Healing Dissociation and Sexual Trauma with Yoga

Trauma so deeply permeates the boundaries of physical, emotional, and mental realms that the need to embrace complementary healing approaches is overwhelmingly apparent. The mind-body connection is the domain of the Eastern contemplative spiritual traditions.

In the East, before learning a martial art or energy practice, the student has to master the ability to become fully present. The techniques utilized to harmonize brain function include chanting, meditation, breathing practices and an inward contemplative lifestyle reinforced by a spiritual code. This ensures that the practitioner approaches the body under the command of the parasympathetic nervous system, rather than the alarmed sympathetic nervous system. The tools which the yogis utilize to create this shift are of great value to the trauma victim who desires to restore calm to an energetic system which is hyper-vigilant and overcharged, or frozen in terror.

When a human organism is in a state of calm, both hemispheres of the brain are "switched on" and communication occurs between the two hemispheres through the corpus callosum. The right brain, which processes from whole to part in a spontaneous, flowing, now-oriented intuitive style, communicates readily with the left brain, which is logical, sequential, part-to-whole and systematic. In a low arousal state, both sides of the brain learn and reason together in a coordinated fashion.

Under stress, the brain chooses one hemisphere or the other. The right-brained individual loses the capacity to reason. The left-brained person tries harder but without comprehension, joy, or understanding. In addition to the disconnect between the right and left hemisphere, if the emotional component of the fight or flight response is also triggered, the relationship between the brain hemispheres and the forebrain is diminished. The brain, in an effort to save the life of the organism, shuts down the parts which are related to reason. The nervous system is wired to react rather than to respond.

In trauma survivors, these mechanisms may be hardwired together. A woman may be riding on the elevator with someone who has the same aftershave as her perpetrator, and experience instantaneous dissociation. She is triggered before she has a chance to think. Her energetic immune system sounds the alarm, and she is immediately out of her mind, and out of parts of her body as well. This coping mechanism helped her endure her attack, but is now a dysfunctional pattern held in her cellular memory.

"Splitting" is a term used to describe dissociation. The mother who is enraged at her child is operating from a very different foundation than the mother who sits in controlled anger, in full command of her intellect. The angry mother is fully present and has an appropriate sense of proportion. She can reason and comprehend. The enraged mother is without access to perspective or wisdom. She cannot exercise restraint because the forebrain is not communicating with the brain hemispheres, and dissociation — or splitting — has occurred. Splitting takes place in our most intimate relationships where we work out the patterns we chose to explore in this lifetime.

When split, we become a contraction of our full potential. Many individuals attempt to control their lives by avoiding circumstances which would be emotionally triggering, including intimate relationships. Many parents who were abused as children have not become abusers themselves, but they are unable to bond with their own children due to dissociation.

Rewiring the Brain through the Body

Yoga and other Eastern practices make use of the knowledge that communication between the extremities, senses and brain is a two way street. In the same way that playing a musical instrument with both hands effects the brain, using the arms, legs and torso in particular patterns "switches on" parts of the brain. Kundalini yoga and Breathwalk as taught by Yoga Bhajan and others are examples of integration practices which recruit the corpus callosum and calm the hypothalymus. Svaroopa yoga's shavasana creates the shift from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing practices, meditation, chanting and physical movements which harmonize the energetic system of the body balance the brain.

The most appropriate energy practice for a traumatized individual is the practice which embodies his or her dominance profile. A left brain individual may be more supported in an intellectual approach such as Iyengar yoga. The right brain individual who is visually blocked might gravitate to a less structured form such as Kripalu yoga which is taught from whole to part.

The healing modality that serves as the best match for a particular individual starts in alignment with the energetic pattern presented under stress, but eventually restores the individual to bilateral brain function and full sensory awareness in a skillful way that does not overload the system. In psychotherapy, this is known as "pace, pace, lead.” Eventually, the verbal right-brained student should practice dristis or gaze points to incorporate the eyes and balance flow and timelessness with routine and structure, but initially this expectation would trigger homolateral learning and the fight-or-flight response.

Eventually, the student will seek to be embodied in vision, hearing, hands and feet, but the learning curve must honor the body's capacity to adapt. Because the left brain intellectual orientation serves as the comfort zone in the American culture, healing from trauma often involves a deep immersion into the affect and emotion of the right brain. The overcharged driven student who wants to place high demands on the body sometimes uses adrenaline and endorphins to mask many emotions that would be too painful to embody.

In order to heal he or she will eventually shift to whole brain consciousness. According to Paul Dennison, PhD, when this shift occurs, the individual "can process information simultaneously, move and think at the same time, read with the writer's hand, speak with the listener's ear, and thrive on new, spontaneous, and creative self expression."6

Our bodies are designed to embody our sensory input, emotions and intellect. Human potential can become buried under layers of psychic numbing. In order to heal from abuse, especially in the form of repressed memories, survivors need to be able to re-access the energetic experience of trauma and integrate it at a different level. With brain integration tools and energy practices which release, discharge or neutralize volatility and intensity, the survivor can have a sense of control over their experience. The capacity to regulate mood, state of mind and energy level is critical in order to plumb the depths of sorrow, unrelenting grief, anger, anxiety and fear that present in the healing journey. When the repressed energy of trauma is released, the person can then begin to live their life in accordance with their destiny.

Notes

  1. For a discussion of “splitting” see The Myth of Sanity: Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness by Martha Stout, Penguin USA. Reissue edition, 2002
  2. Hanneford, Carla PhD, Smart Moves, Why Learning is Not All in Your Head, Great Ocean Publishers, Arlington, VA. 1995
  3. Bhajan, Yogi and Gurucharan Singh Khalsa. Breathwalk: Breathing Your Way to a Revitalized Body, Mind, and Spirit, Broadway Books. 2000
  4. Svaroopa yoga as taught by Rama Berch of Master Yoga Academy utilizes a supported configuration of the skeletal bones which aligns the spine so that there is no blockage of cerebro-spinal fluid. The tendon guard reflex, a component of the fight or flight response which stiffens the joints to prevent injury in the case of battle, is released. The position of the head on the floor utilizes neurovascular reflex points which sedate the meridians which hold fear and terror, as identified by Dr. John Thie in Touch for Health. The breathing technique helps cool the brain from the back to the front and calms the triple warmer meridian which governs fight of flight.
  5. “Un-doing Disassociation, Contemporary Neuroscience — A Clinical Perspective" by British Neuroscientist Margaret Wilkinson was presented at the Voices in Action (Victims of Incest Can Emerge Survivors) in July 2002 and will be published next year. This research combines attachment theory and neuroscience to illustrate how right brain approaches heal through transference/countertransference experiences between the therapist and client.
  6. Dennison, Paul, Ph.D and Gail, Personalized Whole Brain Integration. Edu-Kinesthetics, Glendale, CA. 1985

Pat Burke teaches yoga and brain integration at Earthsong Yoga Center in Marlboro, MA. Contact her at 508-480-8884 or visit www.earthsongyoga.com