yoga, breath and meditation for going though traumatic or painful experiences

(I just want to put in a little caveat here – these are just my distillations of what I have been taught through time and what I have been practicing myself.  I don’t claim to be an expert on trauma, to know the exact right answers or the definitive way for working with painful issues.  These are techniques that are working for me right now, as clearly as I can currently explain them.  In sharing them with others my intention is for us to all experiment with the possibilities for healing and come up with ways that work uniquely for each of us.  I keep rereading it and updating it to try and make it clearer.
 
Working with painful experiences and especially trauma of any kind can be overwhelming, and I find these practices can help with the overwhelm so I don’t have to block the experiences and can move through them, and yet each of us is different and needs a different amount of support to handle the intensity of our own experience.  Seek help as you need it, I don’t mean for this to be a stand alone self help course.  I am here to correspond to the best of my ability, if that is of use.)
 

Deep steady breath, done anytime and especially in simple yoga postures, can help calm the body’s physiological response to stress and trauma and help us steady ourselves so that we can go through what we need to go through to allow the experience to integrate.  Instead of blocking or numbing our experience in order to feel ok, we can potentially allow ourselves to feel the rush of intensity when it comes through us, and release it so that it doesn’t get stuck inside of us, without getting too swept away by the overwhelm of our emotion.  If you can, practice with a friend you feel comfortable with, so you can support each other when the emotion is strong.  You may need to cry, you may need to talk, you may need to scream, let it out – we need to release the intensity of our response to traumatic experiences so the response can move through and the experience can integrate.  Then come back to the breath, especially when you start to feel yourself getting lost in self pity or the overwhelm.  The point is not to re-traumatize ourselves but to help ourselves go through it.  You always have the choice to let yourself bump up against what is uncomfortable, or to move back away from it until you are more ready.  Having compassion for the pain, and incrementally, the strength to go through it.  These practices can be helpful for re-integrating old, unresolved traumas, as well as for getting through rough times in the moment.

It can help to start with a few deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, with or without sound, to release tension in the belly and remind ourselves to breathe.  Then moving into the ujjai (ooj-aye) breath, a yogic breathing exercise that when done calmly and subtly, can slow down your heart rate and nervous system, relaxing the physiological response to stress and trauma so that you are able to go through the experience as calm and aware as possible.  Take equal length and depth of inhale and exhale, expanding and contracting in the area of the lungs and heart, with a slight resonance or hum at the back of the throat at the whisper muscles.  Strict ujjai breath is mostly chest breathing, although I find it useful to also let your belly expand on the inhale, releasing tension in the belly and breathing into the fullness of the lungs.  If done aggressively for an extended period of time, the ujjai breath sometimes accentuates intensity or even anxiety.  Although if done very subtly, like a soft breeze at the back of the throat, the gentle vibration of the ujjai breath, along with the rhythmic movement of the diaphragm, gently stimulates the vagus nerve, which starts at the top of the spinal cord and connects your brain to your heart and lungs and organs of the torso.  This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms and balances your nervous system’s response to stress.  The hum also helps focus, and therefore calms, the spiraling out of the mind.

You can do this breath at any time without anyone noticing, which makes it a very useful technique for steadying yourself in the moment.  And it can be done in simple yoga postures to help release the intensity around stress and trauma so that we can feel what is coming through us, and be able to weather the overwhelm.  Instead of trying to stop our experience, we can allow the rush of intensity around the trauma to rise and release without getting swept away in our emotion.

The following postures are some possibilities to experiment with this.  The forward bending ones will especially help soothe the mind, the back-bending ones will help release tension in the chest and heart and help you get moving when you are stuck in depression.  The back-bending one on the floor can be done more gently, by just resting with a pillow or two under the hips.

          

Nadi Shodhana is another breathing technique for calming and balancing the body’s response to stress.  A simplified version of this is to bring your pointer and middle finger in towards your palm so that you have the thumb and the ring finger available.  Covering the opening of right nostril with the thumb, being careful not to squash it shut, inhale through the left nostril.  Then cover the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale through the right.  Do this at least 5 times.  After the final exhale through the right nostril, inhale through the right nostril and then exhale through the left.  Do this the same amount of times from right to left as you did on left to right.  If you aren’t sure of the exact amount, just do your best and approximate.  Potentially doing more or longer inhales through the left nostril will calm you, more or longer inhales through the right will wake you up.  When you are done, sit for a few moments if you can and just let the breath breathe you automatically.

 

Belly breathing can be done anytime too, although laying on your back with your knees up and feet apart, knees resting against each other, one hand on the belly and one on the heart, can be particularly helpful in times of overwhelm.  This can be done with the pillow or two under the hips as well.  As you breathe in, let your belly expand first and then your upper chest and lungs.  As you exhale, let your upper chest and lungs soften and condense first and then your belly.  If this feels complicated in your body, don’t try too hard, just let the belly expand on the inhale and the belly condense back into your body on the exhale.

After awhile you can let go of all the trying and just let the breath breathe you automatically, expanding and contracting in the area of your heart.  You have set up the conditions to calm your body and your mind and now get out of the way as much as you can and let the breath breathe you.  All this is metaphor too.

When your mind wanders, instead of following it or fighting the thought, bring your mind back to the breath and the sensations of the body as anchors to keep yourself present to the experience.  So the experience can integrate.  So you can get through it.  And when the emotion, the sensation, the thoughts, the intensity arises, breathe in the sensation to fully experience whatever comes up, with as little judgement as possible.  Noticing.  Experiencing.  Allowing.  Breathe out calm support to yourself, and to the rest of us, to be able to go through what is painful.  As much as you can now, it takes time to be able to really touch the things that are difficult.  When you find yourself spinning out, come back to the breath- automatic, belly or ujjai – and help calm yourself to go through it.

Love.

(With gratitude to the teachings of Sue Jones of yogaHope, Bo Forbes of The Center for Integrative Yoga Therapeutics, Parvathi Nanda Nath Saraswati, Pema Chodron and her teaching of tong lin, Matt Howe and his teachings of vipassana meditation, and all the other teachings and practices that have informed my own practice and teachings, and Thomas Devaney for the photos)

…any comments or information to make this more useful or accurate always appreciated…

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breathing in the overwhelm

Recently my practice has been like this.   I have gotten pretty grounded in being able to focus my mind and stay present in the experience I am having, and when I find myself distracted, I just simply shift my awareness back into my body.  I say simply because it has become that now, although it has taken some practice of continually bringing myself back from fantasy and daydreaming, once I notice I have drifted, to make it second nature to bring myself back.  And often I don’t even have to bring myself back, I just come back.  Because that is the practice at first, being able to stay present inside of the direct experience I am having, rather than spiraling off into the discursive thought that is describing the experience to me, or following the sound or the thought or the visual stimulation on a tangent away from the present experience.  That sound, or thought, or visual is just a part of the experience I am having, so there is no need to block it, and yet when I follow it away from being in this experience it becomes a distraction.  So I just bring myself back.

So as this has started to stabilize in myself, I am incrementally more aware of everything else in my consciousness, not just the interworkings of my mind that talks to me most if not all of the time.  I find writing can help with this too – I can put down on paper all the chit chat of my mind and then my mind feels respected and can rest for a little while.  And incrementally I come into longer periods of pure awareness, just being in the experience as it unfolds.  And when I drift off, I just bring myself back.

The part that is becoming really interesting and useful to me is now that I’ve stabilized myself a little bit, when thoughts or emotions come up that are strong or overwhelming in some way – both desire and aversion – I have been playing with breathing the sensation in, really feeling what the thought or emotion feels like in every cell of my body, like it is soaking in, integrating.   And breathing out the calm to go through it.   This is really potent if you can actually do it, as opposed to just thinking about doing it.  Which can take some practice.  So, rather than pushing the sensation away or following the story around it, I am breathing in the sensation and experiencing it fully without reacting, and breathing out calm to support myself to go through it as best I can.  Not to stifle the overwhelm, but to integrate it.  And really experience the sensation as I am going through it.  Wow.  It often feels like the wave is moving right through me, rather than me resisting and it it getting stuck inside me and rattling my composure.

I do this in meditation practice, although where it is particularly interesting is in the moment.  When stuff comes up in realtime of daily life.  I can do the breath real quick when I need to respond more immediately, often giving me the ability to respond more usefully than reacting on a gut emotional level.  And no one can tell I’m doing it.  Which makes it a really useful technique.  And when there is time to pause, it helps me take that time to let the sensation evolve into perspective, and often respond more appropriately, or not at all.  Rather than just compulsively reacting.

self-compassion vs. self-pity

compassion – com = with, passion = emotion/feeling – to be able to stay present with an emotion or feeling, potentially without having to judge it, block it or overly engage with it.

Self-compassion recognizes with tenderness that there is inherent pain and difficulty in life and offers self-support and self-kindness to be able to experience the grief and loss and go through it to the other side, learning at least some of the lessons the difficulty has to teach.  Self-pity views difficulty as an affront, feels like a victim, and wallows righteously in resentment and anger towards self and others, often effectively blocking the learning inherent in the difficulty and inadvertently causing the self-fulfilling prophesy of having to be taught the same lessons over and over again.

Often we vacillate between either getting stuck in self pity or trying to convince ourselves we should feel okay about things we are not really okay with.  There is a middle ground, where we can feel what is uncomfortable without having to get stuck in it, where we can recognize that sometimes what we go through is hard without feeling sorry for ourselves, beating ourselves up, or trying to make everything alright.  Where we can stay present with the experience of our pain and allow it to integrate.  And as we gain perspective, maybe not have to learn the same lesson again.