As a practitioner of yoga vedanta for over a decade I have always been taught that I am not my body, and although I still believe this to be true, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy has helped me discover that my body is wise beyond measure and is my greatest tool for self-discovery. Phoenix Rising is based in the belief that present moment experience is grounded in the felt-sense of the moment, and that the body is a resource for harnessing mindfulness, presence, and awareness – all skills required in the process of growth, empowerment, and healing. We also understand traumas, memories, emotions, and beliefs as physiological experiences, stored not only in the thinking mind, but in the tissues of our physical being. And it is through this work that I’ve come to believe that no part of our human experience can be denied if we want to fully heal; the body can no longer be the elephant in the room while we talk about our feelings. Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy acknowledges the interconnectedness of body, mind, emotions, and spirit, and perhaps most importantly, champions the client’s own inner knowing.
One of the reasons why a holistic approach, like Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, is so important is because trauma effects us holistically, not only on the level of spirit and emotions, but also the brain where it can cause neuroanatomical changes such as decreased hippocampus volume, and the body where it effects the functioning of the nervous, endocrine, immune and digestive systems. A second reason is because trauma is universal: it touches each and every one of us to various degrees, leaving behind it a myriad of symptoms that Dr. Janina Fischer calls, “the legacy of trauma” such as depression, irritability, anxiety, panic attacks, substance abuse, numbness, hypervigilance, insomnia, loss of interest, and difficulty concentrating.
Traditional talk-based therapies, which focus on cognition and behaviour, have been shown to be insufficient on their own in the treatment of trauma, most likely because trauma survivors can often verbally recount traumatic events, over and over, in a disconnected and disembodied way. In some cases talk therapies that encourage emotional catharsis can actually perpetuate PTSD-like symptoms; symptoms which Dr. Peter Levine concludes are “incomplete physiological responses suspended in fear” (Waking the Tiger, pg 34). Dr. Levine also considers trauma a “natural process that can be accessed through an inner awareness of the body” (pg 34).
It’s important to note that yoga therapy can also be triggering for clients with trauma, because it encourages them to be present in their bodies and therefore present to the feelings they may have been avoiding through dissociation; however, it’s been found that practices such as trauma-sensitive yoga and yoga therapy are increasingly effective because they build skills of mindfulness, grounding, breath awareness, and the capacity to work within a window of tolerance – which is related to the concept of “edge” in Phoenix Rising.
The wisdom of the body, simply put, is about being guided by what the body is telling you. Ever know something in your heart and have the courage to trust it? What was that experience like? Ever had a gut feeling but chose to go against it? What did that feel like? The heart has it’s own nervous system that sends signals to the brain, and the gut is hardwired with neuropeptide cell receptors that Dr. Candace Pert calls “the molecules of emotion.” So what really happens when we don’t listen to the wisdom of the body? Dr. Gabor Mate, a medical doctor based in Vancouver wrote a book on this topic called “When the Body Says No”, in which he presents research that links emotional patterns, stress and trauma to disease. A frequent presenter on the importance of understanding the mind-body connection, Dr. Mate warns us that when we ignore our gut feelings, don’t say no to stressors, take care of everyone but ourselves, and cut off from our body’s wisdom, our bodies will eventually say “no” for us in the form of illness, such as cancer and MS. Dissociating, or cutting off the from the embodied experience of sensation and emotion, is a protective coping mechanism for many trauma survivors who experience their body as an unsafe place to inhabit. Without body awareness we might not feel pain, but we don’t feel joy either. And without the ability to hear the body’s signals about stress levels, or be guided by the internal compass of what feels right for us, we aren’t equipped to establish healthy boundaries or practice self-care. Ultimately Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy is a process of exploring our relationship to our embodied experience, and over time, learning how to befriend our bodies again.
Here are some tips from Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy on learning to listen to your body’s wisdom, that you can bring into your every day life:
Take 20-second awareness breaks 1-3 times a day: Set alarms throughout the day so you don’t forget. To whatever extent it’s possible take on the perspective of a curious and compassionate witness of yourself. This is an opportunity to practice awareness, not to judge, fix or change. When it’s time, you can set a timer if you like for 20-30 seconds, then stop whatever it is you’re doing, close your eyes, and notice your breathing. You don’t have to change your breath in any way – just notice it. How does it feel to breath right now? In a few moments begin to notice your body. Was your attention called to a particular place in your body? What might that part of your body be telling you right now? No need to make any adjustments, just notice. You’re also free to notice anything else that feels present for you in the moment, whether that’s a thought, feeling, emotion, sensation, or energy. It’s all valid. When 20 seconds is up, return to whatever it was your were doing. Once you’ve practiced these awareness breaks for a little while, you can play with extending them to 5 minutes in the morning and/or evening as a way to practice self-care. Perhaps the awarenesses you’ll gain from these experiences will inform the kinds of choices you make throughout the day.
Practice being guided from within: If you get a gut feeling, or a heart feeling, slow down (or stop) and listen. Without jumping right away to analyze or figure it out, just notice the felt-sense of that experience. It’s easy to get stuck in our heads. How about notice instead what your body is telling you. Try following this inner knowing (rather than overriding it intellectually), with some sort of small, concrete action. What’s something you can do to support that inner knowing?
Shivani Wells is a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioner in Vancouver, BC. She offers individual, group, and couples sessions. Visit www.shivaniwells.com for more info.