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Somatic Yoga Therapy for Releasing Trauma Held in the Body

Updated: Apr 15

When I first started out on my yoga journey, I thought that healing was only found in the gentle spaces of the parasympathetic nervous system. Over twenty years later, I now understand that sometimes, we need to get a little messy so that we can allow certain things to move through our bodies.

A lot of the time, this movement is found in the spaces of the sympathetic nervous system. While I will always be an advocate for trauma-aware practice and for doing things with the wisdom of the body, the truth is, sometimes the body will tell you that it wants to express something in a LOUD way.

The following practice is one that I use with my clients in those times when their body is communicating loudly and is already in a sympathetic state, either feeling revved in fight/flight or like a trapped animal, where the body feels stuck, but the mind is in high gear.

Somatic Yoga Therapy Practice for Releasing Trauma Held in the Body

This practice invites heat to the body through the Fire Element. Gradually beginning at the feet, we work our way into the legs and hips and eventually come into the abdomen. Components of this work are inspired by David Bercelli’s research on neurogenic tremors and tension release and Polyvagal Exercises by Stephen Porges and Stanley Rosenburg.

Begin in a standing position, bringing awareness to the feet. Allow your body to rock from front to back and side to side, bringing sensation to the soles and toes. Look at your feet and encourage the connection between your mind and your body. Acknowledging that these feet are YOUR feet. Explore what is available for you to feel.

As you connect with your feet, begin to invite a lifting of the heels, allowing them to drop to the floor over and over. Feeling the sensation through your calves, allow the arms to swing and for your breath to exit the body with a ‘HA’ sound. Continue to thump the heels over and over until your calves feel exhaustion.

As you connect with your calves, invite sensation to move into your thighs. You can choose to lean against a wall and sink into a wall sit orientation or can lower into a chair pose without the use of the wall. Allow the pose to bring the sensation to your legs. Again, making the connection between your mind and your legs. Allow yourself to feel your legs and the heat that is building in your body. Allow your breath to move into a circular pattern, inviting the inhale and exhale to roll fluidly from one breath into the other. As the sensation builds in your legs, allow any natural shaking that arises to move through you.

This may prompt you to question your cultural conditioning around the experience of shaking. For many of us, part of our trauma experience and the reason that we hold tension in our bodies is that we have conditioned ourselves to shut down the natural shaking process that occurs when we encounter a stressor. I like to think of allowing this shaking as a defiant act of reclamation, where I take back my body as my home and allow it to express all those things it wasn’t allowed to say at the time of my trauma experience. I like to reframe this shaking entirely and think of it as being similar to the haka of the Māori culture. As a powerful expression of strength as you allow your body do, what it was made to do.

As the sensations in your legs build, allow yourself to dance in and out of the pose. Straighten the legs for a moment and come back into it, perhaps a little higher than you held yourself before. You are playing with finding the place in your body where you are stuck and where you need to move. This location may be different every time. The point is to allow the shaking and to allow yourself to feel. When you feel satiated with this exploration, move into a standing forward fold with your hands resting on a supportive surface and just allow any remaining tremors to move through you.

In the next exploration, bring yourself to a kneeling orientation on the floor. I suggest having a pad under your knees. Draw one leg out to the side so that you are stretching into the inner thigh muscles. You may find that you continue to hold some shaking here. If not, explore lifting the heel up and down until you find a place where there is held tension wanting to release. You can also place your arms on a supportive surface, such as a chair, and lift your back leg, coming up on the toes. You may find some tension-releasing through the back hip or may wish to explore this expression by drawing your knee down toward the floor and then back up again, continuing to explore for areas of held tension. When one leg feels complete, move to the opposite leg. (You can choose to skip this section entirely and move directly to the floor in future sessions.)

Bringing your body to the floor, lie down on your back with your feet planted on the floor and your knees bent. Slowly move your legs from side to side. Feel into your low back, your inner, and your outer thighs. Connect with your breath.

When you feel ready, allow the knees to draw wide and place the feet near one another. Slowly, to the count of 10 or 15, draw the knees together. Continue to draw together and apart, noticing areas of held tension and allowing any shaking that arises. Pause and lean into any areas where there is shaking and stay with it. Allow your breath to move through you. You may observe bouncing, rocking, shaking, swaying, trembling. All these things are normal and may even travel up through the pelvis into the abdomen. If you feel safe with allowing this to continue, all these things are very normal. Just allow the process and practice cultivating trust within your own body.

Should you wish to stop at any time, apply the breaks, by taking your body out of the pose, fully extending your legs, and squeezing through all your muscles. Then, roll onto your belly and come into a polyvagal stretch by propping up onto your elbows and looking over your shoulder. Stay here until you feel your body returning to its place of EASE.

Check-in with your body. A lot of people feel done at this point. If this is the case you may wish to spend some time in a restful position, allowing your body to integrate and process the work you have done. If you would like to spend more time releasing, you can come back into the previous pose and continue the unwinding process. In my own experience, what also happens at this point is that the body feels heard and begins to open up to you, to speak with its own words through discomfort and tension, expressed in other areas of your body. These expressions are helpful for working with a somatic therapist for following your body’s lead in unwinding the trauma you have carried in your tissues.

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