Foundations

I’m a Trauma Therapist. Here’s What I’ve Learned About Yoga’s Impact on Genetics

Our physical, emotional, and behavioral tendencies—both good and bad—aren't ours alone. They're often passed down from generation to generation.

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At one point in my young life, I wanted to be a public defender. In my first criminal law class, my professor asked the question, “Are fairness and justice the same thing?” I raised my hand high, almost bouncing with excitement. After stating my argument as to why I believed, with my whole 21-year-old heart, that they were the same thing, I was asked to come to the front of the classroom. My professor slowly and deliberately spoke to me, for all to hear, in his deep Southern drawl, “My dear Kathryn, you are going to be the saddest lawyer in the land! Take yourself across the quad to social work school. That is where the belief that fairness and justice stand side by side, not in the American court system.”

This was a hard and humbling moment, for which I am eternally grateful. I have since made a career out of working with the human heart, mind, and soul, living in a world where fairness and justice are not always at the same table.

My work is in grief, trauma, and joy. While these may not seem a likely threesome, they are in fact deeply interwoven, and together they create a net, catching moments in our lives that inform how we see the world. As a trauma therapist, it is critical for me to be versed in working with grief of the heart, confusion of the mind, and feelings of disconnection from meaning and spirit.

See also: How Yoga Can Help You Heal From Trauma

Losing your mind

In 1999, Dad had advanced Alzheimer’s disease (AD). He and I would take our walk and he would say to me, “I know I love you honey…I just don’t know your name.” We would laugh and smile at each other.

I would say to him, “That’s OK Dad, all the sailors say that to me, no worries.” Again, we would laugh.

That is how Alzheimer’s disease can operate. The affect or feeling is still there, but the ability to put the words to it is diminished or erased. Watching my dad deconstruct was heartbreaking.

He was a brilliant, NYT-crossword-puzzle-with-pen kinda guy. Between 1992 and 2001, he would share with me what it was like to “lose his mind.” Dad told me that his mind was like sand: holding that sand in his hands, he could sense his memories were simply falling between his fingers, unable to be caught.

We were all there when he died. I had stayed the night in his hospice room and tried to match his breathing pattern. This was something I had learned when working at the AIDS Hospice in the 1980s, another internship back in grad school. We were taught that when someone is dying they will often breathe in a manner called “chain stoking,” with long pauses in between inhale and exhale. This is a difficult pattern to match and attempting to often brings up emotions. Yet breathing with someone is an intimate mirror, and the theory was that if someone is unconscious, they may feel supported by having their breath mirrored back to them. It was all we had in common at that moment. It was how I could stride with Dad as he died.

See also: Yoga’s Ability to Improve Brain Health

How we experience generational samskaras

After Dad died, I became completely obsessed with breath. I began to search for information on breathing techniques. I found them in yoga. I started with breathing practices, then asana (poses), and finally meditation.

My studies with breathing practices and yoga led me to study Ayurveda, the medical branch of the spiritual practices of yoga. I was struck by the similarities between Western psychology and Ayurvedic medicine.

According to Ayurveda, physical, emotional, and behavioral imprints (called samskaras) are carried from generation to generation. In Western medicine, these imprints are called “linked neural pathways,” created from the repetition of behavior over time, or the intensity of a behavior or event.

Behavioral tendencies are also examples of unconscious experiences that have been passed down through generations of DNA, with years of habitual actions in ancestral diet, environmental factors, and cultural traumas. Not all samskaras are problems; in fact, many are healthy and useful. For example, our inherent immunity to various diseases is from our DNA and RNA and behavioral tendencies.

I watched when Jack, my middle son, then six years old, put one hand on his hip and the other behind his head and swiveled his hips. This was something that my dad would do when he wanted to break the tension in the room. He called it his “Big Jay Hula dance.” Jack had never seen my father do this, as Dad died when Jack was only four years old. My dad was deep in the throes of AD when Jack was born.

Yet there it was, my father’s hula dance being performed by my six-year-old son in the cafeteria of his elementary school. The principal gave me a call telling me that Jack had been doing his “Barbie dance” whenever he got nervous because someone was getting into trouble—in the cafeteria, classroom, and in the gym. While she agreed it was “hard not to laugh, as his performance was hysterical,” it was creating a distraction that was hard for the teachers and staff to manage. Dad’s coping mechanism of silly dance, his tendency to create a humorous distraction to decrease tension, was deeply embedded in Jack’s DNA.

See also: Intro to Ayurveda 

Why creating awareness changes everything

This idea of samskara can also be another lens through which to view tendencies toward alcoholism, depression, and anxiety. While my brother and I both share the same DNA, he has been the only one to have squamous cell cancer, degenerative spinal issues, and GI issues. Why? Epigenetics might suggest, as would yoga science and Ayurveda, that although these imprints are present in both of us, whether or not they become activated could vary due to our consciousness and attention to choosing different habitual actions.

My brother did not have access to this information, and ever since he was in the Vietnam War, he has smoked cigarettes. He has also made a habit of drinking six Coca-Colas a day and practices unconscious eating patterns. You could argue that these regular habits, along with the multiple traumas he experienced while being a navy medic in the war, conspired to epigenetically open up samskaras in his mind that might be lying dormant in my own DNA.

Personal responsibility is important in our health and well-being. Having access to the science of yoga and Ayurveda is helpful. Yet the most important aspect of changing samskaras is creating awareness where there once was none. This means becoming conscious and making decisions based upon your internal locus of control—your “inner voice”—versus the habitual voice of our unconscious society (i.e., an external locus of control).

How do I know this? Because, like you, I have been through stuff and found my way out of the many tunnels of grief that follow loss. The boat that has carried me along these grief-canals has been my yoga practice. The community, or sangha, that surrounds me due to that practice, and the ability to be comfortable with myself—to give myself time and space to grieve—are all byproducts of yoga, at least in my experience.

See also: Rates of Trauma and Addiction are Skyrocketing. Yoga Can Help.

Yoga beyond the physical

There is another river that feeds into my grief canal. Over 25 years of sitting with children, teenagers, and adults, listening to them share their narratives. Just listening and sometimes offering tea.

My work led me to yoga, to Ayurveda, and eventually back home to myself. Clients remind me that my tendencies are not just mine alone. The more I try to meditate, become more conscious, and actively take responsibility for choices that guide and direct my life, the more I replace unhealthy samskaras with healthier ones and offer myself a greater sense of freedom in my life. None of this is done without effort.

My mind may too become like sand, spilling out from between my fingers. But for now, I am wholehearted, with my mind and heart connected and a deep gratitude for being able to listen and sometimes offer tea.

Kathryn Townsend

Excerpted from Embodied Resilience Through Yoga: 30 Mindful Essays About Finding Empowerment After Addiction, Trauma, Grief, and Loss compiled by Kat Heagberg, Melanie C. Klein, Kathryn Ashworth and Toni Willis (reprinted with permission, Llewellyn Publications, September 2021).