It’s easy to think trauma is relatively rare; however, it’s far more commonplace than we like to believe. In fact, almost everybody has experienced some trauma in life. It may have been from a coach, bully, parent, sibling, war, assault, or accident, but the ubiquity of trauma is becoming more apparent as researchers and therapists plumb its depths.
When traumatized, your nervous system gets activated to fight, flight or freeze (sometimes numbness or dissociation). This is your body’s way of protecting you. In the moment it works beautifully, the problem is the effects can last and set up unconscious patterns of self-protection to keep you from experiencing that pain again.
This makes a lot of sense as most people want to avoid unpleasant or scary situations. While it can be incredibly helpful in the short run, it’s possible to overprotect oneself and end up living a constricted life.
Developing trust in your body is one aspect of healing that creates a sense of internal safety while keeping you open to new experiences. Qigong and yoga are two ancient practices that foster comfort and ease in a body that may feel unsafe, unlovable, or even scary, at times.
In an earlier piece on this site called The Holy Grail of Psychotherapy I spoke about the importance of feeling safe in one’s body and mind. Stephen Porges, the originator of the Triune Brain Theory, and a major researcher in trauma and its effects, recently said internal safety is the goal of trauma treatment.
While there are many ways to develop a sense of internal safety, I want to share one I’ve been experimenting with recently: qigong.
Qigong is an ancient Chinese mind-body exercise that predates tai chi, is very easy to learn, and is incredibly fluid. I have only been studying it for a short time, but have come to love its soothing effects on the nervous system, while it tones the body, deepens the breath, increases endurance, and calms the mind. In addition, many of the flowing poses utilize a spiral that crisscrosses back and forth over the body, synchronizing the left and right hemispheres, a very mentally balancing practice. (Walking with your arms swinging also syncs the hemispheres.)
Recently, as I was doing some beautiful, flowing qigong routines I was reminded of Rumi, the renowned Sufi poet and mystic (1207-1273), who started the whirling dervish dance tradition. This repetitive whirling is the epitome of moving meditation, often inducing trance states. While qigong does not involve repeating movements for such long periods, its calm, flowing, repetitive routines can be deeply meditative and centering.
I still love my yoga practice, but qigong gives me something yoga didn’t: flowing movements. Vinyasa yoga moves seamlessly from one pose to the next and once in a pose you typically hold it for five or more breaths. Qigong moves fluidly within and throughout the poses. Both offer calming, grounding practices and invigorating, energizing ones, and both pair breath with movement. They just do it differently.
Different stages of life call for different ways of working with the body. It can be a joy to listen to your body and try out new ways of experiencing it. Yoga and qigong help you feel connected to your physical self while calming the nervous system, so they give you time and space to pay attention to what feels good, safe, and healing.
For me, the fluidity of qigong’s seamless sequences feels very calming and gentle in my body, mind, emotions and spirit. I still do some yoga every day because it has been such a beautiful and supportive practice for so many years. Now, I’m adding some qigong as it nourishes me in a completely different, super loving way.
The key in choosing which physical practices will nurture and support you best is experimenting and listening to your body. Don’t just listen, but act on the knowledge your body provides. In my own experience as a swimmer I continued pushing myself even after swimming lost much of its luster for me. Ditto with hard yoga practices. Because old habits die hard, I pushed myself in my first 15+ years as a yogi, to achieve what I hoped was a beautiful, strong, flexible practice. Somehow, with qigong, and experience, I am able to truly relax into the sequences and let go of my lingering proclivity for perfection and achievement.
Just remember, each day your body will want something a bit different. With yoga and qigong you can even tailor the practice to accommodate injuries or conditions you might have. Just find a teacher who can carefully guide you through a therapeutic routine appropriate for your body or carefully experiment.
If you have experienced trauma take all body work slowly and pay close attention to how you feel. If something triggers you please stop and let yourself attend to what came up. If it’s really disturbing you might want to do some Tapping to re-regulate your nervous system. (See the Tapping post on this site for more information.) If your qigong feels as good as I hope it will, practice it daily as a conduit to a more compassionate, nurturing, safe relationship with yourself and a greater acceptance of your body, just as it is right now.
You may want to get started with some free YouTube videos. I recommend:
Each of these excellent teachers focuses on the mind and emotions as well as the routines, and each has a website with more content. I have taken Lee Holden’s 30 Day Challenge and loved it. His Mindfulness Through Movement video is just sublime. The website also offers some great short and free Qi Break videos.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang