Yoga, Trauma, Healing (And the Seahawks)

I recently attended a weekend workshop called “Healing From Trauma with Yoga, Writing, and Nutrition,” held at Seattle Yoga Arts. I’ve been fortunate not to have had a lot of trauma myself, though many people whom I love deeply have experienced trauma. I’ve dabbled in yoga. I love that this workshop combined yoga with writing, since I do lots of that, and with nutrition, because the way we nourish ourselves, and our feelings about food, can have a great impact on the way we heal and thrive, emotionally and physically.

I attended the workshop to see how all this might merge together: yoga, writing, nutrition, trauma, and healing.

Traumas can be physical, emotional, psychological, or a combination. Doctors talk about trauma as significant, sudden damage done to the body. Trauma also can mean an emotional response to a terrible, unexpected event, something that shatters our sense of security, of feeling safe. These events can occur in childhood, when we are unprepared and powerless to prevent them. Traumas can be a terrible accident or a natural disaster. They can happen to toddlers, to highly trained soldiers, to athletes, to anyone. Sometimes right after the event, we deny or minimize what happened. Sometimes, we recover quickly. When we don’t, later on we can have emotional symptoms (feelings of sadness, hopelessness, guilt, shame, self-blame, anxiety, and fear; mood swings with anger and irritability; withdrawing and feeling disconnected) and physical symptoms (being easily startled, having difficulty concentrating or sleeping, feeling tired or tense).

Symptoms can fade, and people can recover. Sometimes, symptoms can be triggered (well after the event) by reminders of what happened, reminders that can be based on the calendar (anniversary dates of a death or disaster), or on an unexpected reminder (a sound or smell, a picture of something that traumatized us).

Adoption is a trauma. We adoptive parents may not like to think about it that way–I certainly don’t. Still, it’s true.

Here is information from Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Symptoms, Treatment, and Recovery:

Childhood trauma results from anything that disrupts a child’s sense of safety and security, including

  • An unstable or unsafe environment
  • Separation from a parent, especially a mother
  • Serious illness, surgery (especially before age 3), intrusive medical procedures
  • Sexual, physical, or verbal abuse
  • Neglect

Though it’s not labeled as such, that list describes reasons children are placed for adoption–and why it is trauma. Significant separation from a child is also trauma, and thus adoption can be traumatic for birth/first mothers, fathers, and siblings as well.

Some adoptees recover from the trauma well, as do first parents. Some struggle throughout their lives. It’s a spectrum. Why is one person resilient, and another not at all?

Maybe that question, though, is just a distraction. The key is to accept the reality of trauma, to be aware of the impact of trauma, and to be open to helping oneself and others to heal.

Yoga is one good resource, perhaps especially because it connects the mind and the body, providing means to soothe the brain, and thus allow the body to better bear the physiological responses to stress and the triggering recurrences of trauma.

Slow, steady, purposeful breathing really is a big deal. Counting to 10 is only half the point: breathing slowly in and out, letting the body and mind get steady, is even more helpful.

Let go of any stereotypes about yoga. I admit I was heartened this weekend when our yoga group was not entirely high-toned reeds, because I always feel a bit daunted in those classes. Our group had a few um violins. A cello or two. It worked well.

We were encouraged to take care of ourselves, to talk about our expectations for class time, and to say what we hoped to take away from it. Safety was central: emotions, abilities, and efforts would all be safe, and accepted. Giving our beloveds (family members, friends, colleagues) space in which they are safe is a meaningful gift.

I want to emphasize this. Making a safe space–doing so with clear intention–may be one of the best gifts we can give to anyone who has experienced trauma. What does this mean? To me, it means that assuring (and backing it up) loved ones that when they are with us, they will be safe. We will listen to their needs deeply, we will accept the needs as they are expressed, and will partner with them, where they are. This could mean figuring out ways not to startle them, or best ways to express concern or affection, or what words are least/most helpful.

This weekend, we practiced different, gentle yoga positions, always encouraged to pay attention to our bodies, to notice what the muscles and joints were saying–and to breathe. This was “restorative yoga” we were learning: ways to restore energy and promote healing. Our wonderful instructor, Bianca Raffety, told us to pay attention to pain or discomfort, and to pay attention to what felt good. That was powerful. When we focus on what causes pleasure, in a healthy way, we can focus on maintaining or re-creating it. That’s true in yoga, and in other parts of daily life.

Meditation is often also powerful. Children can learn to meditate. The brain clears, the mind calms, the body regenerates. We are so over-tired and over-electronified, and over-loaded with information. What if, when we woke in the morning, we didn’t immediately reach for our cell phones? As a result of this weekend, at night I’m putting my phone in another room to charge, rather than on my nightstand. I’m going to use my waking up time to pause, breathe, and maybe meditate a bit, before bounding into the day.

I mentioned letting go of stereotypes about yoga earlier in this post. Here’s another dimension: the Seattle Seahawks–why, yes, they are the Super Bowl Champions–use meditation and yoga in their training. This article (the title made me groan, so try to move beyond that) has some fascinating points: “Seattle Seahawks Will Have ‘Ohm’ Team Advantage.”

A few highlights about the benefits of yoga and meditation:

“While football is obviously an intensely physical sport, mental muscles also flex pretty hard during a game. Learning to slow down and calm down is so important…because it teaches players to fine-tune their focus, attention and attitude. This leads to…a more mindful approach to the game.”

“There’s an entire body of science backing the idea that increased mindfulness can equate to better performance. Studies find that daily meditation helps raise awareness of self-defeating thoughts. Mindfulness practice also helps reduce production of the “flight or fight” hormone adrenaline that contributes directly to anxiety and distracting mental chatter.”

“Meditating regularly probably influences the size and topography of the player’s brains as well. Not that all that extra brain matter is useful for blocking or tackling opponents, but work sponsored by the National Health Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found an increased thickness in areas of the brain associated with self-awareness, introspection and learning after several weeks of short meditation sessions.”

“By halting negative thinking and replacing it with sunnier thoughts while in training, players learn to carry a more positive attitude onto the gridiron…This can also translate into direct physical advantages as well. For example…the time players devote to sitting on a meditation cushion with their eyes closed has taught many of them how to slow their heart rates during the intensity of play.”

Who knew? I love unexpected, positive connections.

May we be open to healing and strength, and to new possibilities.

3 thoughts on “Yoga, Trauma, Healing (And the Seahawks)

  1. Pingback: Does “Adoption” Really Equal “Trauma”? | Light of Day Stories

  2. Good stuff, Maureen. I hope many adoptive parents read this, and realize that promoting adoption as destiny or God’s will or whatever other adoptercentric label they may choose diminishes understanding of and respect for the trauma that leads to it and efforts to end it. I’m saddened when adoptive parents back away from this because they know it will ultimately mean less adoptions.

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