There are many therapies that help people deal with trauma. However many people claim that the western psychological approach to mental health does not work, that trauma cannot be healed at the layer of the cognitive and that people must go deeper to recover from it completely. Yoga and meditation is proving to be significant in helping people heal trauma and recover their lives. I believe this is because it works deeper than the cognitive and dives deep into the layers that hold the trauma responses that await healing. Here is a look at how trauma manifests though the 5 Koshas or layers of our being and how yoga and meditation can help us heal.
Anandamaya kosha – Bliss Sheath
This is the layer of your true self; your innermost heart ; that part that is untouched by karma, wounds, Samskaras (scars) or trauma of any form. This is the part of you that knows deep peace; that is pure love. Sometimes due to layers to trauma, or even through living materialistically or superficially, this part is forgotten. We therefore need to cultivate a relationship with this part of us, through practice. Asana helps us burn through the samskaras by creating Tapas, or heat on the yoga mat. We use asana to move the mind from Tamas (laziness, dullness, wounded, frightened, limited), through rajas (movement, heat, excitement) to Sattva (clarity, beyond wound, out of victim consciousness, towards the bliss feeling of the true self). In addition, we use meditation to move our awareness beyond our blocks to the part of us beyond karma and suffering, to connect with our true nature, the Anandamaya Kosha, or bliss sheath. When we identify with our true self, we can turn post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic bliss. In yoga, mental illness is believed to be caused by what is called Avidya: identifiying with the outer layers of ourselves and collapsing into the energies of fear, anger, guilt etc. without perspective. When we identify with our true self, through spiritual practice, we can feel our emotions, without falling down the rabbit hole into painful traumatic responses. We feel our emotions, but we are not our emotions. Avidya distinguishes between what is temporary and what is eternal. Our true self, is grounded in being, it is eternal; it is that part of our consciousness that observes. Our emotions are temporary. They too shall pass. We are not our wounds; they are our outer layers. We are pure and perfect in our essence.
The is the layer that holds the samskaras (scars), the deep-seated self-limiting, unconscious beliefs that create suffering. According to yoga philosophy, these samskaras are our karmic inheritance, and the part of us that reincarnates, creating more birth in the cycle of samsara (life-death-rebirth), unless we cultivate a relationship with our true self in this lifetime, through meditation. When we develop a relationship with our true self, we learn how to flow easier through life and how to handle the more painful aspects of life like Aparigraha (non-attachment) and letting go. This allows us to never loose touch with our perfect core, despite our suffering.
Manomaya layer –mental and emotional layer
This is the layer of mental and emotional disturbances. Western psychology looks at mental illness scientifically. This has historical roots, starting back to ancient Greece 300 B.C.E when science and religion split into separate enquiries; this is called the “separation of the spheres”. This separation continued to the time of Descartes (16th century) when science and religion completely untangled because science wanted to work with cadavers and the church did not allow this. This is why today we have a doctor for the mind, a doctor for the body and a doctor for the spirit. Unfortunately this does not work as healing needs to be integrated in a mind, body, spirit framework to have any positive effect. So today, we have talk therapy which deals with the cognitive layers of mental illness. We also have psychiatry which prescribes drugs to help suppress emotional suffering. There has been some great progress, but many people find they are running around in circles when tackling mental and emotional issues from the layer of the mind and not perceiving them from the layer of the spirit. Yoga gives us asana as a tool to help balance the mind, in recognition that the mind and body are a reflection of each other. Meditation also shows us how to cultivate calm mind and helps break the addictive power of emotions in our nervous system responses. Both asana and meditation help people with childhood trauma, especially from abandonment and abuse, reassuring them that it is ok to feel our emotions and trust our feelings and our bodies.
Pranayama Kosha – the layer of the life-force
Trauma can effect this layer, because suppressing trauma takes a lot of energy and drains us of our life-force. Therefore traumatic parts of our lives must be integrated completely into our awareness before we can reclaim the life-force from these events, and move forward with our lives. In addition, when we are “down the rabbit hole” of fear, self-limiting beliefs and victim consciousness, we are dis-empowered and our life-force is depressed. To recover from past trauma, we need to recover energetically. We need to be able to recall these events in our memory and shift our perspective to an angle when we don’t feel dis-empowered whilst remaining in our authenticity. There is no one formula for this. Every situation is different. But we cannot change past outer event; we can only change our inside responses. Maybe we need to let go of some inherited or societal beliefs to shift our perspective; maybe we need to develop gratitude because traumas can help us create wisdom and depth in our relationship with ourselves and others, carving our path and making us who we are today. Each situation requires individual shifts to create growth and healing.
Annamaya Kosha – Physical layer
Sometimes trauma on the physical layer of our being has no mental, emotional or spiritual cause or relation. Out muscles, bones, tissues, organs can be traumatised simply by accidents. Even bad postural holdings, repetitive stress, sports, dance etc. can create a certain degree of trauma to our tissues. However sometimes there can be mental, energetic and spiritual layers to physical trauma, or looked at from a different perspective, the samskaras can manifest in our mind, karmic patterns in our relationships, our energetics and even our physical body. As mentioned earlier, suppressing trauma drains our energy. Suppressed trauma is held in the body and the body parts that hold that trauma can also become dissociated, lifeless, weak and numb. This can be the reason, why victims of trauma talk of “leaving their body”, they are leaving the site of the trauma. Today body-centered psychotherapy is becoming popular to help integrate trauma properly into people’s experience in a somatic, felt way. Yoga can also help in this process. Yoga strengthens the mind-body connection and as the body opens and strengthens, suppressed traumas often become alive again, asking for healing.
In addition, Yoga helps people to cultivate a healthy mind-body or psycho-somatic relationship. The separation of the spheres discussed earlier separated our minds from our bodies, so that many people have lost the felt sense of connection between the mental, emotional and physical layers of our self. Western medicine treats our bodies symptoms through prescribing drugs, without looking at the mental and emotional layers to physical pain and disease and people are so dissociated from their mind-body connection that they find it easier to suppress pain through drugs rather than work with the emotional load on their bodies. Sometimes people will say they feel emotionally “fine” after a trauma without knowing they are suppressing their emotions, but the body works at a different temporal frame to the ego and sometimes we need to learn how to slow down, to check in with and listen to our bodies, before our ego decides we are “fine”. Asana and Meditation help us develop the art of listening to our deeper selves and reweave the connections between body, mind and spirit to develop a sense of wholeness and health in all dimensions of self.