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Teaching Yoga

Yoga for Emotional Trauma

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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.'”

For a new yoga teacher, taking students through the rough waters of past traumas can seem daunting. But Forrest insists that it’s not necessary (or even desirable) for the teacher to act as a therapist to aid the healing process. “If you can give them permission to empty the fear and the grief that’s buried in their cell tissue, you can help. You don’t have to go into the big story [of where their pain comes from].” She suggests that students who tap into really tough challenges also find therapists who can help them through whatever emerges during practice.

People who are looking for more one-on-one attention as they begin to open up may also be interested in individualized yoga therapy, so it’s a good idea to have a list of such therapists on hand in order to make referrals. Often defined as yoga that’s personalized to accommodate an injury or limitation, yoga therapy can offer the space to deeply explore the physical links to emotional troubles–with guidance. Kepner, who practices as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist out of his home in Little Rock, Arkansas, says his students typically first come to him for help with a physical problem. But then, as they begin to give attention to the breath, they find yoga is a powerful way to explore emotional healing and begin to see the connections between their physical and emotional pain.

Once those links are found, the healing process continues when students let their emotions surface and release and continue to breathe. If tears or screams emerge, they should let them come and, again, deepen their breath. When they’re ready, allow them to transition into another pose and feel for changes and movement. At a certain point–and that point is different for each person–it should start to become clear that things are shifting and that whatever suffering was stuck inside is beginning to melt away. Again, working in tandem with a trained therapist is a good option for those students who may need to talk about what comes up.

It can be pretty heavy stuff. So for teachers to facilitate deep healing with integrity, Forrest says, it’s good to be prepared to take your own practice to similarly profound levels: “It’s important for teachers to be that courageous in their own practice.”

The key, both Kepner and Forrest say, is letting the healing unfold at an organic pace. “There’s no way you can handle it all today, or even this year,” Forrest explains. “It will be your focus for years, so just relax around it. What’s the amount you can work on today?”

Plus, she adds, it’s important to come to the healing with an understanding that we can’t change the past, but we can change our perspective on it. “You can’t heal the experience, but you can heal your response to it. You can heal the mark that it left on you.”

Rachel Brahinsky is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco who is learning to relax into her own healing process, bit by bit.