Inside yourself is a place where you live all alone. That’s where you renew the springs that never dry up. -Pearl S. Buck
The body remembers. I had a yoga teacher who said this often. She was referring to working at one’s edge, the place where you balance between not going far enough and going past your endurance. The edge is where we learn things, in yoga. The quickest way to advance in one’s practice is to find that edge in every practice; the muscles and tendons remember where they have been; we can either let them remember a place of resistance, hesitation, or one of peak awareness. If we don’t show our bodies the direction we want them to move, they won’t know.
But the body remembers in other ways, too, and there is more than one edge in the world. Science and medicine – the profound leaps we’re making in understanding the human brain – has begun to realize something intuitively known for centuries: memories are kept in the body. The reverie that can come over us in driving or jogging is an example. So, too, are the ways certain views (our old house, a loved one’s empty chair, a photo of our dog) or sounds (a radio playing in an empty room, car wheels on gravel, or certain songs) can bring us back. “Bring us back” is a better way of saying it than “remembering”, because remembering sounds like something about as moving as reading a recipe. What happens is much more like a swell of emotions, sudden tears that we can’t quite explain, or a mood that comes over us “for no reason”.
Nothing is lost: although we are creatures who seem to have selective memories and difficulty remembering things exactly as they were, chances are we do remember, but we may not be conscious of what we remember. Memory may be taking place in the parts of our brain (heart, limbic system, and digestive tract) that operate below our awareness or rational eye. Indeed, even instincts are a kind of memory, coded into us and remembered across millenia. Recent studies on collective memories prove that we can remember stressors, pleasures, or fears deep within us that our grandparents knew, even if we’ve never experienced the thing ourselves.
Memory or remembering is only one psychic process among many now recognized to take place on a cellular level. ALL emotions take place in an integrated way across the field of our bodies. While our cultures have generally applauded rationalism and thinking, the ‘mind’ over the body, it may be that the two are more closely linked than we’ve acknowledged.
In ways, we can say that we are our emotions, just as we are our bodies, or are our ‘souls’.
Yoga means union, and is often referred to as the union or marriage of body and mind. The idea is apt, here: psychosomatic symptoms are more real and more prescient than we’ve given credit for. By changing our emotions, we make physical changes to our bodies.
The opposite is also true: by changing our bodies, we can change our experiences of emotion, thought, and memory.
Powerful stuff when we realize depressions are hard to cure with pills, stress doesn’t go away over the weekend, and there are some pains you simply cannot avoid. We can know things outside of conscious thought. We can heal, heart outward.
But it may have special meaning for those of us who have scars in the way we think and feel.
Trauma, whether it come in a car wreck, combat, surviving a natural disaster, abuse or assault or anything else, changes who we are.
Sometimes, we may feel too much, or be unable to control our feelings as we should.
And other times, or for other survivors, we don’t feel much of anything, at all. It may be that ‘feeling’ was too threatening, complicated, or sad for us at one point, and we turned them off. We may have lost the ability to turn them back on.
The remains of trauma may be severe, as the Vietnam Vet who has flashbacks and dives under tables and hasn’t slept a night without nightmares since his discharge. Or the survivor of a sexual assault who becomes promiscuous or frigid, paranoid and agorophopic, scared of strangers and hiding her body under layers of clothing, added weight, hair that hangs in her eyes.
But it doesn’t have to be. We don’t have to be suffering from dissociated states or flashbacks. We may not think we’ve been affected at all, bear no wounds, have healed. We may not know that we are still a little detached from ourselves, still a little less likely to love or laugh than others. We may struggle with addictions or eating problems, mood disorders, anxiety, stress.
Or maybe we think we’re ‘fine’. If we have things in our lives we choose to not talk about, or difficulty remembering periods of time, or unexplained fatigue, sadness, or mood shifts, we might begin to recognize things that never did heal, or healed poorly.
Yoga is proving to be one of the best ways to go within, to reaquaint ourselves with our intuitive and body knowledge, to rebuild what’s been broken or create what was never given a chance to happen in the first place.
Yoga is beneficial to trauma survivors in ways other therapy, exercise (or addiction or other coping skill), or simply ‘moving on’ can’t be.
- Yoga gives us the opportunity to focus our attention inward, and take care of ourselves. Survivors of trauma have often become conditioned to focus on outside scenarios or other people’s emotions. Abused children learn to read the tension in the air. Abused women focus all their emotional energy on their partner. Surviving a crisis situation – such as combat, flood, fire, or a car accident – turns our very survival into an accurate reading of our surroundings. Many survivors of all the above have difficulty recognizing their feelings, even years after the traumatic event. Others simply feel uncomfortable, anxious, or under threat as they turn their attention to themselves. All have lost an level intimacy and regard for the self.
- Yoga gives us a unique way of being in and with our bodies that is non-judgemental and non-competitive. This is a radical notion, considering a culture that is obsessed with thinness, beauty, and the use of sex appeal, and successful living that’s thought of in terms of a ladder. In nearly every scenario in our lives, we are compared to others, judged, pressured to conform or change. Yoga is an opportunity for us to step aside from the critical and move toward the simple act of accepting and working with, as well as ultimately revering and appreciating.
- The practice of yoga gives survivors of all kinds of trauma the tools needed for healing the split between body and mind.
- Yoga provides opportunity to engage in deliberate, intentional physical movement. For survivors who have been violated, using the body in this way, and choosing to use it for one’s own benefit, helps counter some of the harm of forced submission or brutality. For survivors who’s physical safety has been controlled or threatened by something outside of themselves, yoga’s intentional use of movement restores a sense of control.
- Yoga teaches the skills of self-soothing. Survivors don’t usually get the care and support they need. As a result, they may go to extremes of withdrawing or becoming overly dependent; isolated or driven to please others. The emotions of trauma can seem overwhelming – this is what sends us into “post-traumatic stress disorder”, splitting, numbing, forgetting, or minimizing. Learning to take care of ourselves, we are suddenly better equipped to deal not only with current emotions, but in our relationship to our past and our future as well.
- Yoga also gives the ability to take action. It develops self-reliance, inner strength, personal power, boldness, and courage. It enables us to ACT wisely. We become less vulnerable as we are able to take action. We aren’t victims when we feel ourselves capable of change, choice, resistance and self-respect.
BEAUTY FROM UGLINESS
The lotus flower is a symbol, in ancient Egyptian lore and later eastern philosophies, of spiritual enlightenment. Indeed the lotus flower blossoms into the universe or earth in numerous creation stories. Lotus is also often referred to as ‘heart-opening’ or unfolding. But the lotus may be most powerful in its symbolism of transformation, turning ugliness into a creature of pure beauty.
Lotus are a type of waterlily, and are found particularly in shallow, swampy ground. The flower emerges from mud, rises above the water level, and is the only plant to simultaneously flower and fruit.
Our lives are less than perfect, often messy, sometimes disgustingly dark. But transformation is possible. The change is less one to be explained in words (it’s the rational mind that has limits, remember) than felt.
Upcoming articles will explore the topics above in more depth, looking at how trauma and emotions change the physical body, how the physical body can change our thoughts and feelings, and the role emotions play in mental health and quality of life.