YS 1.11 – Anubhūta visayāsampramosah smritih

Memory (Smrti) is the calling up or retaining of past experiences.

The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali

The reasons for holding a secret – a kept and unspoken memory or piece of knowledge – are many: to surprise a loved one, to not hurt someone’s feelings; we keep secrets out of fear, pride or embarrassment. Those are the conscious secrets, the ones we are aware of, they are often silent and surface by a trigger, or a reminder in the form of a smell, a sight, a sound, a texture.

There are also those secrets we keep that we aren’t aware of. Unknown secrets that hide deep within the cells of our bodies: memories from before we had conscious memory, memories that have meanings which are too hard or subtle for us to understand and make sense of, memories unregistered by the conscious brain because of a trauma; memories and samskaras (impressions from past) leave subtle impressions and unconsciously affect our habits, self-perceptions, expectations or disposition.

Neuroscience shows that, in a traumatic event, the parts of our brain involved in memory formation and speech shut down. It is a form of protection, what we sometimes call “selective memory”. Our bodies, however, remember everything, so that input into our senses activates these hidden memories that might bring up images, but other times just affecting our mood or nervous system making us anxious, angry, scared or sad without an explanation at the conscious level.

Interoception is the brain’s ability to sense the internal state of the body and become aware of its feelings and needs. Interoceptive awareness opens up the pathways for secrets to be communicated, received and understood by our minds so that then they can be processed and or released. The most essential tools for this to happen are movement and breath, asana and pranayama. With these, stored memories arise, ideally within the safe space of our yoga practice, so that we can work through them and free ourselves from the impressions.

Different parts of our bodies hold different types of messages and feelings: It is believed that – the hips hide fear, anxiety and sadness or any moment related to them; the shoulders, where we “carry the weight of the world”, store the inability to let go and carry our burdens; the lower back keeps our guilt and repressed feelings; the knees are the joints of ego and pride, of the inability to bend; while neck pain is stubbornness, refusing to see the other side of the story. The chakras are keys to understanding our world of relationships. When the wheels turn they let the energy flow, when they don’t the energy gets blocked. Memory can be felt in the pain of a body part or in the blocked chakra, and can also be released through its movement.

In trauma therapy, addiction recovery, or in the treatment of mood disorders such as depression or anxiety – yoga allows practitioners to reconnect with the bodies they have often lost connection to. It provides an opportunity to rebuild the trust that was broken when it did not protect at the time of an accident or abuse, or when it did not warn of a disease. The repressed memories, mistrust in oneself and the surrounding world can resurface opening the way up for recovery, cleansing and moving forward. Yoga can allow us to become aware that we are able to know what we need and that we have the tools to give it to ourselves.

Many of us have been in a yoga class and felt emotions unexpectedly surface in the form of anger, stress, sadness or happiness. Often we don’t need to have suffered a traumatic event to experience disconnection from our bodies. For many of us, when we begin our yoga journey, simple instructions such as “right foot forward” or “bind left arm around right thigh” can seem like mathematical equations to get to the moon. Becoming acquainted with our hand, foot, or hip is the first step to opening up the lines of communication with one’s body and the emotions and memories it stores.

Yoga is that friend who sits across the table from you when you have a secret and can’t help yourself from telling them. Yoga is that friend who helps make sense of it all.

-Maria Macaya

Teaching Tips

  1. Teach classes that work on specific parts of the body such as hips, lower back, shoulders and explain the meaning behind the stored up memories, feelings and emotions in those areas.
  2. Work with the chakras and explain the relationship that is relevant to each area of the body.
  3. Teach strict vinyasa so that students can go within by using breath and movement as tools to create space for interoception.
  4. Allow for some time in class to hold an asana for longer period of time so deep-seated tension can dissipate.
  5. Use breath awareness and/or pranayama to create connection between body and mind and have an effect on the body’s neurophysiology.

Additional Information that may be useful:

According to researchers at the Justice Resource Institute, in order to reduce the chances of retraumatization, it is advised to respect a student’s needs or preference to not receive assists, practice near the door or keep the eyes open during savasana.

Dan Siegel’s “window of tolerance” is a useful tool when working with students with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. This theory says that it is best to meet students where they are and bring them to the window of tolerance – meet students suffering from anxiety or stress in an active mode through sun salutations and gradually bring them to a calmer practice, and meet student suffering from depression at a child’s pose and gradually bring them to a more active and strengthening practice.  The window of tolerance is that balanced emotional and physical state where hyper and hypo arousal, anxiety and depression or rajasic and tamasic states, are neither extreme nor long lasting, and where we are able to self regulate.

Tips for Empathy:

As yoga teachers, unless we are qualified therapists, our best tool to help our students is the tool of empathy. Empathy techniques aim to make the speaker feel heard and seen. For this it is recommended to listen attentively, to repeat what they say with same or similar sentences, or to use responses such as “I see that made you feel sad, or angry” giving a name to their feeling.  In empathy work, it is best to not give solutions nor to share comparable personal experience.

Recommended Reading:

Bessel van der Kolk – The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

David Emerson – Trauma Sensitive Yoga in Therapy – Bringing the Body into Treatment