This post comes from our friend and LA yoga teacher, Ryann Hanes-Sloane.
Chances are, we have all experienced a traumatic event in our lives. I consider trauma to be anything that we are not equipped to process or digest that distresses or disturbs our system. Trauma can leave our bodies and minds feeling unbalanced and unsafe. After experiencing a traumatic event, the amygdala in the brain goes into overdrive — anticipating danger even when there is no threat. This sympathetic nervous system response can create fear, anxiety and a general sense of feeling unbalanced. Yoga offers a practice that can assist with re-calibrating your nervous system so you can feel safe in your body in an authentic, accessible way. I have experienced the healing capacity of yoga and meditation first-hand and wanted to share some of this with you!
If you’d like, you can practice these postures at home or seek out an experienced teacher to help you through this journey. Not all styles of yoga create a calm, safe place to recover from trauma. Research a studio and a teacher that has training or experience in Trauma Informed Yoga. I am happy to share some recommended teachers in your area. Feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org
Connect with Your Breath Through Even Breathing
Try lying down on your back. Place one or both hands on your belly.
On your inhale, fill up with air, allowing your stomach to raise to a count of 4.
On your exhale, allow your stomach to deflate to a count of 4.
Try to keep the focus on filling up through your diaphragm (your stomach will raise) rather than filling up into your chest.
After you take a few rounds here you can increase to a count of 6 or 8 if it feels good in your body.
Why it Works: Remember the overreacting sympathetic nervous system that we talked about above? Well, when you consciously engage in slow breathing from your diaphragm, you activate the calming system in your body. You stimulate your vagus nerve which helps to slow your heart rate, your blood pressure will begin to drop and your body will begin to access a calmness on both the mental and the physical level.
Try this breath throughout the day — you can practice it while walking, driving, working and before bed.
Begin standing. Bring your feet hip distance apart.
Shift your weight into your left foot and slowly begin to lift your right foot off of the mat.
Place your lifted foot on the inside of your ankle, calf or upper thigh (Try to avoid placing your foot on your knee area).
Bring your hands to Heart Center.
Soften your face, jaw and eyebrows.
Play with balance here. It’s okay if you fall out of this posture. As you’re ready, continue to come back into the posture for around 8-10 long breaths.
Why it Works: Tree Pose allows your mind to move out of rumination and into the sensations of the body. You’ll notice, the busier your mind is, the harder it is to balance. Try fixing your gaze at a single point in front of you and feeling the sensation in your feet and body as you balance on one foot.
Bring your big toes to touch and allow a slight sliver in your heels. (If you have a knee injury, allow your feet to come hip’s width distance apart.)
Reach your arms up over your head while dropping your shoulders down towards your ears.
Shift your weight back into your heels and squeeze your knees and inner thighs together.
Slowly lower your hips and seat backwards as if you were going to sit down in a chair.
Why it Works: One of the most powerful tools you can have in your “Life Survival Kit” is mindfulness. Mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are”. This posture invites you to become mindful of everything going on inside you. In Chair Pose, allow your brain to focus on sensation rather than thought- this can help you to strengthen your ability to switch gears in your brain. In this posture, you will orient with your body in space and time and also begin to exercise your awareness in your capacity to choose. If/when this posture becomes too intense, simply allow yourself to come out of the posture. You decide how long you would like to practice this pose!
From Chair Pose, bring your hands to Heart Center.
On your exhale, draw your left elbow to the outside of your right knee.
Lower your hips if available and press your elbow into your knee to activate the twist.
Consciously draw your shoulders down your back away from your ears
Take 4-5 breaths here and then release into a forward fold and repeat on the opposite side.
Why it Works: The process of compressing one side of your body and releasing the other side flushes fresh oxygenated blood through your system allowing nutrients to reach your organs as you flush out toxins. It is suggested that twists are likely to gently massage your adrenal glands which are active/overactive when stress and fear are triggered. The adrenals release both adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone). Twists massage this area, allowing your adrenals to function more efficiently rather than being over reactive. Your parasympathetic nervous system benefits from twists as well. Your vagus nerve (which begins at the base of your brain and runs down your spine) is gently stimulated in twisting postures which activates a calming effect on your system.
From lying on your back, bend your knees and walk your heels towards your sit bones (just so that your fingers and heels graze one another).
Keep your gaze at your belly button (very important that you refrain from looking right and left in this posture to protect your spine).
Press down through your feet to lift your hips off of the ground.
Relax your glutes while keeping your inner thighs engaged.
Energetically push your feet down and forward as you continue to lift your seat.
Option to go deeper: Interlace your hands under your seat and wedge your shoulders further underneath your body while keeping your seat lifted.
Soften your neck and throat.
Why it Works: This posture opens up the front of your body while still keeping you firmly connected to the ground. This posture is a mild inversion, which calms your nervous system by allowing your heart to sit higher than your brain. Focus on your even breathing through your belly and take 5-7 breaths in this posture.
Come to stand on your knees.
Bring your hands to your low back, fingertips facing downward.
Activate your core as you push your hips forward (tracking over your knees).
Lift your chest and arch back.
Option to stay in this position, or, if it feels good in your body:
Bring one hand to your heel and then the other hand to your opposite heel
Open your throat as your head drops back
Keep your hips tracking over your knees.
Try not to rush coming in or out of this posture.
Stay here for as many breaths as are comfortable for you.
To come out of the posture: Draw your chin to your chest, support your low back with your hands gently roll up and sit back on your heels for several breaths. You may feel light headed or nauseous in this postures. If nauseous, push the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth.
While sitting on your heels, just notice the sensations that arise and welcome them. All sensations, emotions and thoughts eventually pass- so just allow your body to feel what is present.
Why it Works: This posture can create a great deal of body sensation. Sensation in your body is the first identifier of emotion. Before you feel an emotion (sadness, guilt, shame,happiness), sensation in the body is present (warmth, butterflies, burning etc). This posture brings sensation to forefront so that you can begin to notice what this feels like in your body. Opening the heart in this way can feel like a vulnerable position. Often we slump or cave inwards when sad or threatened and this posture is the opposite of that movement. Camel opens up the front of the body in a safe environment where you can work on digesting the sensation and emotion that arise with it.
Begin in a table top position with your knees under your hips and your palms under your shoulders.
Draw your right knee forward toward until it’s at your right wrist.
Keeping the right foot flexed, inch your right foot forward (as far as is comfortable).
Slide your left leg back, allowing the top of your back foot to rest on the mat.
Lower your hips toward the floor.
Inhale, press down into your palms and find length in your spine
Exhale, hinge your torso forward- only as far as is comfortable for you.
Notice if you’re tensing your face or jaw as you work in your hips.
Consciously relax every part of your body.
If there’s sharp knee pain- come out of the posture.
Take 8 long breaths in this posture.
Why it Works: One of the first areas in your body to clench and tighten when exposed to stress are your hips. Your muscles, tendons and ligaments in this area are often sponges for tension. Pigeon creates a great deal of sensation in the body and many people notice that the physical release of the muscles causes strong physical sensation and feelings of emotion while in this posture. This posture is physically opening up the hips and releasing them from clenching. This gives you the opportunity to welcome everything that arises within you — try to recognize everything that arises as a temporary experience. If you are able to fold forward in Pigeon the protection of the front of the body and the heart can feel safe as these feelings arise. This is an invitation to notice your thoughts and to invite in Even Breathing through your stomach to keep your nervous system calm.
To come out of this posture, press through your palms and send your right leg back. Press back to Downward Facing Dog and then lower back to Table Top and Repeat on the left side.
Come to lie down on your back in whatever way feels safe and comfortable for you.
Relax your legs and arms.
Option to close your eyes if you’re comfortable.
Relax here with no agenda for 5 minutes.
Keep in mind that feeling and moving in new ways isn’t always comfortable — especially when working through stress and trauma. I always teach on the basis of welcoming all emotions and sensations that arise even the unpleasant ones. If you welcome them, you can begin to heal and move through them. Feeling and experiencing is a part of this, so take your time. Know that this is a process. Healing and feeling is vulnerable and hard work. Be sure to reward yourself after a session or in between feelings and do something that feels good and safe to you. This is different for all of us, you might play with your dogs, take a bath, eat a good meal, whatever makes you feel safe and happy. All suggestions are voluntary. Consult a qualified teacher or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.
This is just one modality of healing. I am sharing my path and experience with yoga and meditation as a tool in the healing process. This isn’t a replacement for any of the other amazing tools or mental health services that are great resources for trauma and depression. Please reach out to a mental health professional or doctor for more tools! findtreatment.samhsa.gov
Cleveland Clinic Wellness
(The Mindful Way through Depression, 2007)
US National Library of Medicine