A Yogic Perspective on Psychological Trauma

Sevika“Although the world is very full of suffering,it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
~Helen Keller

Sri Swami Satchidananda often compared the mind to a lake. When it is calm, the beauty and resources of our inner being are reflected on its brilliant surface. When the mind is agitated, however, the surface of that lake becomes choppy, distorting the calm and beauty that lies underneath. For individuals who have suffered a traumatic experience, the mind can become so disturbed that the surface of the water would appear to be in the relentless frenzy of an unending hurricane. In such a troubled mental state, the time-honored methods that sages throughout the world have proclaimed as essential to the achievement of equanimity may seem like nothing more than elaborate fairy tales. 

When the mind is in such a disordered state, a person may lose the power to regulate his or her conduct within the realm of acceptable societal standards. Ayurveda, the East Indian system of holistic health care, defines such a person as suffering from unmaada, or mental instability. Although this state may arise from a myriad of forces, it is commonly evoked through unexpected traumatic experiences, such as the death of an important person, a difficult birth, sudden shock, near death experience, or extreme physical or emotional pain.

Joan Harrigan, the spiritual director of Patanjali Kundalini Care in Knoxville, Tennessee, believes that such traumas can create an abrupt, precipitous rise in “intense energy” or kundalini. This powerful energy is usually unleashed only after a prolonged period of spiritual practice which gradually prepares an individual to handle the experience. The practices of Yoga develop a disciplined mind, able to direct the kundalini toward the spiritual goal of enlightenment. Harrigan maintains that when an individual is not prepared through spiritual practices, or is not in a devotional frame of mind at the time of a kundalini rising (such as in a traumatic event) they are unable to handle the intensity of the experience. The result is a sense of extreme agitation and prolonged over-stimulation that can leave the person feeling lost, confused, tired and angry.

Harrigan advises people who are experiencing such negative after-effects of trauma to dedicate, or re-dedicate themselves, to the process of spiritual transformation. Sri Gurudev echoes such sentiments when he explains, “When we are afraid to face things, the fear itself creates a bigger problem. When filled with anxiety, the mind is no longer fit to face the challenges of life.” A spiritual orientation provides a framework that can calm the mind and restore hope, offering the individual ways to accept the challenges of dealing with a traumatic event. Harrigan maintains that faith in God creates an environment where trauma can be seen as the needed catalyst to propel one towards a more fulfilling, spiritual life.

For the trauma to be integrated into the individual’s psyche, the mind must not only be re-oriented to accept the challenges of such tragedies, but the unconscious mind must be cleared and a stable ego developed through the application of a strong ethical code, the yamas and the niyamas. Because of the intensity of energy unleashed in the nervous system, Harrigan recommends that the physical body be strengthened through calming Yoga postures, breathing practices, and the application of a moderate lifestyle. Rest, relaxation and moderation in all activities are strongly emphasized. Any rigorous or strenuous Yoga practices, either mental or physical, are to be avoided.

Leslie Vani Kalechman is a clinical social worker and Integral Yoga teacher who has worked for many years with people suffering from trauma. In her Colorado-based practice, she teaches Yoga to calm, balance and restore individuals to a natural state of peace. The gentle, balanced practice of the eight limbs of Yoga (ethical precepts—yamas and niyamas, postures, breathing practices, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and samadhi) will, in time, pacify excess passion and emotion (rajas). Practiced correctly they also eliminate lethargic, lack luster and depressive moods (tamas) that may be serving as obstacles to engaging the mind in meaningful activities.      

Even after years of consistent practice some individuals may not experience the positive, grounding effects Yoga promises. Dr. Vasant Lad, director of the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico, suggests that individuals may not be aware of their psychological traumas (because of excess tamas). He describes such individuals as being both prideful and depressed. Lacking the capacity for self-reflection, they tend to accidentally trample over others, and damage themselves without any awareness of their need for compassionate guidance.

Dr. Lad describes undigested traumas as “non-healing ulcers that we carry in our sub-conscious mind.” He compares the sub-conscious to the basement level of a house; it is where we put all the things we do not want to see. If the pain is too great and the subconscious begins to take up too much space, there is no room for consciousness, or the outer mind. “Our house,” states Dr. Lad, “becomes a little nest on a much larger mess.” He maintains that it is in understanding our hurts and traumas that we begin to make the room we need to more fully experience our lives and ourselves.

Others may be conscious of their past, but are having difficulty in detaching from these experiences. Dr. Lad explains that, normally, when we see “what is” in our past, but are not happy about it, we create a concept of what “would be, could be and should be.” Dr. David Frawley, author of Ayurveda and the Mind: the Healing of Consciousness, explains that our consciousness not only holds memories of what happened, but memories of what we feel to have happened in our hearts. He believes it is important not to devalue these “false” memories, as they are considered the history of the ego, that part of ourselves that would prefer that only good things happen to us.  

In traumatic memories, “what is” is fear, anger, conflict, and betrayal. These emotions can be so strong that we cannot manipulate them into what “should be.” What we are asking individuals who have survived trauma is to, in time, relinquish their desire to have a past that is not horrific, a past that is not damaging. Dr. Lad explains that to come face to face with our traumas means to courageously face our history, and to face the structure we have created to not deal with or to avoid our painful past.

We live in a constant state of change (parinama) of both positive and negative energies. Within a constant framework of change, individuals and communities develop a set patterns of response to environmental and internal  factors (samskaras). Gary Kraftsow, a Yoga therapist from the Krishnamacharya tradition, explains that the practice of Yoga seeks to eliminate the negative patterns we may have established. Yoga practice, by gently but actively working with the mind, weakens and eventually removes the limiting factors, enabling pure consciousness to shine through.

What is being healed in trauma, whether on an individual basis or on a community level, is that which cannot be seen. It is the delicate fabric of what makes us human: trust, faith, a sense of order, and an awareness of the uniqueness of our human life. Yoga suggests that suffering is not without cause or meaning, but rather is our impetus, for radical change and a renewed call to spiritualize our lives.

Spirituality entails more than hearing someone else’s ideas of what freedom and love are. It entails walking one’s own path to self-knowledge. It is this path that will lead each person to feel safe in opening not only to the pain of their past, but to the beauty and joy of the present. Individuals who have experienced severe trauma are often cut off from this experience, as they hold on to the past and resist the present. The Yogic perspective, while not a universal substitute for psychotherapy, can offer those who have experienced trauma—or who have seen a loved one devastated by trauma—tools to understand the path that person is walking. If the Yogic perspective on trauma does nothing more than inspire students to study their our own lives, then the practice has contributed greatly to the healing of humankind.

“Unless we realize our own true nature, unless we become aware of our spiritual reality, our life’s purpose is not fulfilled. The main goal behind all these searches and approaches and actions is to realize our true nature, to realize the Self, the God within, and thus to realize that everything is the expression of that same Spirit. ” —Sri Swami Satchidananda

Resources for the Reader:

Dr. Vasant Lad. “Healing Psychological Trauma” Lecture 7/7-7/13 2001. Available on tape. The Ayurvedic Institute, P.O. Box 2344, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 87192. 505-291-9698.

Joan Harrigan, spiritual director, Patanjali Kundalini Care. Knoxsville, TN. 2002.

About the Author:
Sevika Douglass is an Integral Yoga teacher and student of Sri Gurudev. She is a contributing editor for Integral Yoga Magazine and she is currently working to bring greater awareness about the benefits of Yoga to the mental health field. For more information please visit her website: yogapsychology.org

Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Summer 2004

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