If you have undertaken a vipassana meditation retreat or a Zen Session, or even a yoga class, you might be familiar with the instruction “sit still, be with your experience, no matter how difficult it might be, sit still”.
I have undertaken many meditation retreats following this traditional instruction. But this approach is now understood to be outmoded. The problem is that all too often the students capacity is not able to handle the strong emotions, physical sensations, or painful thoughts, memories and images that flood their experience.
Too often the meditator is overwhelmed and can even be traumatised as a result.
The below quote on Vipassana is from trauma expert Laurence Heller Phd.
Vipassana… is a powerful tool, however, it can potentially open meditators to painful or overwhelming affective states that they are not equipped to process. We have worked with many individuals who during meditation retreats became anxious and overwhelmed by their emotions.
Any system of self exploration that does not take into consideration trauma and attachment issues and the resulting disrupted functioning of the nervous system creates the danger of dysregulating and re-traumatizing it’s practitioners.
One of Eckhart Tolle’s core principles is that nothing that happened in the past can keep us from being fully in the present moment. Although theoretically true, this orientation can be hurtful to those who have experienced trauma and suffer significant nervous system disorganisation.
Traumatised individuals, which includes most of us to differing degrees, need both top down and bottom up approaches that address nervous system imbalances as well as issues of identity. Many people recognise the “power of now” as Tolle calls it, but because of their nervous system dysregulation they are unable to remain in the present moment. Falling short of this ideal becomes another reason for individuals with trauma to feel bad about themselves (Healing Developmental Trauma Laurence Heller PHD).
Over the years I have observed the healing affect of yoga and meditation in many students, but it must be said that, yoga and meditation has the potential to re-traumatise the practitioner. Bessel Van der Kolk, a leading expert in the field of trauma reminds yoga teachers that Happy Baby Pose for many is anything but happy baby pose.
Still, yoga and meditation are rightly recommended as disciplines that are highly effective in the treatment of trauma and post traumatic stress.
The approach to practice is all important. First and foremost the individuality of the student must be respected. For example In yoga studios the same class is taught to many students, but in reality there is no class that fits all. There are many benefits to practicing the same sequence in a group, but the teacher must remind students that they are free to modify the posture to fit how they feel in that moment. In my yoga classes I constantly remind students to practice as if they are the only person in the room, to adapt and modify the postures based on sensation, to rest when they need to, and to feel free to omit postures or even entire sections of the class.
For meditation we need to support the student in their stillness but allow the student to feel it is ok to find ways of modulating their experience and their practice. If seated meditation is too difficult then try walking meditation, if thirty minutes is too long then try ten, if walking meditation is too difficult try vinyasa yoga, or play classical music. What is important is to find a point where there is sufficient orientation to the external environment, to the here and now, while slowly being able to move inwards, to slowly process the internal content, the difficult visceral sensations, emotions, memories etc.
As yoga teachers we are very privileged. We can support our students in their journey to finding balance in their lives. We can support the regulation of their nervous systems, so that the sensations they experience in their bodies are joyful and pleasurable, so that they are able to remain present, and when difficult content does arrive it is contained, and is not overwhelming.
For teachers and students alike, this is a constant process. I am writing this blog in the awareness that my own visceral experience is often overwhelming, and I look for ways to sooth my nervous system, however maladapted they may be. My primary modes are food and alcohol. It is useful to recognise how we respond to stress, so that we can begin to understand the strong currents that are moving us in this life, and hopefully find new healthy ways to restore balance.