I began to feel okay with the movement.
As a child I experienced a traumatic episode of physical abuse that laid the foundation for further forms of abuse as an adult. I did not realize until more than thirty years after my childhood experience just how much I had dissociated from my body. One day I scheduled a private session with a yoga therapist. Without knowing much about me she felt a walking meditation would serve me well. As I placed each bare foot firmly on the wood floor, I became profoundly aware of a pattern of disconnection I had practiced since childhood. Whenever I had been in a situation where I had to walk barefoot on a hard surface I would walk on the sides of my feet. I hated the way it felt for my feet to connect to a solid surface. It was shocking to understand, through that experience, how much I hated being in my body.
Yoga taught me that.
In an environment with no pressure, no expectation, no judgement my mind unlocked that understanding from my body. To me, that’s powerful knowledge that no talk therapy could ever uncover or heal.
They say time is the great healer. Yin yoga allows time and gravity, both natural forces, to stimulate, repair, nourish and heal areas of the body, mind and soul (Campbell). Bernie Campbell says, “Yin yoga. . . postures. . . facilitate ease, space, and deep release in the body’s connective tissue.” That time, that space are powerful tools for healing those on the road to recovery from traumatic events in their lives.
In the process of recovery, yin yoga offers a beautiful, gentle pathway out of pain. It allows those who have been surviving to begin thriving.
Emerson, David & Elizabeth Hopper PhD, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2011
Clark, Bernie, The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga: A Philosphy & Practice of Yin Yoga”, USA: White Cloud Press, 2012
Zvara, Hope, Mind Body Green, https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-5037/Yin-Yoga-101-What-You-Need-to-Know.html
Mithoefer, Biff, Heart of the Village Yoga Studio, http://www.heartofvillageyoga.com/yin-yoga-can-help-us-heal-find-peace-lives/
Shippert, Peg, Peg Shipper, MA, LPC, http://www.pegshippert.com/blog/2016/1/28/10-ways-to-make-therapy-more-effective-1-yin-yoga-with-bari-campbell