Transcending Trauma in Yoga, Exercise and Fitness Classes
What is Trauma
In its simplest form, trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Trauma is a term used to describe a single or multiple distressing events, that may have long lasting and harmful effects on a person’s physical and/or emotional well-being.
Examples of traumatic events can include:
- Physical or emotional abuse
- Childhood neglect or abandonment
- Sexual abuse or rape
- Natural or human caused disasters (floor, fire, car accident, etc.)
- War or combat experience
- Violence (witnessing or being a victim of)
When someone is traumatized, they no longer feel physically or emotionally safe; they may also feel powerless and out of control, because ultimately a traumatic event creates a change that person did not choose.
Because infants and young children’s reactions may be different from older children’s, and adult’s, and because they may not be able to verbalize their reactions to threatening or dangerous events, many people assume that young age protects children from the impact of traumatic experiences- this is simply not true. When trauma occurs at a young age, when we’re developmentally fragile, the effects can be even longer lasting and even more challenging to heal.
Factors involved in Trauma
- Difference in power dynamic between the perpetrator and the victim
- Victim experiences a loss of choice and control in their life
- Often, but not always, physical violation, which can result in:
- Hypervigilance – being constantly on the alert for danger
- Exaggerated startle response – being jumpy or easily startled
- Triggering responses – being reminded of the trauma
- Flashbacks –feeling like the traumatic event is happening
- Disassociation – feeling disconnected from the body
In my early twenties, I found myself in a fairly mellow yoga class, we paused in Warrior II and something happened, something that I’d never experienced before. My body felt heavy, my tongue thick, I couldn’t breathe, my heart started racing, my muscles twitched, I panicked. My mind was racing and I felt like I had to get out of the room as soon as possible yet I couldn’t move I found myself crumpled in the corner at the end of class, silently crying under a blanket, trying to make sense of the trauma that I had just relived in snippets of images and muscle memory; the teacher turned off the lights, left the room, and left me there alone.
I believe that yoga is a practice of self-inquiry and exploration, an expression of acceptance and vulnerability, a journey that can open doors and break down barriers, but how do you do this when you’re disconnected from yourself? What do you do when self-awareness triggers trauma?
Ultimately, this experience in yoga class changed my life. I was attending Naropa University, a Buddhist inspired college and leader in the contemplative education movement, an approach that integrates Eastern wisdom studies and traditional Western scholarship. After my panic attack in yoga class, I decided to pursue a degree in psychology, and a minor in yoga, so I could begin to understand what had happened to me in class that day.
I never intended to be a teacher, but the path chose me. An avid athlete since childhood, running, yoga and group fitness classes were initially a way for me to disconnect from my body and escape my current reality. I needed my mind to be quiet, and I wasn’t willing to address what was happening in my body, it was too painful, scary and unknown. I also felt a lot of shame and embarrassment, so instead of paying attention, I shut down. And after my unfortunate experience in yoga class, I continued to shut down.
Everyone has different thresholds for stress and discomfort, and I’ve discovered that mindful movement based “exercise” is an opportunity to build the strength, stamina and focus needed for me to break my heart wide open and turn fully towards my experience of life. I’m fit and strong, and I can do some crazy “yoga” stuff with my body, but that’s not why I practice. Yoga in particular is my journey of self-inquiry and discovery, it’s usually not very pretty, but it gives me a place to feel sadness so I can let the joy in- but what I’ve discovered, is that many yoga and group fitness classes are not a safe environment for me to practice.
Most experts agree that trauma’s effects live in the body, and that’s why movement-based practices like yoga can work to begin a healing process.
Trauma is such a loaded word, I tell people that I have PTSD and I guarantee their first thought is war veteran, and then they look at me, and I look “normal” right- then all of a sudden they see me and treat me very differently. Trauma has layers, an isolated incident such as a car crash, a breakup or death, or many complex layers/events, creating a history that makes the symptoms even longer lasting and harder to treat. Logically I know my symptoms and resulting behavior are silly, but I am powerless to change them on my own. Nonstop panic and hyper sensitivity to my surroundings is exhausting and debilitating, my body becomes stuck, shut down, malnourished and my mind in hyperdrive calculating every possible outcome or threat in a situation becomes confused and I lose my ability to distinguish reality from thoughts. Life often feels surreal, it’s terrifying and overwhelming and I can’t begin to express how hard it is just to get though the basics. And we live in a world where it’s not ok, to not be ok…my wounds and scars are internal, but the pain is real and lasting.
According to van der Kolk, the author of numerous articles and studies on how trauma affects the brain, trauma is not the story we tell about the violence we endured or the horrible accident we witnessed, it’s not even the event itself, instead it’s the stuff we can’t let go of, what he calls the “residue of imprints” (yogis call it samskaras) that gets left behind in our neurophysiology (our sensory and hormonal systems). Van der Kolk, says that traumatized people are “terrified of the sensations in their own bodies,” so it’s imperative that they get some sort of body-based therapy to feel safe again, he says, and learn to care for themselves.
Mindfulness in Body, Mind, and Heart
I know what it feels like to be treated differently because of something that you have limited or no control over. I’ve created Origin Fitness as a refuge for myself and my clients because we all deserve to have a safe place to go (in this case to exercise).
I begin each one of my classes with a body scan, breath work and intention, and throughout class I educate and empower people to find their own unique alignment in postures, guide them to understand functional movement and muscle activation and also address the mind-body connection, how often our minds can wander and can cause us to give up, when we might physically be able to push a little further. I teach people how to work with sensation in their bodies, how to discover the balance between pushing harder versus pushing to a point of self-destruction, and also to honor where their bodies are at, since it’s different day to day- ultimately, they’re learning to cultivate a more positive relationship to their bodies. I encourage people to learn and understand when they need to rest or modify and create an environment of safety and trust so people are able to make this decision and not feel embarrassed about it.
Becoming trauma informed means recognizing that everyone has a story, and some of those stories may include different types of trauma. For a trauma survivor, healing is in part about creating change you do choose, and learning how to restore a sense of safety, power and worth. People who have been traumatized need support and understanding from the people around them. Often, like myself, trauma survivors can become re-traumatized by well-meaning caregivers and people in their lives. Trauma-informed care shifts the perspective from hearing someone’s story and thinking “what’s wrong with you?” to thinking “what happened to you?” and how can I help? As teachers we can educate ourselves, make a commitment to ahimsa (an intention to cause no harm), and do our best to create an environment of safety and respect.