If at the age of 20 you would’ve asked me to imagine my life 15 years in the future, I wouldn’t have been able to give you an answer. I couldn’t see my life in those terms. When I looked into my future then, I simply saw a field of blackness; my potential was not just obfuscated—it was inaccessible. This is what trauma does: It blinds us. One of the effects of deep suffering, especially during childhood, is that it can rob us of our vision.
I lost my father back in my homeland of Bogotá, Colombia, when I was eight years old. The last time I saw him, he knelt at the doorstep of our apartment and gave me a tight squeeze, consoling me as I cried. He assured me he would be back from his business trip in three days’ time, but on his way home his car was hit head-on by a drunk driver. My father and three of his co-workers lost their lives that night. He was 36.
The last time I saw my mother, I was 14. I held her and stroked her balding head, and when I kissed it, I remember feeling as though I were kissing a baby’s head; it was so soft, so innocent. My mother, emaciated and childlike after a short, brutal battle with pancreatic cancer, took her last breaths in my arms. She was 40.
Facing Childhood as an Orphan
After my parents’ shocking and premature deaths, I was transferred to a foster home where the child abuse became so severe that my sister and I were eventually removed, only to be returned to the same place a year later. These profound and destabilizing experiences in my youth became the framework for my identity: Tatiana, the orphan. Tatiana, the girl without a home.
By the time I hit my early 20s, I had lived in and out of nearly 30 different homes, unable to find grounding. I felt isolated, and I had no idea what to do with all my pain. What was more is that when I looked into my future, all I could access was my parents’ deaths. I could not picture a reality where I would get to live beyond the years that my parents were given. And, at 22, as the anniversary of my father’s death approached, I subconsciously wanted to ensure that his fate would become mine, and I attempted to take my own life.
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What Are Samskaras and How do You Heal Them?
These were some of my deepest samskaras—the mental and emotional impressions or patterns that become imprinted in our psyches as a result of our experiences. The body of yoga, not just as a physical practice, but as a mental, emotional, and spiritual discipline and guide into our consciousness and psyche, teaches us that these impressions can greatly affect how we experience and interpret the circumstances of our lives, and hence greatly impact our capacity for happiness and our experiences of suffering. The intensity of each samskara depends on a variety of factors, including our age, vulnerability, and ability to cope with or assimilate situations. Samskaras stay with us beyond the time we first have an experience, and, when unchecked, can have devastating consequences. They may taint the way we see and experience ourselves and our world, keeping us in the loop of suffering, or avidyā, translated as misconception, ignorance, or non-seeing. In other words, samskaras that we are unaware of or that we don’t heal have the capacity to blind us from what is here, keeping us tethered to a past version of our experiences.
Today, advanced studies in neuroscience and psychology have confirmed what the wisdom of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra suggested more than 2,000 years ago: first, that the brain is physically and functionally affected as a result of traumas or profound samskaras, and that these changes can affect individuals’ self-concepts—their visions of themselves and their lives—and second, perhaps most importantly, that the brain also has the capacity to heal, to rewire or rewrite the impression, so that it can be experienced differently. Instead of throwing us into the habitual pain of suffering, we can learn to experience a pause, see a lesson, or even gain insight for which we become grateful.
The Necessity of Daily Practice
But the work is ongoing, and the depths of our conditioning is astounding. Even years after being on the yogic path, I was blindsided by a new aspect of the same samskara of my youth, the one that kept me tethered to my experiences with early and untimely death, even though I thought I had healed it. Upon the birth of my son, my first weeks of motherhood were spent in abject terror. I’d hold my tiny newborn tightly and feel overwhelmed by the fear that either he or I would suddenly die. It was excruciating to have someone else hold him; I wanted him at my side at all times. Anything else would give rise in me to powerful sensations that seemed to take over my body, rob me of rationality, and throw me into a tailspin of panic. I had recurring death-themed nightmares, and when I looked into my future with my child, I once again experienced the blackness—the blinding of my possibility.
Petrified and facing continual panic attacks resembling those of my youth, I turned to my practice: This time, I had tools. I had the understanding that this fear felt true to me because of my wiring, and I knew that it could be reframed, that it could be healed. Through my practice, I worked with this hidden aspect of an old samskara, one that might not have shown up had I not decided to become a mother.
I practiced despite the discomfort, and met my fear again and again with a curious mind and a forgiving heart. I came with the willingness to greet what was here, armed with my breath and the faith—the awareness—of the power of this practice. Some days I cried. Some days I got flashbacks. Some days I felt relief. Little by little my symptoms decreased. The beauty of healing is that it arrives with vision and insight: insight into my parents’ experiences, insight into the softness of vulnerability, insight into the human proclivity to cling when we love, and into the practice of trusting that life is here to support us when we learn to let go. The work helped me find examples that contradicted my terror: Instead of seeing my parents’ early deaths as the markers for my experience, my practice began to open my eyes to the many, many adult friends I had with adult children who were alive and thriving. It was possible, then—even probable—that my son and I were going to be OK.
Today, I believe that I am living proof of Patanjali’s assertion that the yogic path is a radical vehicle for clearing our samskaras. The work has not been easy; it has been painstaking and constant. It has been eye- and heart-opening.
It is through this very process of rewiring that I find myself here today, in my mid-30s, having outlived my father and walking toward the precipice of my mother’s age when she passed. I find myself hand-in-hand with my amazing three-year-old son. Today, when I look toward the horizon in front of me, I see a vast field of possibility. I see my son grown up, our relationship blossoming; I see the fruits of my labor, the hours spent in practice and the wisdom gained from these practices; I see many sunrises and sunsets. My yoga gave me back my vision, and in many ways, it has given me back my life.
About the author
Tatiana Forero Puerta is the author of Yoga for the Wounded Heart: A Journey, Philosophy, and Practice of Healing Emotional Pain and Cleaning the Ghost Room (forthcoming, 2020). A graduate of Stanford University and New York University, Tatiana has taught philosophy and yoga for more than a decade. Learn more at yogaforthewoundedheart.com.