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Samskaras and Untangling Trauma


Trauma. It is a loaded word that like everything, manifests in many different ways and for different reasons. Who knows why some people are traumatized by some things and others go unscathed? Psychotherapists such as Freud and Jung believed this has to do with the stable base that you did or didn’t have between pre-birth and aged five. Yogis believe it has to do with karma, that what you have put out into the world in past lives and this life comes back to you, eventually but inevitably. Of course, for most of us life seems more complicated than that, and past lives are not something that register routinely in the memory bank.

Whether it was an early experience, or something more recent that brings up a phantom of the past, no one tells you what the repercussions of trauma may be, and what is more, it is difficult to know what the triggers might be of any one given experience. The dictionary defines trauma as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”, and it is safe to assume that the most of us have had one or two a few of those.

In yoga philosophy, there is a term called samskaras, which mean impressions, or grooves, that are left in the subconscious mind. It is as if our mind were a record, and the grooves, or samskaras determine what tune we will play. The samskaras colour our nature and how we act and react in the world.

In a way, we might consider that fascia in the body is a little bit like literal samskaras. Stressful experiences that we have can be stored in the fascia and create tensions and knots which impact how we inhabit our body, how we move, and even how we think and react. When we start to heat the tissue through movements such as yoga, or receiving bodywork like Rolfing, areas of the body that have been deeply held closed for any period of time begin to open, and the original experiences can present in any number of ways, including as anger, anxiety, fear, or grief.

Last year I underwent a rather massive surgery in the form of a liver transplant, and while I was not told I would be left traumatized, the eight weeks spent in the hospital post-operatively were riddled with the potential ‘distressing experiences’, not to mention the few years prior to the transplant in and out of the hospital. The human body is clever, and knows when to cloak and hold on to something for something for survival purposes, and when it is safe to unveil itself so healing can begin. I was in a yoga class the other day when at the beginning of class we were told to make an action with the arms that deeply affected an area that had been the centre of physical trauma during my hospital stay. Within five minutes into the class, I was reduced to a bucket of tears. Given my 56-day stay in the hospital with ongoing cannulation and daily blood tests, I already had an awareness of the tension and tightness in my forearms and have been having various sorts of alternative therapies to address it. Nevertheless, I was surprised at my sudden outburst (and a little embarrassed). It’s like my father used to say, ‘you never know what is going to have an impact on someone, you might say the sky is blue today and that just might be their trigger.’ Years later, I finally really get what he was trying to say.

Given that most of us have experienced some distressing or disturbing experience in life, how can we move through our day causing the least impact on those around us in a sensitive space? Here are a few suggestions:

-Never assume you know what someone else is experiencing. Even when we know a little bit about the circumstance, we never really know.

-Listen more, talk less. Trauma can feel chaotic and overwhelming. Give your friend space to speak, or not. Holding a space is about being present and compassionate with all there is.

-Don’t try to solve the problem or fix your friend. Empathize, instead of sympathize.

I was very fortunate to be in the class with a teacher who knew me and who said exactly the right thing. She told me she didn’t want me to be in any pain, and I should go do something nice for myself. Wise words, Helen Sylianou. Thank you.

A last note. Bodywork can be an amazing source for unleashing emotions and experiences that have been long held in the body and mind, that, when untreated can even lead to chronic pain or worse, disease. For those who have suffered deeply traumatic experiences, I recommend craniosacral therapy as a first stop. Noninvasive and gentle, craniosacral therapy aims to relax the body and fascial tissue into a state where it can begin to unwind itself, at the same time bringing balance and calm to the whole system. Once the body is ready, Rolfing is a more direct intervention into the tissue that can change the whole structure rather dramatically, but can be a more physically intense experience. These are the two methods that have has the most profound and transformative affect on me, and coincidentally, they are also now my two methods of practice.

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