The vagus nerve, brain, emotions and why mindfulness can be difficult but yoga a solution

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is one of the world’s leading authorities on trauma and has pioneered his use of yoga as a therapy. He was a guest lecturer when I did my Yoga Therapy training with The Minded Institute, and I look forward to learn more from him this summer when I will attend a  3 day conference, Attachment and Trauma, where he will be one of the speakers.

“Now, many people who don’t know a lot about trauma think that trauma has something to do with something that happened to you a long time ago. In fact, the past is the past and the only thing that matters is what happens right now. And what is trauma is the residue that a past event leaves in your own sensory experiences in your body and it’s not that event out there that becomes intolerable but the physical sensations with which you live that become intolerable and you will do anything to make them go away.” (Bessel van der Kolk)

Bessel Van der Kolk: “what makes life unbearable is not emotions but physical sensations.”

“When you have a persistent sense of heartbreak and gut wrench, the physical sensations become intolerable and we will do anything to make those feelings disappear. And that is really the origin of what happens in human pathology. People take drugs to make it disappear, and they cut themselves to make it disappear, and they starve themselves to make it disappear, and they have sex with anyone who comes along to make it disappear and once you have these horrible sensations in your body, you’ll do anything to make it go away.”

“If these sensations last long enough, your whole brain starts fighting against emotions. And what happens in the long range is that traumatised people who continuously have a state of heartbreak and gut wrenching feelings learn to shut off the sensations in their bodies. And they go through life not feeling their physical presence.”

– “it’s a beginning of understanding why traumatised people have such a hard time with mindfulness and why mindfulness in principle doesn’t work for traumatised people because they cannot feel.”

Bessel van der Kolk noticed that many traumatised people that he had sent to do a mindfulness training were struggling and came back feeling frustrated, often feeling upset and agitated.

“As they became silent and started to pay attention to themselves, they get overwhelmed with the physical sensations and they would flee, because being mindful means that you get confronted with your internal world.” In other words, the sensations of the internal world can be so intense that, lacking the tools to work through those sensations, people dissociate during mindfulness exercises.

In his search for self-regulation for traumatised individuals van der Kolk started a Yoga practice and he found yoga to be a way where people can start to feel safe while feeling their physical sensations and a way to find a quiet practice of stillness.


Like Bessel van der Kolk, I also believe and have witnessed over the years that bodywork and somatic re-education (TRE, Yoga, Qigong, Acupuncture, Massage and also Cold Therapy) are essential components to releasing and restoring function to tissues and organs that have lost mobility due to years of fleeing from those physical sensations that van der Kolk describes. We may learn to stay present with our physical sensations, and the practice of TRE and Yoga plus other therapies could help to loosen up our body tissues to achieve homoeostasis where the body can start to heal again.

The 8 Week Yoga Therapy for the Mind Course that I teach and also the Yoga Therapy Vitality Program both work very well for healing from trauma, both courses are what you call “trauma sensitive” and I learned in my Yoga Therapy Study with The Minded Institute skills in working with this population and how to create safe programs that work and aid in healing.

Both courses are suitable for those with anxiety and depression as well as anyone wanting to reduce their stress levels and increase their general well-being as I believe we all have our share of trauma’s, we sometimes and often just don’t remember them.






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