When I look at the beautiful people I work with, generally those searching for health, emotional release and an increased sense of well-being, and I tend to notice where they’ve stored their hurts. I think perhaps because I have so many of my own.
It’s in the way a person stands or moves, the way in which they hold themselves.
I see the pain they hold, the trauma, as strength. As battle scars hard won and worn by amazingly resilient people who are seeking hope and a new way of being. True warriors.
Courageous, marvelous individuals deserving of all the good things, and no more of the bad.
Every time we experience upset, no matter how slight it may seem to another, or how huge, if we register it as trauma, it’s stored as trauma. Within us. Emotionally and physically. As muscle memory, as fear, anger, sadness or guilt - depending on our early limbic programming, our familial patterns, our own unique developed behavioral patterns, and as a consequence of our life experience.
If there’s no space for it be expressed, released; no room for the vastness of it to escape within the realms of everyday life, it can quietly grow into something altogether too tough to face. We then tend to bury it deeper, and learn to turn away from it more skillfully.
If you think of trauma, no matter the source, physical or emotional, as a kind of an initial impact with a cascading domino effect of shocks, it gives you an idea of its power.
And if you think about where feel it, you can get an idea of where it’s placed within your body….and more importantly where you can release it from.
Harsh words from a loved one, for example…where do you feel them?
As a blow to the shoulders, making you bow beneath their cruelty? As a punch to the stomach, making you fold in? As a slap to the face, making you clench your jaw or furrow your brow?
When you experienced disbelief perhaps, when all you needed was to be heard, do you feel a sinking in the pit of your stomach? A sense of betrayal that turns to poison in the very centre of your heart? A desire to fold yourself away, to shy and disappear?
If you find yourself facing a criticism repeatedly told, is there a sense of your spirit shrinking to fit within the restraints?
As a shock finds you, does your spine lock? Do the backs of your legs brace? Perhaps your rib-cage closes in, stifling your lungs and ability to breathe deeply?
With too much responsibility to shoulder, do your shoulders round beneath the weight? Mine actually started to dislocate, which was because of the illness I have, but they were the first joint to go.
And if you’ve experienced your love being rejected, do you round and fold in, in an attempt to protect you heart?
Perhaps you’ve been repressed, told you can’t, you mustn’t, you shouldn’t follow your dreams and maybe you feel it in the tightness of your hips, because in your life you just can’t walk away and move forwards and get to where you want to be?
Where ever the trauma is, however deep it feels, by bringing breath and movement to the body, we can start to move through it. To open it and set it free. I can’t tell you how often I’ve come to my mat depressed, demoralised, broken hearted, inconsolable and found a way through just by breathing and moving.
It’s really that simple. And that’s where I start in my own journey. With the breath. With the calming it brings. The slowing of the racing heart, the stilling of the chattering mind that began chattering to distract from pain.
The next step, once you feel comfortable and safe enough to breathe deeply, is to move. To join breath and movement. To open the muscles that have bunched. To release the fascia that has become tight, to free yourself and flow with the breath.
By carefully expanding, allowing space to re-enter the body, by allowing the muscles to stretch and release, we can tap into a wisdom we didn’t know we had. The wisdom of the body and mind working as one.
Linking breath, movement and intention brings balance. It returns us to homeostasis and allows our innately intelligent bodies to quietly take the opportunity to release emotions we didn’t even realise we were storing.
If you’ve experienced deep trauma or illness, go slowly, and listen to what your body has to say. If it hurts, back off. Always back away from pain. Breathe into it, gently acknowledge it, and perhaps, if you feel able, walk to the edge of it with whichever pose you’re practicing, but never force yourself through it and into it.
Yoga is a practice of kindness to yourself and those around you, but it begins with being kind to you.
The amazing thing about yoga is that while it’s wonderful to work with teachers, you can also learn how to practice on your own - if you can’t afford a class, or simply can’t even get there. It’s available to everyone, and isn’t about dynamic poses that draw gasps of wonder, it’s about self-love and self-care.
By matching breath with movement, by breathing into specific muscle groups, specific organs as we open, we began to release tension, pain and trauma.
Flows which open the heart centre and expand the chest, are especially uplifting and restorative, they bring hope and ease deep sadness.
Cobra Pose/Bhujangasana –
Forward folds are calming and soothing.
Seated Head to Knee Pose/Janu Sirsasana – a forward fold and hip opener -
Cat/cow sequences bring movement to the spine, allowing an easier life flow and playfulness. Cat-Cow Pose/Bitilasana Marjaryasana-
Back bends are energy giving. Camel Pose/Ustrasana-
Bridge Pose/ Seta Bandha Sarvangasana-
Opening the hip flexors and one of the deepest emotion storing muscles that resides there, the psoas, is deeply releasing emotionally. Yogi Squat Pose/Malasana-
Lizard Pose/Utthan Pristasana-
Happy Baby Pose/Ananda Balasana-
Bound Angle Pose/Baddha Konasana-
And one day, with consistent practice, you might just find that you can take a blow and not cower, not round, not sink, disappear or shrink. The muscles will learn how to release on their own. The breath will kick in unasked; to support the body that houses it.
One day, there will be sufficient strength to stand tall in the face of what has passed and what is passing.
Once you learn how to move through trauma, it starts to lose its impact, to an extent. I don’t and never will underestimate the need for other therapies, other modes of healing and support, but yoga is a mighty tool in your well-being tool kit.
Yoga is learning to sway in the storm, and not to break.
It’s learning to become you own safe harbour. It’s the beginning of being so powerful, resilient and humble that nothing and no one can break you.
When I began to contemplate practicing yoga, I was terribly ill and had been bed-bound for years. I’d lost my family, my independence, my career, my friends and my pride.
At twenty-three, having nursed my mum through cancer, having looked after my family, I thought I would finally have the opportunity to build my life, to travel, explore and live life to the absolute fullest. I was incredibly fit, active, bubbly and hopeful.
And I was wrong.
Overnight, I went from full of life to barely alive and no one knew why.
After years of what can only be described as a living hell, I turned to yoga in desperation and terror.
I knew that if I didn’t try to do something, anything, I wouldn’t make it. I was traumatised, broken and on the edge of the abyss. It felt as though either my spirit would crash and burn or my body would. And, as I didn’t particularly fancy either option,
I began to wonder about all the remarkable people in the world, all those inspirational souls you hear about, who have managed to thrive in the midst of the most awful and challenging of circumstances.
That’s what I was aiming for, the ability to thrive in the midst of hell.
Mentality, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Aware that I would have to relinquish my old worn dreams, which I had clung to for years, ever hopeful I would return to my old life, and replace them with something else; something other than everything that had gone before - I groped in the dark, trying to find a shred of light. I felt like I was drowning.
Nothing. I literally begged my doctor, the consultants and various alternative therapists for suggestions of self-help practices to guide me to place of well-being, away from the trauma and darkness. They just booked more appointments and asked for more money that I didn’t have.
I wanted to take my power back. I was tired of the illness being in charge of every aspect of my life, and I was kind of tired of doing what I was told.
Antidepressants. That’s all anyone could really suggest. I presume so that I would effectively be too stoned to dwell upon the fact that my body was failing and mind following closely behind. I refused. I felt there had to be something else. Something more akin to living than masking and succumbing.
Something more holistic. True.
By sheer chance, just when I thought I couldn’t go on, or that I might focus the little energy I had on murdering doctors, my dad mentioned breath control, in relation to his passion for diving, not to help, just as a passing aside. It struck a cord. I could breathe, could I manipulate my breath? Would that help? A friend simultaneously gave me an old worn and fairly ridiculous 1970’s book with various yoga poses in it (unitards featured heavily), that I couldn’t do, and my journey into yoga began as a desperate muddled haze of ill health seeking hope.
Because at the back of the book, there was a section on Pranayama.
The control of life force through breath. The control of the LIFE FORCE. I thought Star wars, that’ll do.
A transformative, healing power. It’s ability to resolve trauma, illness, pain and just about everything else, if all the ancient yogi’s are to be believed. I believe them. I didn’t then, I was pretty much convinced they were nutters, but I had nothing to lose, so I joined the nutters.
As my life had consisted of one traumatic even after another, and I would have removed limbs to just feel incrementally better, I pounced on that last page.
And I wondered if I could potentially release some of the trauma I had been informed I was holding by various psychologists without ever having to see another absolutely well-meaning and absolutely annoying psychologist.
The ever lurking trauma, it transpired had been unconsciously housed, not only in my addled mind, but in the depths of the fascia (tautening and tightening it breaking point), in my muscles (bunching them, shortening them), and in my organs (slowing and contracting them until they couldn’t perform their allotted tasks adequately).
At this point, I couldn’t even sit up, so it was all a long shot.
The rejections, the awful living conditions, the extreme poverty, the hateful words of those who don’t believe in chronic ill health, the dismals, the anger, the judgements, the taunting, the abuse of power, and most of all, the overwhelming sense of loss, all seemed insurmountable. I was told that what I really needed to do was quietly to give up.
I choose not to.
And as I didn’t have the energy to start punching people, I began by inhaling through my nose and out of my mouth very slowly, counting the beats of my heart every time I felt overwhelmed.
That was it. A deep cleansing breath, releasing and detoxing on the exhale. Imagining all the pain flowing out and away. Unbelievably, it helped. My body started to sense that after years of ignoring it, I was back, on its side.
I progressed to trying to sit up for a few moments at a time, lengthening my spine, lowering my shoulders and breathing deeply into my belly. I felt less sick, less trapped, less like screaming.
I then tried alternate nostril breathing - Nadhi Shodhana-
Which really began to calm my mind, and drop me into a parasympathetic state (I didn’t know that then) where I could actually stop shaking for a few seconds at a time.
And so it went on, the Humming Bee Breath (Bhramari), which convinced my family I’d lost the plot.
The Ujjayi Breath (Darth Vader), which also convinced my family I’d lost the plot.
And the Lions Breath (Simhasana), which I used every time my family told me I’d lost the plot (I added in pretending to bite them at the end of each of those breaths, which I’m fairly sure isn’t included in yogic text). Anything that was calming and soothing and I was all over it.
Pranayama, it turns out, really is the control of life force, it’s the application of breathing practices to heal, to open, to bring life back to the body and mind, uniting them. And, it’s the place where I began to take my power back.
By simply beginning to breathe fully and deeply, we immediately switch our bodies from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic. From a state of fear and flight to one of slow acceptance and the ability to calmly process. By exhaling through the mouth after inhaling through the nose, we not only detox, we release - emotions, fears, traumas. If we add sounds, maybe the sounds of the chakras to an oral exhale, we can even tune into specific areas within the body that need attention.
If you try consciously breathing for just a second - breathing in through the nose for a count of four, and then out of the nose for a count of four – you may start to feel the shift. The subtle release of tension, of holding.
By taking the breath to the very pit of your belly, perhaps placing your hands over the belly, you will begin the journey of coming home to your body.
Repeat the cycle four or five times, and then try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, still counting slowly to four and see how you feel.
Perhaps close your eyes, and bring a form of meditation in… because that really is all meditation is in it’s very basic essence, a withdrawal to your internal space, focusing on your breath, your body and your inner world.
It may initially feel slightly overwhelming. You may find you instinctively want to shy from your body and all the pain it’s been holding both physically and emotionally. That’s okay. And if it gets to be too much - shake it out, if you can.
Start by gently shaking in your hands, arms, shoulders, perhaps bringing the shake to the whole body and gently bouncing on your feet (if you're able and nothing hurts while you're trying it). Shaking is a wonderful way to release trauma, held emotions, anger, fear, anxiety. Inhale through the nose and out of your mouth as you shake, perhaps incorporating the sound haaaaaa on the exhale.
This is the initial phase. Allowing your mind and body to become one. They aren’t separate entities, who knew, they work as one, who knew? I didn’t.
Your gut talks to your brain, your brain talks to your gut, what you eat influences how your mind works, and the workings of your mind influence your digestion. Emotions are taken in as food and energy to the cells, tissues and muscles. A tight back can make you feel anxious, and anxiety can tighten your back. It’s all one, all a circle, and all within your power to soothe, to heal and to release.
Obviously, if you’re very unwell, you also need to find out what’s causing the illness and treat it in whichever way resonates for you, if you can. And likewise, if the trauma is ongoing, try to find your way out, if you can, and if possible, maybe find someone to talk to. Someone who can actually hear what you’re saying.
It’s such a weird concept to grasp, that in opening the deep muscles of the hips for example, you can let go of anger and fear.
I had taken so many lower belly punches over the years, in the form of so many lost opportunities, a complete lack of love or kindness from anyone, and the inability to move forwards in life while those around me went speeding off, that my hips and psoas had literally seized up and frozen. The psoas is known to house deep emotional pain and is the flight and fight muscle, it contracts under pressure.
The first time I tried to open my hips in a reclined Baddha Konasana on my bed (I didn’t get very far), I spent the next three hours crying. And the rest of evening feeling strangely calm, which was a sensation I hadn’t experienced in years. My heart rate dropped a little (it had been in the mid 200’s for a very long time), and I started to sense that I was coming home, back into my broken body. I didn’t want to come back to it, I want to get the hell away from it and buy a new one, but they don’t sell them in Tescos, and I knew that if I didn’t sink and release and return, it would break further and we would die.
So I tried yoga and it saved my life.