by Holle Black, Co-Founder of Centering Youth
[This post originally appeared on the website of The Center for Integrative Yoga Studies.Â 249-225-7618 to visit their website]
âYoga is the Journey of the Self,
Through the Self,
To the Selfâ ~Bhagavad Gita
When we talk about the transformative power of a yoga practice, âThe Journey of the Self, through the Self, to the Self,â what are we really talking about?
(423) 229-9534From the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali comes the idea that the true self is like a clear lake. Â Our trueÂ nature, our true self, abides within, untouched by experience, untouched by circumstance.Â The center of ourselves is this clear, calm lake. Our experiences and thought patterns createÂ disturbances upon the surface of this lake, like creating waves, clouding the clarity of the water.Â Sometimes the disturbances create such waves that the lake is in constant turmoil, the surfaceÂ so choppy you cannot see what is beneath the surface. Sometimes the lake has been thisÂ way for so long, the disturbance is what we identify with, not with the calm at the center. TheseÂ waves are the distortion from the true self, and our true nature. Still, the calm water exists andÂ abides beneath the surface distortion.
âYoga is the Journey of the Self, through the Self, to the Self.” We use our yoga practice toÂ journey through the distortions of our mind to come to the clarity within. We practice to developÂ a strong witness to notice what are the distortions. We practice to notice what we identify with,Â our story, our thoughts of identity and if we are holding on to the disturbances instead of theÂ journey to clarity. Releasing what can be released, physically , emotionally and intellectuallyÂ as well. After a yoga practice that sense of calm that resonates from within is the access to theÂ calm water beneath the roiled surface of the lake; it is the feeling of connection with oneâs trueÂ nature.
âI feel like the sunshine after a thunderstormâÂ ~ A youth detained in Georgia juvenile detention after a yoga class.
I have been teaching a weekly yoga class in the Georgia juvenile detention system for nearlyÂ a year. I have had the same core group of participants for the duration. These young men areÂ 13-17 years of age, and all are charged with felony crimes. I do not mention this to discussÂ the crimes, but rather to mention, or consider, what might have had to happen to these youngÂ men in their lives, what experiences, trauma, life event or exposure to events occurred to form these young men into serious criminals at such a young age? How disturbed is their sense ofÂ Self? More importantly can they find that sense of calm within, can the practice of yoga benefitÂ them? I find it particularly interesting and effective to apply this Yoga Sutra model of the calmÂ water beneath the roiled lake being the true nature of the Self, and disturbances of thought orÂ experience distort this calm, to young people who have not only experienced trauma, but haveÂ also perpetuated trauma themselves.
There is considerable body of literature that documents the relationship between trauma andÂ childhood abuse, and subsequent aggressive and criminal acts. Among the most common risk factors for post-traumatic reactions, aggression, and antisocial behavior are childhoodÂ abuse and neglect, poverty, sexual molestation, and witnessing violence. Trauma is a deeplyÂ distressing or disturbing experience. The common denominator of all traumatic experiencesÂ is that they involve some sort of threat to our physical,emotional, and/or psychological safety.
When we are faced with a potentially threatening situation our own bodyâs survival responseÂ activates. We know this as our fight, flight or freeze response. It is important to understandÂ that this response is not an intellectual process, nor is it a choice. When the brain perceives aÂ threat the survival response of both the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine systemÂ are activated. The sympathetic nervous system is designed to mobilize the bodyâs resourcesÂ to prepare the body to respond to threat. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system triggersÂ increased heart rate and blood pressure, and accelerated respiration, all of which prepareÂ the muscles for action. The physical stress response also involves the activation of theÂ neuroendocrine response system, releasing hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, thatÂ prepare the body for action.
When people are exposed to intense, chronic, or repeated traumatic events, their threatÂ response system may become altered. Research has indicated that people with post traumaticÂ stress disorder show a sensitization of several biological systems, including a more reactiveÂ autonomic nervous system and neuroendocrine system. These alterations in the biologicalÂ threat response system show up as trauma-related symptoms, including anxiety, intrusiveÂ memories, triggered reactions, concentration problems, and nightmares among others.Â In other words, the traumatized person is stuck in the fight, flight or freeze response. They areÂ continually living in the traumatic event.
Trauma hijacks the body and the mind. There is much research on the powerful benefits of yogaÂ on those who suffer from PTSD and the effects of trauma. The practice of yoga can help usÂ calm our autonomic nervous system response and bring it back to a healthy state ofÂ homeostasis. As we use mindful movement to physically release the tension of being in a hypersensitizedÂ mode, we also use breathing techniques to help calm the nervous system. Deep,Â conscious breathing has a physiological effect on the nervous system that relieves stress andÂ anxiety. Slow, mindful breathing activates the neuroendocrine system to send outÂ neurohormones that inhibit stress-producing hormones and trigger a relaxation response in theÂ body. When the body is released from the hold of the physiological effects of trauma, theÂ distortions upon the surface of the lake begin the calm. The true nature of the Self, the vastÂ calm that abides within is accessible. Maybe for the first time, the true nature of Self is revealedÂ and felt.
The potential to no longer be simply what we have done or what has been done to us, theÂ potential to become more than our stories, and to not identify with the distortions, is achievedÂ through perceiving the calm that resonates from within, the calm water beneath the roiledÂ surface of the lake. With practice we gain greater and greater access to the true nature of Self,Â and learn to notice what is distortion.The journey of Self, through the Self, to the Self, is sensing the calm waters beneath the surfaceÂ of the lake. And feeling like the sunshine after a thunderstorm.