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Yoga for Emotional Trauma

It may seem daunting to teach students who suffer from emotional trauma, but thankfully, it's mostly a question of creating a safe space.

By Rachel Brahinsky

If you've put in some good hours on the yoga mat, you've probably had the experience: you're wending your way through a long sequence, perhaps in the midst of an intense hip opener, when suddenly you feel fidgety, uncomfortable, or even nauseous, and a wave of emotion--and sometimes tears--begins to well up inside you. Whether or not you have a clear idea of the source of that discomfort, you may have felt that the pose unleashed some past event or emotion that was living in your hips. In fact, as any body worker or somatic therapist will tell you, though we move past difficult times in our lives, our traumas can live on inside our cell tissue for years--until we discover them hiding out in our shoulders, or tucked inside a chronic hamstring injury. Frequently in yoga classes these moments of emotional discovery are seen as peripheral or incidental to the practice; the release of stuck emotions is noted as an occasional benefit of the largely physical and spiritual exercise of yoga.

But there are some practitioners who look at it another way: they see dredging and releasing emotional baggage as a central benefit of practicing yoga. If you or one of your students has been through something intensely traumatic--whether it's as all consuming as living through the recent South Asian tsunami, as private as surviving sexual abuse, or as small as having a stressful interaction at work--they'd say that the yoga mat can be a central part of the healing process. "The fundamental premise of yoga--and Buddhism and other spiritual practices--is to reduce suffering," says John Kepner, director of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. "In some sense, the motivating force [behind the creation of yoga] was dealing with death and dying and natural disasters." So it's natural, Kepner says, to see asana practice as a mode of healing the emotions.

Ana Forrest, founder of the Forrest Yoga Circle in Santa Monica, CA, has developed her yoga practice specifically to help unbury and release emotional blocks. On the most basic level, Forrest says, yoga is therapeutic because the practice makes people feel better, more whole. The sense of well-being and wonder that emerges from practicing can remind students that life is worth living, and that while there are of course terrible, traumatic things that can and will happen, there is also great joy in being alive. Reconnecting to that truth, for people who've been through painful experiences, can start to lift the heavy sense of doom that trauma can bring. It can help remind them that it's possible to release the pain of the past and step forward with lightness and a fresh perspective.

But there's more to it than that. At times the yoga mat can become a space for intense releases, where students will rage or cry uncontrollably. Forrest urges teachers not to be afraid of that possibility. "It's up to the teacher," Forrest says, "to educate the student that this is not only ok, this is great--to say 'This is an important process. This is a gift of the yoga: take it.'"

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Reader Comments

Julie

I had often wondered why sometimes I would feel so emotional and teary sometimes during class, almost overwhelming emotion. This article is very eye opening. Thanks

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