Journey Beyond Inner Wounds (New Zealand International Yoga Festival – 2019)
What is trauma?
When I refer to trauma I am referring to all the previous circumstances that have occurred within your life that impacted and continue to have an impact on how you react to day to day situations.
We must acknowledge firstly that everyone suffers from trauma (to a varying degree) throughout their life. This may be physical in nature, such as a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) as well as non-physical such as living in constant fear or stress. Interestingly, studies have shown that parents of severely mentally challenged children have the same levels of the stress hormone (cortisol) as combat veterans.
Trauma can be received as a result of one major event (trauma with a capital 'T') as well as a series of semi-significant events (trauma with a little 't').
Trauma with a capital 'T' relates to a singular event, or a small number of related or unrelated highly-significant events, that have a lasting impact on the body-mind. Little 't' trauma is produced by a considerable number of consistent negative experiences over an extended period of time.
Why do some traumas easily pass whilst others can't be let go of? Why does a traumatic event have significant impact on one person and not another? No one is 100% sure about this, but I strongly believe it has to do with the ‘state’ in which a person is in prior to receiving trauma, as well as their individual level of resiliency.
For example, if someone has received multiple little 't' traumas (perhaps as a child) and then experiences an episode of big 'T' trauma, they are much more likely to be seriously affected, making it harder for them to naturally process. Conversely, if someone receives big 'T' trauma and manages to naturally process this, one little 't' trauma has the power to push them over the edge into PSTD.
Transfer wise, trauma also has the potential to be received ancestrally through unresolved traumas handed down from one generation to the next. It can also be experienced vicariously through constant contact with those who unknowingly transfer their trauma (usually through touch) onto others.
An introduction to who you really are:
Before I progress onto why we are all so messed up, let me begin by reminding you that in this moment you are perfect. You are true divinity. Inside of you is a light so strong that it shines brighter than the sun.
Even though the sky is sometimes filled with clouds and that sun cannot be directly observed, we always know it’s there, just as the light inside of us is always there. A traditional Hawaiian mythological story I enjoy suggests that we are born with a bowl of light and over our lifetime we collect stones that fill this bowl that block our inner light from shinning forth. The stones represent the belief systems we pick up on our journey, a result of the traumas and conditioning we receive since birth. Our job is to always be aware of the stones we are carrying and work through the process of removing them, allowing our light to shine as it should.
Using a Yoga conceptual framework to explain trauma:
Some important Yoga concepts to understand on this journey include Samaskaras, Koshas and Karma.
Samskaras. Imagine picking up stick and drawing a line in sand. With each subsequent stroke of the stick along the same line a deeper groove is created. The line in the sand represents Samaskaras, the subtle impressions within the layers of our being that penetrate our being when we experience trauma and conditioning. If allowed, these Samskaras develop into deep-seated belief systems about our own nature of reality. Each time something happens in our life that strengthens these beliefs (which are not associated with actual real
ity) we draw along the same line, deepening the groove in our sub-conscious reality.
Koshas. There is more to us than skin, bones and tissue. The layers or sheaths of our being are known as Koshas of which there are five (physical, energetic, mental, wisdom and bliss). Subtle impressions (Samskaras) held within these deeper layers (Koshas) affect our sub-conscious and dictate how we react day to day to phenomena that arise (in particular when our awareness is on auto-pilot).
A story relating to Samskaras suggests that some Samskaras are drawn in dust and disperse easily in the wind, others drawn in the sand may take a few tides to clear, and some are etched into rock.
Many of these Samskaras are imbedded within our being as a result of past traumas and conditioning. Each time we receive trauma subtle impressions penetrate into the deeper layers of our being. Body tension, anxiety, depression and stress are often associated with the side-effects of these traumas. These conditions manifest as a result of our body-mind’s natural reaction to an abnormal situation. Our body-mind uses these conditions to inform us that we need to address the underlying causes of our illness and if we don’t listen, it gets louder and louder.
Traumas can be painful, and far too often rather than acknowledging and processing these traumas we avert our attention away from the discomfort that arises when a situation triggers these feelings. Although avoidance can be beneficial in certain situations, if we continually avert feelings of discomfort, we sub-consciously react out of our Samskara (that has resulted from our trauma). This avertedly creates new Samaskaras each time we react.
These impressions are usually held within our sub-conscious layers, of which we are often unaware of at a conscious level (unless we apply effort of awareness to recognize them). Unaware that we are reacting to situations out of our traumas and creating new Samskaras is a continual process of cause and effect (occurring within our deeper inner layers) and this is our Karma. For when we react from aversion and clinging we are continually creating a cause and effect scenario different to that which would occur if we responded to that given situation from a space of acceptance or anonymity, which is what Yoga through experience teaches us to do.
A story relating to this…In the book ‘Untethered Soul’ by Michael A. Singer a man is walking through the woods one day a receives a large thorn in his arm. As he collects this thorn, he also receives a significant amount of pain. After taking a little time to recover he positions himself to remove the thorn but as he does so, the intense pain returns at which time he decides to wait until he returns home to remove the thorn. As he walks home he is continually brushing the thorn against other objects, creating significant pain on each occasion. The man returns home and again sets himself to remove the thorn. But as he does so immediately recollects the pain he received in the woods and again decides to put it off. The man struggles to sleep with this thorn in his arm and keeps getting awoken by the pain as the thorn brushes against his bedding. After continually bumping the thorn over the next few days and having to deal with the pain this entails, he decides to now change his routine and the set-up of his house so that the thorn doesn’t get disturbed again. Although better, this doesn’t completely work so he then decides to create a device that shields him from disturbing this thorn. This device that he now wears all the time actually works so well that he decides to sell it on Amazon, where he has amazing success and discovers that there are many others with thorns who can’t bring themselves to remove them.
How this relates to science:
Each time we have a thought we send electrical signals from one brain cell or a group of brain cells to another via pre-programmed neuro-pathways. What science has now proved is that each time a neuro-pathway is fired it reinforces the strength of this neuro-pathway connection and makes it easier for the brain to use it in the future. Therefore, each time a thought is produced relating to the aversion against or clinging to a particular sensation(s) that arise within the body, neuro-pathways are strengthened. If over time neuro-pathways continue to be strengthened they become used more predominately for electrical signals being sent/received.
Also, although most people would suggest that they are conscious to how they are reacting to day to day situations, research suggests otherwise. That it is actually our sub-conscious mind that is largely in control.
How this program of breathing, mindful movement, meditation, Yoga Nidra and gratitude supports the treatment of trauma:
The entry way into our sub-conscious layers to access these subtle impressions (Samskaras) is through breath and sensation. Although people can use their conscious mind to read and understand this information, it is only through the sub-conscious layers of our being that we can work with what lies beneath. Only through actual practice and experience we can have lasting impact on our Samskaras.
Firstly, we must acknowledge that there are aspects within us in which we may have found useful in the past, but now no longer serve us. The parts of our-self that we have yet to explore, acknowledge and let go of. After doing this, we can in the safety of a Yoga class, discover that we can just ‘be with’ our own discomfort focusing towards a mindset of acceptance and anonymity. In doing so we are actually changing our brain by reinforcing acceptance in what arises in each moment without judgement, aversion or clinging. We are also not creating new Samskaras, and as we continue to not create new Samskaras, over time, our old ones naturally release and fade from our consciousness.
Taking this off the mat and into our lives, when situations arise that trigger our Samskaras, we are more aware of this, notice that our breathing changes and what sensations arise. We learn from experience within the classes how to be with our discomfort, embrace it with acceptance (rather than aversion or clinging). We learn how to respond non-judgmentally from this calm and peaceful space to these (at times difficult) situations, rather than reacting out of our unresolved inner wounds (which we often regret later).
This program has been developed to support the treatment of trauma from a number of angles. However, the basis of all the tools and techniques provided is breath and sensation. How the classes are set up, the tools provided, and the wording used all aid in accessing breath and sensation. A critical component to accessing our Samskaras experientially.
For example, a common manifestation of trauma is bodily tension. In the process of slow and focused Yoga poses, we can acknowledge our own bodily tension without being dragged into the stories of how it was created. We can also discover through these posture sequences patterns we have in our movement and breathing, which relate also to the patterns in our mind. Using breath to calm our minds whilst physical discomfort arises in a pose also reminds us of the power our breath has to help us respond rather than react when difficult situations arise off the mat.
Consciously creating Samskaras and Karma:
Samskaras and Karma can be consciously created to release unwanted thought patterns and limiting beliefs. This program uses intentions, affirmations and visualizations to support the creation of conscious Samskaras. By planting seeds within the sub-conscious we can reinforce positive change. A Sankalpa, used during the pratice of Yoga Nidra (Yogic sleep) assists in our resolve to focus both psychologically and physiologically on a specific intended outcome. Although beneficial, positive intentions, affirmations and visualizations are not able to work by themselves until our embedded Samskaras are acknowledged. Otherwise we will just continue to bump into our entrenched Smaskaras again and again.
This is a journey:
Our Journey Beyond Inner Wounds is an individual journey. No one do it for us. Only though consistent practice can there be tangible and lasting results. I regularly try to avoid using the word healing, as some Samskaras and belief patters are so entrenched and may have even been brought with you from other lifetimes, that it could take a full lifetime (or more) to process these. It is so important to open ‘Pandora’s box’ (so to speak) and acknowledge what is inside us, though we must also be realistic with where we are individually at on our journey and not compare ourselves to anyone else. We are also likely to fail many times before we end up succeeding. necessitating un-conditional compassion and kindness towards ourselves throughout this journey.
A US Army Vietnam veteran Claude AnShin Thomaswho suffered with PTSD, became a Zen Buddhist monk, and wrote a book about his journey called ‘At Hells Gate’ now runs retreats for veterans across the United States. He once confided that his goal is not healing his PTSD, but rather to become at peace with his unpeacefulness.