I was, by no means, “asking for it.” No one ever is. I was in a thick sweatshirt and jeans, ankles thrown up over the armrest of my dear friend’s couch, drinking punch – because I was completely relaxed. I only woke later to realize I was being assaulted.
The thing about assault is that it typically does not happen violently. Although it certainly can, more often than not the abuser is a friend, a family member, someone close to the victim. For this reason, there is a crushing loss of trust. Shame follows. The questions you ask yourself in the darkest moments – could I have stopped this? Did I do something wrong?
Trauma can be a single event, but it can also be years, even decades, of abuse. Trauma may be an assault, or bullying, or loss, military service, or the physical or even mental mistreatment by a loved one. The causes are many. And the effects are just as varied. Depression, anxiety, and addiction are just a few of the ways trauma manifests in someone’s life.
In the years that I’ve taught trauma-sensitive (or trauma-informed) yoga and meditation, I’ve learned that no two trauma victims are affected in the same way. Sometimes you can tell a person is dealing with an internal war as they pull inward, into a shell. Sometimes the person is calloused from their trauma – I met a hard-edged woman once who alerted me she was carrying a handgun in her purse, and would use it if necessary. The important takeaway is that there is no right way to react after trauma.
But there are ways to release it.
One may not feel ready to take on the wounds of their trauma right away. That’s ok. No one can be coerced to. It takes internal work and conscious effort to release the effects of trauma. To release the trauma itself.
Much has been written about how our wounds make us stronger. My absolute favorite spiritual teacher, the Dalai Lama, once said,
“There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”
The famed Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his wonderful book, No Mud, No Lotus:
“when you’re overwhelmed by despair, all you can see is suffering everywhere you look. You feel as if the worst thing is happening to you. But we must remember that suffering is a kind of mud that we need in order to generate joy and happiness. Without suffering, there is no happiness. So we shouldn’t discriminate against the mud.”
Finally there is Rumi, who said, “the wound is the place the light comes in.”
It’s all well and good to try to alchemize suffering into joy. That may be an ultimate goal, but that does not necessarily help depression and anxiety in the moment. Past trauma can cause a number of physical and mental effects. Attacks of panic, moments of fear, are a prime example. The heart races, the breath is shallow and quick, the mind becomes dizzy with memories and flashbacks.
For this, yoga, meditation and mindfulness are an effective treatment. While yoga is often represented as some class in a gym where lithe yoginis wrench their ankles behind their heads, Yoga-with-a-capital-Y is actually a beneficial philosophical system, a way of thinking and taming the mind.
Take, for instance, the practice of Pranayama. “Prana” is defined as the breath, the life force of the body. In the situation of the panic attack, a conscious effort in the moment to slow and deepen the breath can have a number of physiological and mental benefits.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written sometime between 500-400 BCE, talk about fluctuations in consciousness. “(1.3) United in the heart, consciousness is steadied, then we abide in our true nature – joy. (1.4) At other times, we identify with the rays of consciousness, which fluctuate and encourage our perceived suffering.” The Sutras go on to explain what these rays of consciousness are.
In other words, our natural state is to be at peace and in joy. It is the fluctuations that attack our mind and pull us away from what our true nature is.
Our perception becomes our reality. If we wonder, “what did I do wrong,” then “wrong” becomes the focus. “I am wrong” becomes the reality. But it is important to recognize that this is a thought. We are not our thoughts. This is where practicing meditation and mindfulness comes in. If you recognize that you are having an uncomfortable thought or memory, and consider the science that it is merely firings in your brain, you can watch the thought drift away like a cloud in the sky or a boat on the water. We can then mindfully engage in the activity we are doing, the time and place that we are in.
Yoga, meditation, mindfulness – they do not require lighting incense or dangling a mala or even a yoga mat (although none of those things are bad). Yoga comes from the Sanskrit for “union” – union of the mind and body, the divine and the earthly. Maybe, if you have been assaulted or physically abused, you gently explore the asanas, the physical movements of yoga to reconnect with your body and live in a space where you don’t reject it. Maybe your yoga is purely mental and philosophical, a mindset for living and releasing trauma from your life. Whatever you find yourself drawn to do, remember the words of Thich Nhat Hahn:
“If we focus on pursuing happiness, we may regard suffering as something to be ignored and resisted. We think of it as something that gets in the way of happiness. But the art of happiness is also and at the same time the art of knowing how to suffer well.”