I’ll never forget a moment I had in savasana after a challenging yoga class. I was laying there and suddenly a memory popped into my mind. It was a traumatic event that had happened awhile ago, but that I had not fully processed yet. The memory recollection seemed to come from nowhere. Suddenly, and seemingly uncontrollably, tears were pouring out of my eyes.
This was my first experience of how the body stores our traumas and stresses. Since then, I’ve learned about the many theories of how and where the body stores trauma and stress, and some tools that we can use to release it. In this article, I will discuss how and why the body stores trauma and stress in the body, describe specific yoga and other physical practices that facilitate release, and explain why our regular yoga practice may not always be enough.
When Trauma Occurs
When something traumatic or stressful occurs and it exceeds our resources to cope, our brains actually create memories differently than when we’re in a balanced and calm state. When we’re under stress and in a “fight or flight” state, our body activates the sympathetic nervous system and prepares itself to find safety. People who have experienced extreme stress or trauma can often have lapses in memory because their body is responding to the perceived danger rather than to their minds. The body and brain become disconnected, and people experience dissociation. The body uses available oxygen for muscle functioning, and hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, are flooded into the system. When this experience is repeated, the brain and the body can become stuck in this state, making you become more sensitive to perceived danger.
Since traumatic memories have not been encoded properly, you may find your body feeling stressed or triggered without understanding what caused it. Before being able to calm the mind, you need to address the body’s response by strategically using mindful practices to signal to the body that it is not in danger. (Learn more in Exhale Your Anxiety With These Mindfulness Practices and Breathing Techniques.) Sometimes mental memories will resurface, and other times the body will release memories that may have only been encoded physically. As yoga is the union of the mind, body, and spirit, this is very important wisdom for any yogi to understand.
Where it is and how to Release it
Any physical practice is a good way to facilitate the movement of energy. Many people feel really good after an invigorating workout or intense flow yoga sequence that stimulates their cardiovascular system and raises their heart rate. But for some people this could initiate a state of stress, resulting in increased tension, as it is mimicking past stressful times and tricking the body into thinking it is in danger. Effective styles of yoga for gentle stress release are yin or restorative yoga practices. In contrast to yang practices that push the body to strive and focus on strengthening muscles, yin practices focus on accepting and loosening the less active parts of the body, like the connecting tissue. Yin allows reconnection between the mind and body, where stress and trauma may have caused a disconnect.
Other practices like acupressure and Thai massage can work the same way. “Trauma sensitive” yoga is a term for yoga taught in a way that considers the effects of trauma on the student. For example, it is important for teachers to ask before assisting or touching any student, especially if they do not have permission or know if their student has experienced trauma.
Other activities that have been incorporated into yoga practices are shaking and vocal expressions. Shaking is an innate release of stress that we see naturally occur in animals, yet humans often suppress the urge to shake or to yell because we are culturally conditioned to behave in “appropriate” ways. These activities are emerging in innovative, trauma centered yoga practices and can also be practiced in private. It is also important to note that areas believed to indicate stored stress and trauma are the pelvis, hips, jaw, diaphragm, and hamstrings. Asanas that target these areas of the body can help to relieve stress. Some other profound practices that work with releasing trauma and stored tension in the body include tapping, and cathartic breath-work. (Learn more in Exhaling Muscle Pain & Tension: 3 Benefits of Yogic Breathing (Plus a Sample Exercise)).
Listen to Your Body
The body tells us a lot when we listen. Making a practice of regularly checking in with the body can prevent the accumulation of tension and stress over time. Checking in to see how you're breathing and what areas of your body are tight is something we should do regularly. If we notice shallow breathing that is restricted to our chest, it is a good idea to spend a few breaths intentionally breathing deeply into the belly. If we notice we are hurried or feeling anxious, perhaps indicated by clenching the jaw or tightening the shoulders, we could get up and shake for a minute or two and focus on releasing all the tension and anxiety from inside of us.
I am a trained Sivananda teacher and I absolutely love and believe in this practice. Yet, because of my travelling lifestyle I spend a lot of time sitting in cars and planes. Sometimes the Sivananda practice isn’t enough for my body or even appropriate for my current needs. Sometimes, I need more yin and restorative yoga practices to release tension, as well as past stress that I must first acknowledge. If I move straight into my Sivananda series without honoring these other needs, I sometimes feel pain or an increase in tension in certain areas of my body. Only after I have honoured my past stress am I able to move through my Sivananda series without discomfort. This is the case for many people and their preferred styles of yoga as well.
The Body Remembers
I was heavily influenced to become a yoga teacher during my career as a therapist because I noticed the connection between the body and trauma. The body remembers trauma and stress as a survival skill, but without release it begins to prevent us from living fully. As a therapist I learned the importance of releasing trauma and stress from the mind, but as a yoga teacher I found that the body is often where we need to start. It is telling us so much and it is not communicating in a way the mind can always comprehend. We can use our mind’s attention to identify the bodily cues to allow us to reconnect to the mind and find peace and relaxation.