Contributed by Gillian Eliza, E-RYT200, TIYT
The first time I came to a yoga class it was a daunting experience. To be perfectly honest the first couple of times I came to my mat I hated it. It wasn’t easy to get to know my body or how it moves let alone be expected to breathe on command. That experience seems to be pretty normal, but when you add in emotional trauma it can heighten the experience exponentially. I’ve been a trauma survivor for over 10 years, up until I first came to my mat most of my recovery was based on talk therapy. After I began a practice that whole recovery began to take a different shape. What turned from a physical exercise transformed into a way to learn about myself, to be in touch with my breath and body (something I never wanted to do) and to cope with the realities of emotional trauma. I knew I wanted to give back, so after receiving my first 200-hour training and a few years of teaching under my belt I became certified as a Trauma Informed Yoga Teacher.
How can yoga help trauma survivors ease the strain of emotional trauma? It can take so many shapes and is very individualized for the person in question. We have so many tools at our disposal to help ease the physical manifestations of trauma on the body: breath, movement, and mind. These are the three big techniques that are a great gateway in to using yoga as a tool for recovery.
Breath practice. Kaki Pranayama: Beak Breath is my go-to breath practice not only for my clients, but also in my own personal practice. It can be done in three different stages. The first is the simple breath practice: slow in through the nose out through the mouth. When you exhale imagine that you’re trying to blow out birthday candles on top of a cake. This is great to do if you’re experiencing anxiety or a stimulus out in public. An add-on to Kaki Pranayama is to place your hand on your left cheek. This compresses your vagal nerve which sends a response to your brain to calm your nervous system. Need a little bit more? While practicing your Kaki breathing, with your left hand on your left cheek place your right hand in front of your face. Imagine you could blow straight through your hand. This focuses breath, body, and mind on a common goal: allowing your body to move back in to a state of relaxation over time. The more you practice the easier it gets!
Physical movement. My go to movement that is easy and accessible wherever you go is the “Shake it off” method. This is an especially effective technique for highly activated individuals as it allows the body to release adrenaline running through the blood stream. Start with one hand, shake it right and left for five counts, then move to the left hand. Continue to count down from five until one. If you can use the whole body, great! Start with your right hand, then left hand, move to the right foot, then the left. If you can follow this exercise with your Kaki Pranayama it’s a great pairing of techniques.
Positive affirmation. This is a huge one. Your body hears the words you tell yourself and the expectations you set. Which means if you change your thinking you suddenly have access to a whole new part of your life that you can impact and control in a positive way. It’s ok if at first if you feel unsure and like you are reciting lines; your body still hears it. I love the phrase, “Fake it until you BECOME it,” because it is so true. Our thoughts become reality over time, this is true for both positive and negative examples. Accessible ways to practice positive affirmations is to take a sticky note and write a few on a post-it note and place it on your mirror, in your car, at your desk, wherever you look on a regular basis. Take the time to read it, let it sink in, then move on with your day. The more you do this, the truer the word feels. Here are some good examples of positive affirmations:
- I am enough
- I am worthy
- I am in control of my happiness
- I am healthy
We call yoga a practice, because it is exactly that: a practice. The more we can practice these techniques the more our brains and bodies will respond. As our practice takes root our bodies can begin to process the emotional trauma that may have manifested, therefore making it easier for us to process the mental aspect of trauma. Though this practice is not a “one size fits all” experience, these techniques are great beginners to a road to ease and relaxation.