Last week I spent a couple of days in New Hampshire at a workshop with a psychiatrist from Scotland named Frank Corrigan. He’s a brilliant clinician with a great accent (I laarned a lot).
His work is profound and meaningful – he helps clients heal the deep brain patterns of post-traumatic stress.
And while I’m not going to do a big brain science dump in this blog, I would like to pull out a couple of points Dr. Corrigan made that I think are really relevant to teaching yoga – particularly if you are interested in teaching trauma informed yoga and helping students rewire deep brain patterning that keeps them stuck in dysfunctional thought, feeling or behavior loops.
An important thing to understand about trauma is that while the symptoms of post traumatic stress may arise from a specific incident – a car accident, an attack, a rape, etc. – it’s not the whole story. The most distressing, long-term symptoms of PTS arise when the neural patterning for them is already laid down. And it gets laid down when you are an infant and your needs are not getting met.
In other words, the traumatic event alone is not the underlying source of post traumatic stress. Whether or not someone develops symptoms of PTS is largely dependent upon how their nervous system was wired as a baby and young child.
And no, that doesn’t mean you should blame your mother for everything.
What it does means is that for many complex (often generational) reasons, we don’t all get our needs met as infants (or even in utero). The less those needs are met, the more likely we will develop protracted symptoms of post traumatic stress when we encounter a big “T” trauma as an adult.
Here’s a model of brain development from Dr. Bruce Perry – who’s done a lot of work with kids and trauma. (Once when I was teaching, I accidentally called him Steve Perry. As far as I know, he was not an 80s pop icon. Sorry, menopausal hippocampal disruptions).
What Dr. Perry is trying to show here is that the deeper more primitive parts of the brain develop first and are foundational to our thoughts, feelings and behaviors later in life. The brain builds from the bottom up. The older parts are laid down first and that means that they are harder to change – they are less plastic.
But when we are dealing with trauma symptoms that manifest as dysfunction in things like body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, sleep (as well as inflammation and neuroendocrine activity), talk therapy alone will not suffice, we have to get down to the brainstem.
And you get there through the body.
In order to shift the symptoms of PTS, you have to get under the thinking, rational front brain, and even under the limbic emotional brain and address the dysfunction at the very primitive mid-brain.
One point Dr. Corrigan emphasized again and again is this: if you don’t slow down, you won’t get there. You’ll pass right by. If you want to connect the conscious front brain to the deep brain in order to make changes, you have to go slow and you have to pay attention to sensations in the body because these are what inform deep brain patterning.
As a yoga teacher, if you want to support trauma treatment, then it is a great idea to help your students slow down and notice the sensations in their bodies.
Here’s another point: Dr. Corrigan said that there is something very important about self touch in healing. Self-touch “at the level of the innate connection system is very soothing.” It can take us back to the patterns that were laid down in infanthood and help rewire the brain via healthy, soothing touch.
A particularly important area is the back of the neck. Again, as a yoga teacher, if you want to support trauma treatment, weaving a little soothing self touch into your classes is easy. At the beginning of the class or at the beginning of savasana, ask students to place their hands on the back of their neck very gently with a feeling of kindness and compassion. Perhaps with a little bit of gentle massage. Focus on the area between the skull and the top of the neck as it’s particularly enervated.
I’m not suggesting that yoga alone is enough to heal the brain from the ravages of trauma and traumatic shock. And I think as yoga professionals we need to be crystal clear about that.
But I do think that yoga can be a very important adjunct to whatever therapy you or your clients are using to heal trauma.