I travel nearly every weekend and I’m often staying in new places. Sometimes I stay in hotels, but sometimes I stay in private apartments and airbnbs. Last weekend I was staying in an airbnb and, when I was just finishing my evening meditation, I heard a rattling at the door. Whereas normally I would have screamed, my mind was tuned into the meditative state.
Much to my shock, I calmly got up, put on some clothes and walked to the door. Standing in the doorway was a large man who had let himself in with a key to the apartment. Confused to see me there, he informed me that he had booked a stay in the apartment and was given a key. I actually didn’t have any answers since my host booked the accommodation for me. We decided to call the airbnb host. As they engaged in conversation, possible scenarios of searching for a hotel room or calling for help in case anything fishy went on flashed through my mind.
Luckily, the airbnb host confirmed my reservation and expressed deep concern that this man had a key and was standing in the doorway asking to come in. The host asked him to give the key to me and leave, and luckily, he did without too much protesting.
Working Through a Traumatic Event
I stood there alone, in an apartment that wasn’t my own, in a city that I didn’t know. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the incident delivered a shock to my nervous system. After he left I drank some water, read a few lines in a book, sent a few emails, and scrolled through Instagram on my phone.
As I closed my eyes to sleep that night, I was rattled awake by the sound of doors or each time the air-conditioning kicked in. I woke up the next morning without the feeling of restfulness that sleep usually delivers for me.
I went through my morning sadhana of meditation and yoga but I still arrived at the venue to teach my class feeling a bit disturbed. I decided to meditate again during the break between my events. It was only then, close to 24 hours after the event, that I registered the trauma response. My body was shaking and my breathing was short and shallow. I felt like I could hardly breathe. Even when I tried to still my body, my hands would shake. I decided to sit in meditation again for another twenty minutes. I finally tuned into the reality of my nervous system: My body shook, my breath accelerated, and then I cried.
I observed the experience in my body without reacting to it. My body stopped shaking and my breath deepened after the last tears flowed down my cheeks. I felt lighter and more free, like the experience has lifted. That night I slept soundly and deeply. In hindsight, the first thing I should have done after the incident was to meditate. But in the midst of trauma, the most common responses are fight, flight, or freeze.
How to Use Yoga to Work Through Trauma
There are so many layers to this experience that I want to unpack for you as a lesson for your yoga practice.
I credit the meditative mind for giving me the poise not to react immediately when the stranger walked into my airbnb. Without a cultivated attitude of observation and equanimity, I would have operated entirely from a fear response.
I startle easily and I always have. I’m a childhood trauma survivor, so that might have something to do with it. I surprised myself with how calm I was in the moment. But, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t deeply impacted by the experience. The whole experience reminded me of the deer-in-head-lights response to danger. I initially froze my own emotional response. But then, having survived, I started to shake in the aftermath until I finally released everything in tears.
It took a good deal of time for me to register that my body and mind was impacted by the experience of a stranger walking in on me. It wasn’t until I sat with all the arising sensations that I was able to be free of it. In the space between the incident and the meditation where I cried and released whatever pent up energy was in my body, I had a host of interactions that were less than ideal. I sent emails with unskillful communication and I taught a less-than-ideal class. In other words, I wasn’t myself.
It makes reasonable sense that my feeling of safety was challenged after a stranger walked in uninvited. The process of healing and returning the mind to a state of love and trust is a more meandering and personal journey. I am so grateful that I had the tools of yoga and meditation to help me move through my triggers around this experience.
But, it got me thinking: How many of us take the time to process large and small traumatic incidents? It seems more likely that we put up a facade of strength and pretend to be OK when we are not. Or, worse yet, we begin to take action from a place of trauma—before the trauma has been processed within ourselves.
On an average day, there are so many things that could illicit a trauma response. Micro-aggressions expressed in casual racist or sexist comments, mean-spirited sarcasm from friends or family, or the negative self-talk that perpetuates cycles of abuse are some that come to mind.
I now have tools to guide me through the inner work of my own process as a yogi. But I didn’t always have those tools. When I was a little girl and I experienced sexual assault, I didn’t have the tools to process what happened. It look me years to realize the extent of the damage done, and the violations that were perpetrated against me.
It’s more often the case that we are ill-equipped to handle and process the hurt that we experience. It’s less the case that we find the support needed to heal. That is, unless we engage in a devoted spiritual practice and have access to therapists and other healers that can help lead the way.
If you’re sensitive like I am, you will probably register varying degrees of trauma every single day of your life. There are tools that will help you retain a balanced mind and process your emotions. Whether it’s a cruel word spoken by an anonymous stranger on the internet or a careless comment by your partner, the tools outlined below will give you relief from what can sometimes be a stressful, traumatizing world.
5 Yogic Ways to Respond to Trauma
Keep the root of your attention grounded on your breath throughout the day. Notice when your breathing accelerates, tightens, or drastically changes. As soon as you notice a shift has happened, pause whatever you’re doing and focus on your breath. If possible, come to a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. Count to 10 as you breathe in through your nose and count to ten as you breathe out through your nose. Repeat 10 times.
2. Feel all the Feels
The trauma response of fight, flight, or freeze is a response of disembodiment. There is an uncomfortable feeling in the body and instead of sitting with it, the habituated response is to either fight the world, run from the source of pain, or freeze and numb out. Choosing to feel everything is a courageous and brave choice.
So, get quiet and inquisitive. Turn on your creative mind and be receptive to the sensations of your body. Do not judge what you feel. If possible, come to a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. If you can't do that, do a body scan. Start at the top of your head, sweep down towards your toes, and then come back up again. Register all the sensations but refrain from assigning value or judgements to them.
For example, if you notice that your hand is shaking, simply observe that your hand is shaking. If you notice there is a pressure around your shoulders, simply observe that. Do not try and figure out why the sensation is there or make it go away. Just observe. Keep your mind engaged with scanning your body for at least 5 minutes, going up to 20 minutes if you can.
Even if you aren’t immediately aware of a trauma response to a difficult situation, give yourself at least a few hours to decompress before you take any action or make any big decisions. It’s very common to displace anger or fear onto the people closest to you, or to make a bad decision in the period of time after a traumatic event. Pressing pause and practicing patience can be an extremely useful tool in maintaining balance through difficult times.
Sometimes in the midst of traumatic experiences it can be tempting to stay away from your yoga mat. This is exactly the time when you need practice the most. The yoga poses encourage a sense of embodied presence and help you reconnect to all the feelings and sensations in your body. This is exactly what is needed to heal and process trauma. Remember that just 5 minutes of yoga each day counts as consistent practice.
After the incident has passed, you will probably need to work through your grievances and judgements about it. In order to be really honest with yourself, try journaling and allowing yourself to rant uncensored about the experience. You may find that you judge yourself for not responding in the way that you would have liked. You may find that you hold a grudge against the perpetrator and have a hard time letting it go.
Once you get honest about your judgements and grievances, you can forgive yourself, everyone, and everything else, too. Even if you find it hard to say, try writing out this sentence: “Even though I didn’t respond as I would have liked and I caused pain, I forgive myself. Even though I feel violated by this person, I chose to forgive them. They are also wounded, imperfect beings, and I forgive them.”
About the Author
Kino MacGregor is a Miami native and the founder of Omstars, the world’s first yoga TV network. (For a free month, click here. With over 1 million followers on Instagram and over 500,000 subscribers on YouTube and Facebook, Kino’s message of spiritual strength reaches people all over the world. Sought after as an expert in yoga worldwide, Kino is an international yoga teacher, inspirational speaker, author of four books, producer of six Ashtanga Yoga DVDs, writer, vlogger, world traveler, and co-founder of Miami Life Center. Learn more at www.kinoyoga.com.