Recently I was facilitating an online TIMBo program with a group of women with whom I have been meeting once a week for the last fourteen weeks. During this particular meeting, the discussion turned toward the topic of anger. It seemed we each had our own relationship to anger—some having fear of our anger which caused us to repress it, others had shame and self-judgment over the manner in which their anger was expressed, while others felt that it was just not allowed.
As women, we judge ourselves or feel judged by others if we feel anger. If we feel it bubbling up, we cap it. To feel it is to go against what we believe is the right way to be. To show anger means we’ve exposed all that is ugly and unlovable inside of us. So, like a shaken up champagne bottle with the lid on, the pressure builds. Our anger turns to rage. We suppress some more.
But rage is not a construct of our mind.
Rage is actually the impact of years and years of feeling trapped or immobile—felt as profoundly distressing sensations in our body. Immobility in this context is when the neurobiological survival response (fight/flight/freeze) in our bodies consistently default to freeze. This ingenious survival response releases hormones and biochemicals throughout our body that are meant for short term use only. They jet propel to our muscles and around our organs so that we can react (fight/flee) instantaneously without hesitation. But these biochemicals create discomfort in our bodies when they are not discharged via some movement or physical expression. More often than not this is the case. Because human beings who experience trauma are often vulnerable and powerless at the hands of abusers.
Childhood trauma is an example of this. At 2, 5, or 8 years old we cannot fight nor flee when we are hurt, neglected or abused—it is simply not an option. Children who report abuse but are not believed also experience this feeling of immobility. Sexual assault survivors often experience what is known as tonic immobility during an assault. This is the body’s way of allowing a human being to endure a trauma—the entire body becomes like a laptop in sleep mode.
With no opportunity to discharge, the trauma remains in the body.*
Again, women who report sexual assault and are not believed or don’t feel safe to report it at all experience this immobility. So do people who are misunderstood, talked about, or feel exiled. Entire groups of people that are oppressed, victimized and rendered powerless.
On and on it goes.
Every day experiences can also keep these biochemicals actively coursing through our bodies. Every time we say yes when we want to say no. Every time we tell ourselves that we should stay quiet—that we shouldn’t speak up. And every time we do speak up, but don’t feel heard or seen. Living months on end feeling caged in our homes due to a (ahem) pandemic.
This is the world we live in.
When rage is bottled up over years, it can explode in ways that can bring harm to others—or to ourselves. Rage needs to be acknowledged and discharged in healthy ways. Instead of popping the cork off of that shaken up champagne bottle, think more along the lines of slowly letting the steam out of a pressure cooker. So how do we do this?
We must move our bodies.
Sure, we can go for a run, clean our house from top to bottom or hop on our Peloton. That will provide some temporary relief to our bodies. But the mechanisms that keep us feeling immobile, helpless, trapped, or stuck are rooted in the mind/body connection. Meaning our bodies are sending us signals of powerlessness, which activates the neurobiological survival response and creates somatic distress. In turn, our minds create thoughts (judgments, resistance, blame) that keep that system-activated.
This self-perpetuating toxic stress feedback loop is the mechanism at the root of feeling rage. Trauma-informed yoga is one way that we can update this mechanism and help us make lasting changes because it helps us gently dig up this root, look at it curiously and make choices that lead to new experiences that facilitate healing and bringing balance back to our bodies and minds.
What is trauma-informed yoga?
Trauma-informed yoga can physically be very similar to other yoga practices. But what makes trauma-informed yoga different, is that the instructor is aware of the ways in which specific language and direction can provide opportunities for students to interrupt the stress feedback loop that is at the root of rage.
Healing from trauma associated toxic stress requires opportunities to both reduce the stress in our bodies and increase our stress tolerance. This is the recipe for building resilience. Trauma informed yoga provides a safe container within which we can experience moments of peace and relaxation. Just as important, the practice provides opportunities to choose remaining in moments of discomfort, which helps us increase our stress tolerance. In order for these moments to be helpful instead of retraumatizing, instructors must offer these opportunities as invitations. Students must be permitted to choose for themselves when and how they wish to explore or navigate through challenging moments.
Safety and choice is critical for trauma recovery. When we feel safe enough to make our own choices to sit in discomfort, we are choosing to be vulnerable. This is important, because when we experience trauma, we learn to equate vulnerability with danger. We prioritize predictability and control as a way of feeling safe. So to make the choice to be vulnerable requires a conversation between the body (who is screaming to get the hell out of dodge) and our minds (who talks to the body letting it know that everything is ok.)
Trauma informed yoga instructors know to prioritize providing a sense of predictability for their students, but they also mindfully offer opportunities for students to increase their stress tolerance. They encourage students to be curious about their feelings of vulnerability, the sensations in their bodies and the impact of their choices, regardless of what those choices are!
Conversely, yoga instructors that use commanding or demanding language can unwittingly replicate the power dynamic within which trauma occurs. Students perceive that they do not have a choice, which signals to the body that they are trapped and powerless. This perpetuates a student’s neurobiological survival activation (trauma trigger). Ultimately, that student is not likely to speak up, fueling more feelings of being powerless or trapped.
Trauma informed yoga does more than allow our body to mobilize.
We receive opportunities to discharge years of built up feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. We can experience peacefulness and a quiet mind. We are also invited to explore feelings of discomfort. We are permitted to do this at our own pace, and in our own time. We slowly feel more empowered. This process builds resilience that will positively impact our lives.
We are living in turbulent times. Our country is fighting. We are not seeing or hearing each other. #blacklivesmatter, #metoo and other social movements are fueled by oppressed or traumatized groups of people using their feelings of immobility and rage to incite change. Everybody is feeling powerless. I am afraid for our future.
Is trauma informed yoga the answer to world peace. Maybe not. But if every human committed to balancing long held feelings of powerlessness and anger through such practices I think we'd see a good start. Curiosity, compassion and stress tolerance are essential ingredients for resilience. Resilience is the foundation for growth and healing.
And one thing I know the world needs right now is healing.
Suzanne Jones is the Founder of The TIMBo Collective and author of the award winning book There is Nothing to Fix: Becoming Whole through Radical Self-Acceptance.