On Tension, Trauma, and Healing
“You are a walking summary of everything you’ve come into contact with, digested and undigested.”
Jillian Pransky spoke those words, rooted in Ayurvedic wisdom, in a restorative workshop I took earlier this year. It was an eight-hour training day that changed the way I look at restoratives, relaxation, and the yoga practice as a whole.
When most of us think about the “relaxing” types of yoga, we tend to think about stretching the body. Maybe we’re more familiar with Yin-type classes, in which we hold intense hip openers and forward folds for several minutes. Perhaps we’ve experienced a flowy Hatha sequence designed to move energy around. But restorative yoga, at least the way Jillian teaches it, is different.
When muscles feel tight, we stretch them. That’s what we’ve been taught to do. But often, what we’re responding to is underlying energetic tension, which causes tightness in the surrounding muscles. Those “undigested” particles are the results of our experiencing or witnessing events, good or bad, that we aren’t yet ready to process. When it comes to tension, the good stuff usually isn’t the culprit. Trauma, large or small, recent or ancient, is imprinted on our bodies in ways that science is just beginning to understand.
The human body is designed to protect itself. When survival is threatened – when we’re cold, or scared, or in crisis – we instinctively curl into ourselves, drawing the limbs in to protect the essential organs. If someone throws a ball unexpectedly, you might put your hands up to protect your face. Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) works internally to support these reactions; when the body/mind perceives stress, the SNS kicks in to produce cortisol and adrenaline, tighten the muscles and increase blood pressure to prepare the body for action (commonly known as the “fight or flight” response, which Jillian amends to include “freeze.”).
And that’s okay – when we’re in normal patterns of experiencing stimuli, using those hormones in some way (eg. running away from a saber-toothed tiger), and then relaxing to allow the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to kick in. The body produces completely different hormones in a state of relaxation, and these are designed to help us recover, digest, and reproduce. In modern life, however, we spend most of our time in a state of unconscious stress. There’s work, commuting, relationships, loneliness, money, family, illness, chores, and myriad other responsibilities constantly telling the body to go into survival mode.
On top of that, there’s trauma. Old wounds live in our bodies, causing habitual patterns of closing off the body to protect those undigested pockets of tension. Hunched shoulders, tight hips and pigeon-toed feet are often indicators that somewhere along the line, the mind/body sensed danger, and built layers of muscular tightness to protect the underlying tension.
I was working on financial planning at home a few weeks ago and noticed that my hip flexors were sore. I turned my attention there and found that those ropy muscles were completely active, working to bring my belly and thighs together. While the rest of my body was fairly neutral, I was unconsciously gripping this area in response to thinking about money. And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense: the base of the torso corresponds with the muladhara/root chakra, which governs our most basic survival needs. Finances and survival, for better or worse, go hand in hand.
I’ve always known my hip flexors were tight, but never thought that about the non-muscular side of that tension. But this is exactly why we need restorative yoga – to notice those patterns of habitual tightening, and start to change them.
So, what is restorative yoga, and how can we use it to heal? It’s a practice characterized as inward-moving, reflective, receptive, inwardly expansive, and supported. Practically speaking, it’s when we spend longer periods of time (usually 5-15 minutes) in postures where the body is completely supported by props (blankets, bolsters, blocks, pillows, sandbags, etc.) to allow total muscular relaxation.
Jillian describes three steps to turn off the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response and invoke relaxation:
1. The breath must quiet and deepen.
2. The mind must be open, allowing for thoughts to pass through without engaging or attaching value to them.
3. The fibers of the large muscle groups used in the panic response (arms, legs and psoas) must be relaxed.
When those steps have been taken, and when we feel safe, we can begin to explore. Move the breath throughout the body and see where it gets stuck. Notice any areas that feel dark, tense or sore. Observe those parts without judgment – allow them space. Spend some time inwardly looking at your tension and breathe with it. Eventually, with practice, it will begin to soften. With the breath, we can comb out the knots in the nervous system, noticing and gradually untangling our habitual stress patterns.
It may feel uncomfortable at first as we begin to “digest” these previously protected experiences. Nausea, headaches and feelings of bodily displacement are normal immediately following your restorative practice. But over time, we can unlearn our stress responses and relearn new, healthy ways to process and react, making us happier and more productive beings. As Jillian says, “Any moment of healing we do helps all of us.”