Deep Calls to Deep: Processing Trauma through Deep Stretch Yoga

by Brook Blaylock

The sound of my membership card being scanned failed to signal transformation. I walked into that—and my deep stretch class—unsuspectingly. In class after class instructors talked about the potential of certain poses to rinse my body of toxins and negative energy, but I’d never really paid it much, if any, heed. I found such phrasing a humorous nod to the copious amounts of sweat hot yoga produced in practitioners. I kept “rinsing” myself right along with those numbers because yoga was the only exercise that slowed down my mind. Tormented by a constant barrage of often unwelcome thoughts and images, no other exercise inspired the mental calm of yoga. While this should have been enough on its own, I also appreciated the feeling of physical exhaustion a good vinyasa class engendered, sure evidence I was molding my body into better shape. 

Both motivations were counter-intuitive to the tenets of a sound yoga practice I heard about on my mat. I liked yoga because of the potential to “master” my mind and body, not my breath. It afforded me the feeling of control I desperately sought in every area of my life. By practicing, I tamed a mind whose chaos I longed to temper, and a body I longed to master with my mind.  Everything about my practice was about me controlling the parts of my physical and psychological being I feared would betray me—that I knew had betrayed me and would do so again. As someone suffering from PTSD and at times crippling anxiety, the only thing I wanted out of any kind of exercise was control.

Luckily, yoga forgave these motivations. It waited patiently while I forced myself into pigeon and crow poses, full wheels and triangles, all while ignoring the more “spiritual” facets of its flow. Before that fateful deep stretch class, my most spiritual experience had been falling out of crow pose and onto the top of my water bottle. In spite of the black eye my landing gave me, and the blood that preceded it, I finished the class. In my eyes that experience epitomized exactly what I wanted out of life and yoga: the strength to overcome bad circumstances, the perseverance to keep moving forward, to continue through both my yoga class and my future. Strength didn’t look like letting my body speak to me on my mat. It didn’t look like calming my mind so I could listen to its voice. Strength looked like forcing my body and mind to conform to both my will and the various contortions each yoga pose required.

In the midst of a particularly long pigeon, however, my body betrayed me. Somewhere in my piriformis muscle a memory I always kept contained unloosed alongside my hip flexor. There I was, three years old and trapped in the bathtub. Here I was, 42 years old and trapped on my mat. There I was, scared and breathing rapidly, praying he wouldn’t get in. Here I was, scarred and breathing rapidly, praying the power of this memory would subside. How could I possibly relive this in the middle of a deep stretch class for God’s sake? For the past year, I had been going to weekly therapy sessions employing EMDR, or eye movement desensitizing and reprocessing, in the hopes of moving the trauma of early sexual abuse from where it was stored in my amygdala, an area of the brain primarily associated with emotional processing, to an area of my brain in which I could safely interpret this experience.

In spite of all my therapy, and week after week of my counselor encouraging me to speak about what had happened so as to dissipate the trauma’s power, I remained unable to verbalize my abuse. The closest I had come had been to write out on paper a brief synopsis of what had transpired. Somehow, I couldn’t say the words aloud because I felt that if I said them the beliefs that went with them—I’m disgusting, shameful, bad—would immediately infect the listener with the same distorted view. They would immediately see me as the awful person I saw myself as in that moment. At this moment I felt those words un-stretching in the muscles of my hips and I felt myself sinking not deeper into my pose, but deeper into the corresponding despair.

It was at that point I remembered ujjayi breathing. I began to fill my lungs and breathe through my nose, praying for the memory to go away just like I sometimes prayed ujjayi breath might take away muscle pain. Amazingly, my body and mind calmed and there, in the most unlikely of places, sweating in a pigeon pose in the middle of a crowded room of yogis, I processed my trauma. God met me in between my ujjayi breathing and for the first time, I saw the scene of my abuse differently. I was not alone in that bathroom with my abuser. God stepped between us and lifted me out of the tub. He wrapped me in a hot white towel and carried me to safety. As I felt the heat of the towel enveloping my body, I felt the power of the words I associated with the abuse burning away. I was no longer disgusting, shameful, or bad. I no longer had to carry those words in my mind or in my body. Somehow, they had been trapped in both places, but the time I spent in pigeon pose enabled my body to drive them out, allowing a new narrative to replace them.

Turns out, it was entirely for my sake that God let me relive that memory in the middle of that deep stretch. During therapy, my body never relaxed. I went into every EMDR session tense and afraid of what might ensue. During deep stretch, the time I spent in poses afforded my body a level of openness I could never attain in a therapy session. While the idea of trauma actually being physically stored in one’s body is controversial and as yet unproved, I am convinced that yoga, in conjunction with traditional therapy, enabled me to process a traumatic event in a way that counseling alone never could.  According to Shaili Jain, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, “when…traumatic thoughts and memories remain unspeakable or unthinkable for too long, they impede our brain’s natural process of recovery after trauma. They become stuck points that inhibit the mental reintegration that is needed for healing to occur.”  Deep stretch yoga empowered my body to release this unspeakable memory and my mind to visualize the means by which I could begin a process of mental reintegration.

 Just like I had when I fell on my water bottle, I kept practicing until the end of class. However, I didn’t maintain the same definition of strength. I was only able to have an experience of healing, to reimagine the circumstances of my trauma and redefine its impact on my psyche, because the deep stretch class pushed my mind and body to a place beyond that of my control. When I accidentally stopped trying to control the effects of my practice, my practice began to positively affect me. My body found a space in which it could safely release trauma I had stored for decades and my voice soon followed. At the end of that class I found the strength to tell a friend who had been practicing beside me what had happened. What I had thought had been a betrayal was, in fact, a transformation. My body had a voice and by enabling it to “speak” in the midst of that stretch, I found the power to speak about my trauma and the strength to overcome it. I had an entirely new understanding of what it meant to find release through a yoga pose. 

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