One of my favourite phrases: ‘the body has a story and it’s trying to tell you’ is never more applicable than in a yoga class. Through yoga we can begin to read sensation and feeling in our body, and slowly unravel the layers of stress and tension held within it.
Yoga is an incredible healing practice, especially for trauma, but only if it is practiced with awareness and self-care. To force the body where it doesn’t want to go, in the name of stretching a tight muscle or achieving a certain shape, can be counterproductive and even damaging.
There are, of course, many physical reasons why we should not force the body into shapes i.e. to prevent injury, however this article focuses primarily on the subject of emotional trauma and stress.
In this article I have focused on the hips as these are perhaps the most common place for trauma/stress to be stored, however the same principle could be applied to any muscle group.
The hips and hip openers: a bullet point story of tension and trauma
The psoas is a deep muscle group that connects the upper body to the lower body, running inside the pelvis. The psoas flexes the hip (brings knee towards chest), and when we are faced with a stressor/threat it will contract to prepare our body to run, or to curl into a ball to protect. It, along with other hip muscles/tissues, is therefore closely related to our stress response and acts as a messenger for our autonomic nervous system. The psoas is often known as ‘the seat of emotion’ or the ‘emotional psoas’.
When we experience a stress or trauma the brain will store information about the event including things such as our body posture, muscle contraction, and breathing patterns. This helps to protect us from future similar looking events. Such information is often stored as implicit memories (feeling and sensation) rather than as a declarative memory (story) and is stored outside of our conscious awareness. ‘We’ don’t need to remember such details, only the brain does. The brain will log patterns of tension in the psoas and how they relate to stressful events.
With repeated stress and trauma the muscles of the hips may be subjected to continued contraction, eventually become chronically tight. When muscles are tight or in spasm blood flow is restricted, meaning the muscle receives less fresh blood and is less able to flush out toxins such as lactic acid. Consequently the muscle may become even more restricted and tight; thus creating a vicious cycle. Tight hips can be further exacerbated by sitting for long periods of time, as is common in most modern lifestyles.
According to yoga philosophy the hips relate to chakra 1 and 2 which are the areas of our body associated with safety and security, and pleasure, sexuality, and passion. Serious trauma involving fear of death/lack of safety, or sexual/early childhood abuse may be held in these chakras and therefore the hips. The hips may also be storing fragments of implicit memory as described above.
When we move into hip openers or stretches, especially when our hips are extremely tight, the feeling of contraction may trigger implicit memories and the stress response may triggered i.e. the brain remembers the sensation and triggers the stress response to protect us. We may begin to feel stressed, uneasy, or agitated. Implicit memories may resurface and be experienced as sensation but without context - we may be flooded with sensations of fear, but without the original story.
In some cases stretching and releasing tension from the hip joint may also start to dismantle a pattern of ‘gripping’ that we may have unconsciously used to protect us. If this occurs this we may feel vulnerable and unsafe.
Because of the above, for some people hip openers may feel uncomfortable, scary, or even traumatic. It is also the reason many of us can find ourselves feeling angry, scared, or tearful in a yoga class but with no idea why. It is possible for these sensations and feelings to stay with us long after we leave the class.
It is vital we do not to push the body into hip openers that do not feel safe. At best we may feel upset and emotional, which is counterproductive. At worst we may be retraumatised; driving the trauma response even deeper into our physiology. This is the antithesis of healing.
Rather than forcing our body into hip openers, it is better to move into them very slowly and with keen awareness; watching for any signs of resistance and pausing at that point. It may be helpful to explore gently moving in and out of the shape, paying attention to internal sensations and staying with what feels safe in that moment. Slow breathing, grounding, and mindfulness can allow us to notice the sensations in the hips, without being flooded with the original emotions.
Where hip openers feel overwhelming it may be beneficial to let the psoas relax passively in a poses such as constructive rest, rather that placing them in a shapes that cause direct stretch or contraction.
When we are living with trauma, high stress, or anxiety it can be helpful to tread lightly. Consciously choosing not to push ourselves into shapes we resist - because the resistance may be there for good reason.
When we tread approach yoga in this way it can be a powerful practice; allowing us to safely release long held tension whilst gently uncoupling sensation from traumatic memory.