In order to understand what our body needs in times of stress or post-trauma, we first have to understand what happens in our bodies.
Stress and post-trauma responses get more intense when our physical stress system is more out of balance, which is caused by too much adrenaline-like or too much cortisol-like chemicals. The first speed us up and give us energy, sharpness and anxiety or anger (flight-fight response), the latter cause among other reactions a slow and shut down, pain relief, calmness or depression.
It is important to know that these are normal physical reactions in a body that is designed to survive. These reactions are definitely not signs of weakness, as we use to think. On the contrary, our body is showing its survival skills, its strength.
Stress and trauma affect us on all levels, mentally, physically and spiritually, so there is also a wide range of skills and tools that can help us to strengthen our resilience on all those levels. In this series we focus on what our bodies need most.
The first 'tool' we can use to reduce the intensity of our physical reactions, is to breathe deep, deeper than we normally do. When we are under heavy stress, we breathe very shallow, filling and emptying only the upper part of the lungs. That might be precisely why we cannot think clearly and speak coherently in those moments, the brain lacks oxygen. Deep breathing, filling and emptying our whole torso, brings much needed oxygen to the brain by which we start to gain clarity. And it doesn't stop there. The deep, regular in- and exhalation causes the blood pressure to drop, the heart-rate decreases, the adrenaline and cortisol levels go down and we become calmer.
It is worth the effort to teach ourselves to breathe properly, because the quality of our breathing also determines largely whether we will stay healthy or not. Imagine, in the course of one single day about 20,000 liters of blood flows through the veins of our lungs. When not enough fresh air reaches the lungs, our blood can not be purified and keeps transporting waste throughout our body. Moreover, our body simply lacks oxygen, which weakens all its functions. All cells, of every organ, muscle, bone and tissue, and from our digestive to the nervous system, depends on blood, so impure and insufficiently oxygenated blood leads to less body strength, irritable nerves, loss of mental abilities and disease.
There are many ways to breathe better. Yoga with awareness of the breath is one of them. During the yoga exercises leads the breath the movements, not the other way round. In recovery, a closer awareness of the body and breath is very important, because it helps us to notice urges and triggers in an earlier state so that we can act upon them before they lead us astray.
The full-bodied 'yogi breath' is the one that we can use to cleanse our system thoroughly. It uses all the respiratory muscles, which are in the abdomen, the diaphragm, the midrib and chest muscles. It is invaluable to our body because it provides us with the largest amount of air and prana.
Directions Full Yogi Breath:
Besides reducing earlier described, acute stress responses, it can also prevent other reactions, like hyper-ventilation and migraine. It isn't necessary to do this full yogi-breath continuously, but 5 x 3 times a day is recommended during 6 weeks. After 6 weeks you have probably developed a better way of breathing.
Another breathing technique that we can learn from yogi masters is the 'alternate nostril breath', that balances the left and right side of the brain, which helps clearing the mind and the nervous system. If you have difficulties sleeping, this is a good one.
Directions Alternate Nostril Breathing:
All given information and exercises are meant as merely information and never aim to replace advise or therapy from a medical professional.
Trauma and Recovery – Judith Lewis Herman
The Power and Price of Survival – Pamela Woll
The Yogi-science of Breathing – Yogi Ramacharaka
When love beckons to you, follow him,
though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you, yield to him,
though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you, believe in him,
though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
so shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart,
and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,
and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives nothing but itself and takes nothing but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart," but rather, "I am in the heart of God."
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.