Yoga, Empathy, and Letting Go of Genetic, Ancestral Pain

I have an empathic friend, I’ll call Lisa, who’s been teaching yoga for many years. She told me that she recently attended a large family gathering and while it was fun catching up with her relatives, underneath the celebratory mood she sensed some deep currents of pain and sadness. 

“I come from an extended family full of alcoholism, but most of my relatives are in recovery,” she explained. “So, while it’s a lot of fun to see everyone, and there’s so much hope, there’s also a lot of pain. And it’s weird because I feel like it’s deeper than my living relatives, like we are somehow carrying the pain of our ancestors.”

Psychologists have long known that the way children are raised impacts their development and their capacity for resilience. Poor resilience results in many chronic health challenges later in life.

This idea was analyzed by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study which demonstrated strong correlations between childhood trauma and subsequent adult behavioral issues like alcoholism, overeating, and smoking; as well as chronic health conditions in adulthood like heart disease, stroke, some cancers, chronic lung diseases, etc.

 

 

The study revealed some mind boggling connections like, for example, there’s a stronger correlation between adverse childhood experiences and lung cancer than there is between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer (yes, you read that correctly – yikes!)

If you are raised by folks who don’t deal well with stress, you tend to grow up with a less resilient nervous system – and you tend to utilize the same coping mechanisms as your caregivers. If Dad dealt with stress by retreating to read the Wall Street Journal and drink whiskey in his study, and mom by yelling, chain smoking Virginia Slims, and drinking wine, you have learned that this is how grownups deal with stress, and you are likely to default to these strategies too, or to similar ones.

But this is only the nurture part of the classic nature vs. nurture argument.

Of course we learn behaviors from the grownups around us – because that’s what we see modeled. But the nature part of the equation is that the potential for these behaviors is actually embedded in our genes, specifically in the chemical coating on our chromosomes.   

Our responses to stress and trauma (including the nightmares we have) are carried in our genetic memory.

Scientists have studied the effect of the Holocaust, the Civil War, the Holodomor (a mass starvation of Ukrainians from 1932 to 1933 under Stalin), the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, the American Indian displacement, and African-American slavery and found that transgenerational trauma not only leaves deep psychological imprints down the line, but it also leaves genetic imprints.

The stress of your grandmother, while pregnant with your mother, can actually affect your present-day response to stress and your capacity for resilience.

And there’s other research which suggests that generational trauma is passed down even more strongly through the father’s side of the family.

So, what Lisa intuited (and many indigenous cultures have long known) as a sense that she and her relatives carry the pain of their ancestors, is not New Age woo, it’s actually scientifically valid.

If you are empathic like Lisa, or think of yourself as someone who feels things a bit too deeply at times, please know that you’re not crazy and you’re not alone. You carry the genetic impressions of some horrible things that happened to your ancestors and so do all the people around you. And it’s normal and okay to feel that pain.

 

The question is: What can I do about it?

First, I think it’s important to reframe tendencies toward empathy, sensitivity, and deep feelings as a gift, not a curse. The capacity to feel others’ emotions, including pain, is the very definition of empathy – which is something the world needs pretty badly right now. And empathy is actually good for you – it lowers stress, helps you make good decisions in your interactions and relationships, and helps you tune in to, and act on, your ethics and values.

Next, it can be useful to remember that the ancestors live in us not to simply torture us with their pain and trauma, but also to gift us with their wisdom.

Still, it’s important to access ways to release the trauma of the past and lighten our genetic baggage. Science shows that we can make changes to our genes through lifestyle behaviors. In effect, we can consciously change aspects of our genes.

Yoga Support 

Yoga lifestyle or dinacaryā includes making time for practice, hanging out with supportive, uplifting people (satsaṅga), working on relationships, eating well, getting quality rest, and volunteering our time (seva). These practices can help shift ancestral pain and create new, healthier genetic expressions (saṃskāra) to pass down to future generations.

In my personal experience, I use many of the above and a daily letting go ritual to help diminish my stress load. I begin by recognizing any pain or heaviness that I feel and acknowledging it with self-compassion. Like butterflies, we can’t transform without some struggle and dealing with emotional pain is a necessary part of human existence.

Next, I visualize the pain as beautiful colors and I allow those colors to coalesce into beautiful flowers. Then I offer the flowers to my internal image of Īśvara – my own, personal idea of God or the divine.

That last part is important – defining your Īśvara. This word essentially means the entity or energy that protects and shelters you from all the storms of life. It’s through a relationship with Īśvara that you strengthen śraddhā – faith. And faith, when it comes right down to it, is the ultimate protective factor for health and wellbeing (there’s strong research on this, but I’ll save that for another blog).

The wisdom of the ancestors that lives within can point us to Īśvara – I’m not saying that you need to follow the same religion as your ancestors. But there is an ancestral spiritual heritage, much deeper than any religious dogma, that can be a guide toward the shelter of Īśvara. Meditation, prayer and ritual all can be part of revealing that connection.

The road to adulthood starts with internalizing your parents.

And the internal parent is actually Īśvara. Īśvara is the entity, energy or deity who takes care of you, who unburdens you, who gladly receives and transforms the ancestral pain you carry. It can also be helpful to understand Īśvara as intimately intertwined with ancestral spiritual wisdom. 

A relationship with Īśvara provides the opportunity, whenever you need it, to remember that you are internally, unconditionally, and inexhaustibly supported by that internalized parent.

When you develop a relationships with Īśvara you begin to know where you’ve come from and who you are, and it’s that knowledge that can help you move forward in life, with a sense of kindness, compassion, and empathy that doesn’t necessarily or incessantly drag you down and exhaust you.

Rather than shutting down to emotional pain, you can gently open to it. You can feel the pain, but also have a sense of what to do with it. And this, I believe, is the way we become stronger and kinder, lead happier lives, and pass resilient characteristics (and genes) on to future generations.

Do you have any rituals you use to release ancestral pain? Please share in the comments.

I also want to add that somatically oriented therapy is always a great option – you don’t have to do this alone.

 

Please check out my online course, “The Science of Slow” which will help you explain to your students the benefits of slow, mindful practice and help them understand why the time they spend with you is just as important as any other fitness or self-care activity they regularly engage in.