Interoception: A Key to Wellbeing | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Interoception Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Mindful body awareness awakens you to your inner world…this sensory interior is scientifically referred to as interoception. This key to wellbeing invites you to pay attention to your felt sense. As you get to know the territory of your inner landscape you will learn to trust your gut as a kind of compass that wisely guides your decisions and actions in the world. 

Dr. Stephen Porges, who offered us polyvagal theory, refers to interoception as our sixth sense that allows us to become aware of our instinctual responses to our environment (Porges, 2011). Your vagus nerve communicates all of your body’s sensory cues to your brain—a process that occurs without conscious awareness.

When you pay attention to your internal feedback, you not only enhance your emotional intelligence but can learn to carry this wisdom into the world in a manner that enhances your health and relationships.

Interoception and Embodiment

Interoception Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Embodiment is best thought of as a combination of input from three sensory feedback systems: exteroception, interoception, and proprioception. 

  • Exteroception refers to your five senses that help you process what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. 
  • Interoception involves sensory perceptions from inside your body, such as changes in temperature, tension, or pain. These sensations give you feedback about whether you are hungry, thirsty, unwell, or sleepy. Interoception also helps you recognize when you are feeling emotions. 
  • Proprioception refers to the ability to sense your body in space as related to gravity. Proprioception relies on your vestibular system, which is housed in your inner ear and in the joints of your body. 

These three sensory feedback systems come together in awareness to form your sense of self and help you respond to your environment.

Neuroception

Interoception Dr. Arielle Schwartz

We are wired to respond to cues of threat in our environment, and that this occurs without conscious awareness. Porges (2004) refers to this process as neuroception which he defines as the innate ability of the nervous system to detect cues of safety, danger, and life-threat. Reacting to threats can lead to a buildup of irritability, restlessness, or anxiety; yet, we might not be aware of the cause of these feelings. Nonetheless, this undercurrent of activation can impact our ability to rest, digest, or sleep. We might find these cues in the voice tone, body language, or facial expressions of other people. At times, we might also be responding to internal bodily sensations which can sometimes lead to a vicious cycle of increasing anxiety. 

If you have experienced trauma in your history, you might have developed a highly sensitized or desensitized nervous system. If you are highly sensitive or hypervigilant, you might experience repeated false positives in which you detect a threat even where there is no risk to your safety. In contrast, if you are desensitized, you may tend to ignore indications of threat and therefore be prone to engaging with high-risk individuals, environments, or behaviors.

Interoception is the best way to increase your awareness of these neuroceptive cues.

Interoception and Wellbeing

While we may not always be aware of our unconscious responses to our environment, we can increase our ability to perceive whether we are in a defensive state of nervous system arousal by paying attention to our somatic experience. This process involves attending to interoception through embodied self-awareness. 

Interoceptors are the sensory receptors located in the heart, stomach, liver, intestines, and other organs in the body. Interoceptive feedback is communicated to the brain via the vagus nerve. As we learn to pay attention to state of the nervous system we can better discern whether the response we are having is an accurate reflection of our circumstances. For example, we can use our sensory awareness of the here-and-now to ascertain if we are reacting fearfully in a situation that is actually safe. 

Fine-tuning this discriminating awareness can take time, especially when you have a trauma history where you have had to override your gut instinct for the sake of survival. With practice, you will gain familiarity with your body’s signals and recognize the false positives and true signals of threat.

Building Embodied Self-Awareness

Drawing your senses away from the outer world can be challenging when you have a history of trauma. When you have had to attend to your environment for extended periods of time, your attentional focus can start to feel stuck in this manner. You might find it difficult to let down your guard because you fear that you will be unable to protect yourself without it. Or you might fear that your body will begin to relax, which gives you greater access to your emotions. In short, letting go of your defenses can feel vulnerable.

One way to build your capacity for interception is by cultivating dual awareness. Dual awareness involves noticing environmental cues that let you know you are safe now while simultaneously paying attention to uncomfortable sensations or emotions for brief periods of time. For example, you might look around your healing space and focus your eyes on external cues of safety, such as the sky outside your window, until you feel calm and at ease. Then you might begin to orient your attention to your body. It can help to start by noticing the feeling in your fingers and toes or the movement of air through your nose as you breathe.

As you continue, you might feel more capable of paying attention to your internal sensations, such as the temperature of your body or the feeling of your breath moving in and out of your belly. If at any point an emotion or sensation feels overly distressing, you can return your attention to your external cues of safety. Eventually, you might feel comfortable paying attention to patterns of physical tension or the weight of any emotional burdens you carry. Most importantly, be gentle with yourself.

Interoception In Practice

Interoception Dr. Arielle Schwartz

This practice invites you to explore your own interoceptive awareness by exploring a seated mindfulness practice with your eyes open…and then with your eyes closed. Often, when our awareness is hypervigilant to the world, we begin to feel fatigued. It depletes your resources. The antidote is nourish your body and mind by turning the lens of your attention inside. You can think of this process as directing your life-force energy toward yourself. Ideally, this provides a respite from the outer world and is a way to nourish yourself with self-awareness.

  • To begin, take some time to orient yourself to the safety of your current surroundings. Find a comfortable seat and notice your body sensations, your breath, and any emotions that are present for you in this moment. With your eyes open, see if you can find a visual cue that helps you feel supported and safe. Notice your sensations, emotions, thoughts, and level of energy. This will serve as a baseline and will allow you to notice subtle changes in how you feel throughout the practice.
  • If you would like, explore closing your eyes and noticing your internal sensations. If at any point this feels too vulnerable you can simply reopen your eyes and return your attention to your external visual cue of safety. Notice if you prefer to keep your eyes open or closed. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to respond to any mindfulness practice. You are welcome to go back and forth between taking you attention to your internal sensations and external sensory awareness. 
  • Begin to notice to whether it feels easy or difficult for you to sit still. Are you moving more or less than usual? Do you feel lethargic or sluggish? Do you feel collapsed or slumped? Do you feel frozen or excessively still? Do you feel relaxed and at ease? 
  • Notice how much space you want to take up right now. Do you feel expansive, or do you feel an urge to curl up and make yourself small?
  • Begin to notice how you are breathing. Do you notice a tendency to hold your breath? Are you breathing in a shallow manner? Does your breath feel quickened, or do you notice a shortness of breath, like you cannot get enough oxygen? Are you breathing freely and easily?
  • Do you notice your heartbeat? Does this feel rapid or accelerated? Are you sweating more than usual? Notice the overall quality of your energy. Do you feel vigilant and on high alert? Do you feel foggy or fatigued? Do you feel relaxed and at ease?
  • Now, gather a general sense of your body. See if you can welcome yourself just as you are in this moment. Are you aware of any internal sensations that give you feedback about how you are feeling right now? Slowly direct your awareness to the sensations in your face…neck…arms…hands…chest…back…belly…pelvis…legs…and feet.
  • As you take in the feedback from your body sensations, do you sense anything you might need right now to enhance your experience of connection to yourself and safety in your environment. Perhaps take some time to reflect upon any changes you might need to make to best support your body and mind.

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Dr. Arielle Schwartz

This post has excerpts from the book, Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery,

This book introduces you to the power of the yogic philosophy and offers a variety of accessible yoga poses and breathing practices that will allow you to:

  • Nourish your nervous system
  • Reconnect with your body
  • Ground yourself in the present moment
  • Release unresolved patterns of fight, flight, freeze, or faint
  • Widen your ability to tolerate emotional discomfort
  • Develop a felt sense of resilience
  • Anchor yourself in self-love
  • Reclaim connection with and trust in your body
  • Create a personalized yoga practice for your own self-care

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Photo Credit: Jes Kimak

Arielle Schwartz, PhD, is a psychologist, internationally sought-out teacher, yoga instructor, and leading voice in the healing of PTSD and complex trauma. She is the author of five books, including The Complex PTSD WorkbookEMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology, and The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook.

Dr. Schwartz is an accomplished teacher who guides therapists in the application of EMDR, somatic psychology, parts work therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of trauma and complex PTSD. She guides you through a personal journey of healing in her Sounds True audio program, Trauma Recovery. 

She has a depth of understanding, passion, kindness, compassion, joy, and a succinct way of speaking about very complex topics. She is the founder of the Center for Resilience Informed Therapy in Boulder, Colorado where she maintains a private practice providing psychotherapy, supervision, and consultation. Dr. Schwartz believes that that the journey of trauma recovery is an awakening of the spiritual heart.

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery Book

Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga

Therapeutic yoga book Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery

Trauma recovery is as much about healing the body as it is the mind.

Yet, so often, the focus of healing involves retelling the story of the past without addressing the physiological imbalances that trauma leaves in its wake.

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery bridges this path of healing between the psyche and the body by walking you through the sacred practice of yoga so you can release the burdens of trauma from your body and mind.

Grounded within the principles of polyvagal theory, affective neuroscience, and trauma-informed care, this book will help you gain a better understanding of how our brains and bodies respond to stress and trauma and offer a self-led healing journey toward feeling more empowered, grounded, clearheaded, inspired, and at ease.

This book introduces you to the power of the yogic philosophy and offers a variety of accessible yoga poses and breathing practices that will allow you to:

  • Nourish your nervous system
  • Reconnect with your body
  • Ground yourself in the present moment
  • Release unresolved patterns of fight, flight, freeze, or faint
  • Widen your ability to tolerate emotional discomfort
  • Develop a felt sense of resilience
  • Anchor yourself in self-love
  • Reclaim connection with and trust in your body
  • Create a personalized yoga practice for your own self-care

Based upon Dr. Schwartz’s Vagus Nerve Yoga, Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery walks you through the sacred path of yoga to facilitate your own courageous journey of self-discovery that will help you release the adverse effects of trauma from your body and mind. You will be invited to become a compassionate witness to your mind, explore conscious breathing, and discover mindful movement practices that enhance your mental, emotional, and physical health.

If you are a therapist or yoga teacher, you will learn how to guide your clients or students through yoga practices that facilitate trauma recovery. The addendum of this book offers guidance on how to design a sequence of postures for an individual client or student, as well as a framework for creating a six-week therapeutic yoga class for a group of students.

Self Discovery, Embodied Healing, & Meaningful Change

Although traditional yoga classes often emphasize perfecting your alignment or focusing on achieving the external shape of a posture, the goal of therapeutic yoga is not to achieve “perfect” symmetry. Instead, each practice within this book will encourage you to honor your own experience and to listen to your feelings and sensations as wise teachers that will help guide your healing process.

The journey toward embodiment integrates the principles of somatic psychology and body-oriented therapies into yoga. Each practice encourages you to listen to your body’s wisdom as a guide for movement, physical healing, and spiritual transformation. Initial practices focus on energizing your body with instinctual movements that will help you come out of patterns of freeze, flight, fight, or faint. The progression of the book invites you to settle your body and mind with restorative practices that evoke a gentle opening of your physical and spiritual heart.

You can tailor all of the practices in this book to meet your individual needs through a commitment to listening to your sensations and responding with movements that are unique to you.

The yogic path ultimately invites you to embark on a spiritual quest for self-discovery. Through your commitment to practice, you accumulate a reservoir of embodied wisdom that resides within you. Choosing to engage wholeheartedly in this complex and hurting world is a profound spiritual path. To lead with an open heart, you must learn to turn toward your own wounds while simultaneously recognizing that the events of your past do not need to define your future.

Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Photo Credit: Jes Kimak

Through the lens of interpersonal biology, polyvagal theory, and somatic psychology, you will explore the physiological underpinnings of how stressful or traumatic events take their toll on your mind and body. The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and can best be described as a bidirectional communication highway between your body and your brain. The term vagus is Latin for “wandering,” which is an apt descriptor for a nerve that extends from the brainstem into the stomach, intestines, heart, lungs, throat, and facial muscles.

Individuals with a history of trauma often experience disruptions in their autonomic nervous system, known as dysautonomia. Dysautonomia typically refers to a reduction in vagal tone as seen in a rapid drop in heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tone upon standing. For many, these experiences are followed by emotional dysregulation or feelings of panic.

Learning how to regulate the vagus nerve can improve both your mental and physical health. You have the ability to alter your physiology through conscious, mindful changes in the pace and length of your breath. For example, long, slow exhalations stimulate the vagus nerve, which initiates a parasympathetic relaxation response that calms your body down. In addition, because the vagus nerve runs through the face, ears, and neck, it can also be quite beneficial to self-massage these areas of your body. Self-touch combined with self-compassion also provides a tender way of parenting yourself as you care for your most vulnerable feelings

From the Preface…

I was first introduced to yoga in 1979, when I was seven years old, while taking family vacations to ashrams in rural Pennsylvania and upstate New York. I carry two distinct memories from those trips. The first memory involves sitting in the children’s room, where I learned about a light that lives inside of each of us, and I felt a sense of warmth and ease settle in my body. The second memory is attending an evening ritual in a large, dimly lit hall that was filled with the sounds of people chanting and the scent of incense burning. One by one, people filed toward the front of the room to receive shaktipat, which is a kind of transmission of energy where the guru uses their inner light to ignite or wake up another person’s inner light. I walked to the front of the room with my mother and stepfather until we reached Swami Muktananda, who touched the tops of our heads with a peacock feather. The next day we traveled back home. Within a few weeks, our house caught on fire, destroying everything inside. My mother and stepfather had an eerie feeling that the shaktipat had ignited more than our inner light.

At the time of the fire, I was staying at my father’s house, as my parents had gone through a conflictual divorce when I was four years old. My early memories of their fights are accompanied by vague sensory memories of feeling afraid and lonely. From that point forward, my life was defined by the rhythm of traveling back and forth between their markedly different households…Between the divorce and the fire, I had experienced two substantial disruptions to my sense of safety in the world before my eighth birthday. As a result, I still carry within me a visceral knowing of groundlessness.

My experiences of yoga offered me a sense of freedom and playfulness that served as powerful antidotes to the losses that dominated my early life. My imagination helped me transcend the desks, books, numbers, and maps that filled the classroom. I could temporarily forget about being uprooted from my soot-filled home. I had a respite from my worries. I was a tree with roots that extended deep into the earth and branches that reached up into the sky. I was a ferocious lion who could roar courageously. I was the crescent moon shining my light for all to see…

As I grew older, the yoga classes that carried me through that pivotal year faded into the past. I felt increasingly uncomfortable and awkward for reasons I could not yet understand. Only years later did I realize that I was shrouded in shame from my childhood wounds, and it nearly swallowed me whole…

I continued to cut myself off from my emotions until my senior year of college, when a friend of mine invited me to attend a yoga class. Breathing and moving my body brought me back to a familiar ground. Within a year, I committed myself to a daily practice and began therapy. With the compassionate guidance of caring yoga teachers and psychotherapists, I learned to trust my own capacity to ride emotional waves as they arose on and off the yoga mat. I accepted that allowing another person to see my pain was essential to my healing journey. I concluded that while we cannot change what happened in the past, living in the here and now empowers us to shape the future…

In this book, I offer you the yogic philosophy and practices that consistently bring me home to myself. It is my greatest hope that these pages will help you connect to the wisdom that resides within your body, mind, and spiritual heart. May this guided journey support you to cultivate a reliable felt sense of ease and equanimity that radiates from your inner light out to the world.

A Healing Path

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Like a mosaic, it is always the small pieces that make up the big picture in a yoga practice. Each time you step on your yoga mat, you combine a variety of breath, movement, and body-awareness practices that facilitate your growth and help you create meaningful change. Collectively, they allow you to evolve into a bigger picture that is the ongoing creation of your life.

My greatest hope is that the words and guided practices in this book have helped you access your embodied wisdom and strengthen your connection to your deepest self—that this journey to the heart has invited you to soften and let go of your defenses so you can more easily align with your true nature of kindness, generosity, love, and compassion.

Praise for Therapeutic Yoga

“Arielle masterfully bridges her well-developed model of therapeutic yoga with polyvagal theory. In doing so, she has creatively found paths to support the recovery of her readers as they share, through the powerful and insightful tools embedded in yoga, a journey of re-embodiment, co-regulation, healing, and discovery.” (From the Foreword)
Stephen W. Porges, PhD, distinguished university scientist and founding director of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium, Kinsey Institute, Indiana University Bloomington; professor of psychiatry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“In Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery, Dr. Arielle Schwartz blends the insights learned through modern science with the intuitive, ancient wisdom of traditional practices. As an acupuncturist and yoga teacher trainer, I have witnessed yoga practice be transformative for thousands of students, teachers, and clinicians alike. I am deeply grateful to Dr. Schwartz for so beautifully articulating the importance, versatility, and meaning of yoga practices in healing, and for showing us how to anchor these practices in compassion and sustainable growth.” (From the Foreword)
Tiffany Cruikshank, LAc, MAOM, E-RYT, founder of Yoga Medicine®

“This excellent resource on trauma therapeutics fits well as a training text for schools or a personal journal and activity roadmap to wellness. It is scholarly, science-backed, and packed with apt definitions of our current understanding of neuropsychology. But what I love most about Arielle’s way of addressing trauma is that she doesn’t see the process as grim, but as an inviting, warm, and curious adventure that we undertake with every part of our humanness. She cleverly reframes classic movement and breath and offers new somatic/embodiment work. Arielle eliminates any rigidity around looking within, so even meditation seems more approachable. This is clearly a labor of love, and applying the wisdom of this book gives us a glimpse of smarana, remembering who we are.”
Beth Spindler, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, yoga therapist, teacher, and author of Yoga Therapy for Fear: Treating Anxiety, Depression and Rage with the Vagus Nerve and Other Techniques

“Trauma: a tale as old as human life on this planet. Over thousands of years, many powerful healing modalities have emerged to guide people back to an experience of wholeness. Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery brilliantly illuminates these modalities by weaving together major systems of trauma recovery: yoga, embodiment, and polyvagal theory. Dr. Schwartz offers an empowering holistic guide to reclaiming your deepest sense of belonging: to yourself, to others, and the world around you. I highly recommend this book for those currently on their personal journey, as well as anyone working as a practitioner.”
Scott Lyons, PhD, RYT-500, founder of The Embody Lab

“The science of self-care has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few decades. We now know that regular self-care practices offer an essential tool to navigate the inevitable ups and downs of life on planet earth. With her new book, Dr. Arielle Schwartz has created an incredible resource for how we can integrate the important findings from polyvagal theory with ancient yogic breath, movement, and awareness practices. The result is a must-have guide to the numerous techniques yoga offers for fostering greater well-being and balance in life.”
Eva Norlyk Smith, PhD, president, YogaUOnline.com

“In her newest book, Arielle’s expert voice invites us into the sacred space of self, knowingness, and healing with the authentic poignance of one who has traveled the journey themselves. It is with loving kindness and compassionate wisdom that she invites us to experience new opportunities for healing through connecting inward using powerful and valuable tools that will transform your relationship with your body and, ultimately, with yourself.”
Kate Truitt, PhD, MA, MBA, CEO of the Trauma Counseling Center and Havening Techniques® global director of research and curriculum development

“In her newest book, reflective of a lifelong journey, Dr. Schwartz brings forth a brilliant synthesis of the bodies of wisdom that have illuminated her path of healing. The reader is guided through a journey toward embodied healing that is rooted in compassion, curiosity and care. Through her gift for writing, she offers a wise, deeply human and heart-centered perspective that empowers the reader to be with the inherently multifaceted experience of being alive. As a collective, we are being called to remember our shared humanity. As we reorient to this new path, Arielle’s book is a wise and warm ally helping to light the way.”
~Amy Annesley, LCSW, EMDR CIT, psychotherapist, yoga student, friend

“In Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery, Dr. Arielle Schwartz combines her extensive background and experience working with trauma survivors with a warm and welcoming style. The book covers a lot of ground, addressing the needs of yoga teachers, students, and therapists when working with a trauma-informed approach to yoga practice. I was particularly impressed with the practical therapeutic guidelines in the appendix for individual yoga therapy sessions and for a six-week therapeutic class, where she recommends specific movement and breathing exercises from the text.”
Joann Lutz, MSW, LICSW, C-IAYT, E-RYT, author of Trauma Healing in the Yoga Zone: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals, Yoga?Therapists, and Yoga Teachers

“Arielle’s teachings weave together deeply embodied knowledge, accessibility, and heart. The tools she offers provide a pathway toward hope in these incredibly trying times. Arielle has a way of connecting that is clear, compassionate, and impactful. Her work has never been needed more, and I am looking forward to sharing this offering with my students. What I know is this: When we use the tools offered to us in Arielle’s book, we have the ability to not only heal ourselves, but to heal the world.”
Lauren Lewis, mother, yoga teacher, chef, and student

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery is a magnificently written new book by Arielle Schwartz. You will be empowered to understand your nervous system and the vagus nerve as never before. Dr. Schwartz’s expertise and compassion shine through each chapter. You can count on her as a reliable guide on your healing journey. This book will take you on a deeper dive into yoga as a path for recovery. I highly recommend it!”
Joanne Spence, BSW, MA, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, author of Trauma-Informed Yoga: A Toolbox for Therapists

“Embodiment practices and the health of the nervous system are key components of contemporary psychology and physical well-being. Dr. Arielle Schwartz does it all well. In this book, she is a brilliant cartographer of the nervous system and she shows us, through her deft integration of ancient yoga practices and contemporary polyvagal theory, that choice and safety can be cultivated through embodied breath, conscious movement, and stillness. There are many wise clinical pearls embedded in this book that I regularly use with my patients to soothe trauma imprints, which so often show up as neurologic patterns such as cognitive decline or chronic illness. One of the root causes of trauma is disconnection, and Arielle shows us how to reconnect with ourselves and with each other, even more so if you have the opportunity to practice trauma-informed yoga with her. How fortunate we all are that Arielle shares her highly evolved mastery with us in this jewel of a book as a path to waking up and healing the nervous system of the world.”
Ilene Naomi Rusk, PhD, clinical psychologist, neuropsychologist, and director of the Healthy Brain Program at the Brain and Behavior Clinic

“As a medical physician addressing the effects of stored trauma on our biology, I consider this book a must-read for all professionals who work with people who have a human body. This is not just for trauma, though it will be a game-changer for those who have trauma patterns. By applying polyvagal theory to embodiment yoga in her wonderful and unique way, Arielle has just set a new standard for working with the body and a chronic freeze response.”
Aimie Apigian, MD, MS, MPH

“A treasure for any somatic psychotherapist and seeker of trauma healing alike. Dr. Schwartz elegantly guides the self-discovery process through integrating two powerful healing systems. The practical application of yoga, the ancient body wisdom practice, with the contemporary neurophysiological model of trauma recovery is an effective offering. This trauma-informed lens empowers the inner healer that is both gentle and transformative. These precise and accessible practices will benefit trauma well-being and enhance any clinician’s skill set that values somatic therapies.”
Manuela Mischke-Reeds, LMFT, author of Somatic Psychotherapy Toolbox, director of Hakomi Institute of California, and founder of Innate Somatic Intelligence Trauma Therapy Approaches

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Photo Credit: Jes Kimak

Arielle Schwartz, PhD, is a psychologist, internationally sought-out teacher, yoga instructor, and leading voice in the healing of PTSD and complex trauma. She is the author of five books, including The Complex PTSD WorkbookEMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology, and The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook.

Dr. Schwartz is an accomplished teacher who guides therapists in the application of EMDR, somatic psychology, parts work therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of trauma and complex PTSD. She guides you through a personal journey of healing in her Sounds True audio program, Trauma Recovery. 

She has a depth of understanding, passion, kindness, compassion, joy, and a succinct way of speaking about very complex topics. She is the founder of the Center for Resilience Informed Therapy in Boulder, Colorado where she maintains a private practice providing psychotherapy, supervision, and consultation. Dr. Schwartz believes that that the journey of trauma recovery is an awakening of the spiritual heart.

Collective Trauma, Embodiment, and Community | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Our Shared Hero’s Journey

I invite you to think of collective trauma as a call to enter the transformational process of a hero’s journey. Collective trauma refers to the impact of current or historical events that are experienced by groups of people, communities, and society as a whole.

American mythologist Joseph Campbell (2008) described the hero’s journey as a “monomyth,” in which a period of ease is tragically disrupted by a crisis that sends us into exile. The hero fights the dragon, retrieves the treasure, and returns to the community with new gifts and healing capabilities. 

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, writes: “There will always be times when you will feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it; I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.”

As I see it, we need to attend to our despair without letting our lives be defined by it. While we are capable of fighting dragons, we cannot fight them alone. While you may feel as though you have been thrown into an abyss; we can overcome these challenges. However, it does require that we have support. We need to go into the dark with our allies, those who stand by our side and help us courageously face the pain of the world.

Collectively, we can carry a light with us as we walk into the darkness. Ultimately, you can tap into you inner strength, wisdom, and hope which will allow you to emerge with an enhanced sense of meaning and purpose. These become the gifts that you have to offer to the world so that you can be a guiding presence for others.

Embodiment and the Collective Body

Embodiment invites you into an exploratory process—one that is an ever-changing, dynamic relationship between you, your circumstances, your relationships, and the world. In other words, how you feel in your body will change depending on many factors, including what you eat, how you sleep, where you are, who you are, and what is happening around you. 

Your somatic experience not only provides you with feedback about yourself, but also can give you insight into your relationships with others and your current environment. This is called intercorporeality, and it challenges the idea that your embodiment is independent of your surroundings.

Sometimes our bodies carry legacy wounds from our family lineage. This intergenerational trauma is the unresolved trauma that has been passed down across generations and, if left unaddressed, it might diminish your ability to breathe deeply, move freely, take up space, or use your voice. 

Moreover, because we are inextricably connected to the world around us, your own embodied experiences might also be resonating with the nervous systems and emotions of others. Such moments illuminate that we have access to an inner knowing of experiences shared by our human collective a members of our global community. 

Attending to Collective Trauma

Embodiment provides a safe space to turn toward these inherited wounds and reclaim a new sense of freedom. Attending to collective trauma involves recognizing that we are not alone in our grief or our need find a meaningful path forward. Having an embodiment practice amidst challenging times can be grounding and also help us feel empowered to take meaningful actions in a changing world.

Even though you might feel numb or want to run away from the pain, explore the resources that help you to step forward toward the discomfort. Psychotherapy, community gatherings (even those that still meet online), journaling, time in nature, or mindful embodiment practices can all help you lean into discomfort at a pace that is right for you. 

Since most of our wounds occurred in relationships, trauma typically needs to be repaired interpersonally within a safe community. Here lies the intersection between personal healing, the well-being of your community, and the health of our planet. We all need each other to heal these the wounds of our past. This need for connection is especially true when we are grieving.

Grief and Collective Trauma

Grief is profoundly raw and, at its core, a form of social communication. Consciously making space for grief is essential if we are to heal our collective wounds. When attending to each other’s grief, it is important to remember that grief needs presence. Nothing more. It is not necessary to say the “right” thing because there is no “right” thing to say. It is not necessary to have the answer because sometimes there are no answers. 

It is important to simply let each other know that we are there and that we are not afraid. Sometimes this involves being there and sitting in silence, breathing, or offering a nod of reassurance. Overall, being with someone in grief is about holding an outer container so that the person in grief can go on the inward journey needed during this vulnerable time. 

Some days you might be receiving support, and other days you might be giving support to another. However, so long as we all play our part in this exchange, we can facilitate an interconnected web of community.

Thawing the Freeze

Sometimes when we try to connect to the body, we are initially confronted with our own numbness. Perhaps you feel disconnected or frozen in shock. In these moments, I invite you to gently, lovingly hold yourself, knowing that your body is telling you a story about fear. Simply by acknowledging that you are in a threat response, you will invoke a form of self-compassion. A freeze response is one way that your body says “I am overwhelmed”. 

Without force, I invite you to acknowledge that underneath the frozen surface lies a well of feelings. Listen for the subtle signs of life within you. You will thaw when you are ready. On this subject, I will share a poem I wrote about feeling frozen. Perhaps you will relate.

Thawing the Freeze

Yesterday the soft surface of the water, 
a sign of spring, 
invited us to welcome the potential of rebirth.
How quickly the ice forms again 
when a brisk cold front moves in. 
In a flash, these storms harden everything in sight.
Like the world, caught again in the grip of fear,
I, too, await the thaw.
In the meantime, I listen for the signs of life 
caught just under the frozen surface. 
The current of water moving, 
a wing of a bird against the cold air, 
my hand over my beating heart.
Do not lose sight of the sun,
the powerful force
that can awaken you
to love again.

Compassion—A Doorway for Healing

Your pain can serve as a doorway that can help you feel greater compassion for the pain felt by others. Once you feel empowered, you might sense that you have a responsibility to help empower others. Or, perhaps a prayer for the well-being of others spontaneously arises from within.

Transformed by the journey through collective trauma, the hero becomes a mature adult capable of holding complex feelings and ideas in a world that can cause harm. Maturity involves recognizing that it common to feel conflicting or contradictory emotions, needs, and aspects of ourselves that may both be true. For example we might sometimes love and be angry at the same person. The more that we accept these dichotomies in ourselves, the better we will be at handling differences and conflicts with others. 

Doesn’t our world need more of this?

Compassion for Collective Trauma

Here is a short video share on collective trauma, about building trust with our soma and soul through compassionate inquiry. This process involves an intention to listen without judgement to the “symptom” and with an intention to understand rather than to “fix”. This is a practice for self, other, and can be applied to all levels of communication within any system. From my heart…

Compassionate inquiry for personal and collective healing

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Complex PTSD

Arielle Schwartz, PhD, is a psychologist, internationally sought-out teacher, yoga instructor, and leading voice in the healing of PTSD and complex trauma. She is the author of five books, including The Complex PTSD WorkbookEMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology, and The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook.

Dr. Schwartz is an accomplished teacher who guides therapists in the application of EMDR, somatic psychology, parts work therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of trauma and complex PTSD. She guides you through a personal journey of healing in her Sounds True audio program, Trauma Recovery. 

She has a depth of understanding, passion, kindness, compassion, joy, and a succinct way of speaking about very complex topics. She is the founder of the Center for Resilience Informed Therapy in Boulder, Colorado where she maintains a private practice providing psychotherapy, supervision, and consultation. Dr. Schwartz believes that that the journey of trauma recovery is an awakening of the spiritual heart.

Embodiment in Trauma Recovery | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Awakening to your Felt Sense

Embodiment is as an active process of self-discovery that you renew and strengthen by repeatedly attending to your sensations, emotions, and instinctual movement impulses. Mindful body-awareness practices help you learn to sustain the focus of your attention on how your body feels or moves in the present moment.

Embodiment in trauma recovery involves setting aside time to focus your attention on your breath and body sensations as related to traumatic events. You attend to the burdens of adversity whether they reside in your body as protective armoring or a loss of integrity at your core that leaves you feeling collapsed and defeated. 

Awakening to your felt sense allows you to reclaim healing movements. You release defensive bracing or vigilance from your body and mind. You explore moving out of freeze or collapse into the presence of a balanced and regulated nervous system. With regular practice you accumulate a reservoir of embodied wisdom that resides as a reliably accessible sense of self.

Somatic Intelligence

Embodiment in Trauma Recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Often, we think of intelligence as our knowledge of facts, as it is traditionally measured through mental and verbal capacities. However, kinesthetic awareness is a form of somatic intelligence, meaning that paying attention to your felt sense of self provides information that can wisely guide your decisions and actions in the world. Embodiment increases your emotional intelligence and enhances interpersonal relationships as you will be more sensitive to the needs or emotions of others.

The vagus nerve is an essential part of this information highway. Awakening your mind-body connection also helps to improve your physical health. Listening to your body sensations allows you to notice feelings of discomfort which can lead you to move in an intuitive manner that helps you to release tension naturally. For example, perhaps you have been sitting in one position for too long and you suddenly become aware that your foot has fallen asleep. Now you can explore a new way of sitting or moving to restore blood flow to this area. 

In truth, we all have aspects of ourselves that are asleep, sometimes as a way of disconnecting from painful emotions or memories that were once overwhelming. Embodiment in trauma recovery offers opportunities to compassionately awaken these parts of yourself that have been hiding beneath the lens of your awareness.

Dissociation from the Body

Embodiment in Trauma Recovery Dr. arielle Schwartz

As your cultivate your ability to stay present with your sensations, you will also become adept at recognizing when you disconnect from the body. It is completely normal to lose awareness of your felt sense of self at times; however, if you have a history of trauma you may have learned to dissociate from your body as a survival based coping mechanism.

You might notice a desire to avoid or escape uncomfortable sensations or emotions. This can arise as fidgeting, being “in your head,” feeling distracted, or pushing yourself physically in a way that overrides your sensations. You may need to proceed slowly with mindful body-awareness especially if you are prone to dissociation. This allows you to consciously choose how you would like to respond to distress. 

Embodiment in Relationship 

Embodiment in Trauma Recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Embodiment is an everchanging, dynamic relationship between you, your circumstances, your relationships, and the world. In other words, how you feel in your body will change depending on many factors, including what you eat, how you sleep, where you are, who you are, and what is happening around you.

This was especially true in your earliest relationships with the caregivers who shaped your sense of self. A sensitive caregiver attunes to an infant’s facial expressions, vocalizations, gestures, and body movements. This attunement guides the caregiver’s use of touch, eye contact, and tone of voice, as well as the timing of interactions. Over time, the accumulation of these empathic relational exchanges reinforces our ability to feel connected to our bodies, recognize our emotions, and respond effectively to our needs.

This is why childhood neglect or abuse can leave a powerful imprint on you physically and emotionally. An infant cannot flee from or fight against a frightening or hurtful caregiver, making them more likely to collapse into immobilization, fall asleep, or dissociate.

Embodiment and Trauma Recovery

The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook Dr. Arielle Schwartz

With a history of trauma, any embodiment practice can be a vulnerable undertaking. We cannot deny the impact of unresolved trauma on the body. It is often said that “our issues are in our tissues” and that they impact how we move and breathe. Perhaps you find yourself avoiding embodiment practices because they evoke difficult emotions, such as shame or grief.

Mindful body-awareness might also evoke difficult feelings if your relationship with your body is complicated by a negative body image, feelings of self-loathing, or gender dysphoria, in which you feel a mismatch between your physical body and the felt sense of your own gender identity. If you find that relating to your body brings up difficult beliefs or emotions, try to focus on what your body is capable of doing rather than what it looks like. For example, you might say to yourself, “My body is strong!” or “My body is wise!” Ask what your body needs from you rather than trying to change or control your body.

Embodiment as a Practice

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Embodiment in Trauma Recovery

Embodiment in trauma recovery involves setting aside time to focus your attention on your breath and body sensations. This can be done while resting in stillness or during mindful movements. Explore the practices that nourish your soul—mindful walking in nature, yoga, tai chi, seated meditation. Or, you can explore embodiment in trauma treatment within somatic therapy with the caring and compassionate presence of a psychotherapist who can help you turn toward your pain.

Since vulnerable feelings cannot be entirely eliminated, mindful body-awareness involves learning to accept, rather than merely tolerate, the presence of your own painful emotions. With acceptance, you can recognize that your emotions and sensations are not permanent; rather, they come and go like waves on the ocean.The most important element for sustaining a regular embodiment practice is to find sufficient reward as you deepen into your healing journey. Rather than pushing yourself into a practice, see if you can find enough support so that even the challenging emotional moments feel healing for your soul. 

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Complex PTSD

Arielle Schwartz, PhD, is a psychologist, internationally sought-out teacher, yoga instructor, and leading voice in the healing of PTSD and complex trauma. She is the author of five books, including The Complex PTSD WorkbookEMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology, and The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook.

Dr. Schwartz is an accomplished teacher who guides therapists in the application of EMDR, somatic psychology, parts work therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of trauma and complex PTSD. She guides you through a personal journey of healing in her Sounds True audio program, Trauma Recovery. 

She has a depth of understanding, passion, kindness, compassion, joy, and a succinct way of speaking about very complex topics. She is the founder of the Center for Resilience Informed Therapy in Boulder, Colorado where she maintains a private practice providing psychotherapy, supervision, and consultation. Dr. Schwartz believes that that the journey of trauma recovery is an awakening of the spiritual heart.

Nourish your Nervous System | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

A Restorative Reset

Nourish your Nervous system
Nourish your nervous system (IC: Jes Kimak)

Settling into stillness also allows you to access the inner wisdom that can be found within the depths of your psyche. As if diving deep below the surface of the ocean, you find the slowest moving currents of your soul’s wisdom. Within these depths, you connect to your intuition. As you reside in this deep connection to your heart, you learn to trust this inner knowing, which becomes the guiding compass for your life’s decisions.

In order to rest into this place of deep stillness, you must feel safe enough to let go of your defenses, which will allow you to access your parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response. However, reclaiming a healthy relationship to stillness can take time to develop and requires patience.

Although rest is an integral part of our body’s rhythm, many of us have a complicated relationship to rest. That’s because our culture tends to condition us to believe that our self-worth is based on productivity. You might feel guilty for resting or believe that it is selfish to take time out. You might fear that if you slow down, you will miss an opportunity. Maybe you fear that you will lose momentum or that you will become stagnant. Perhaps you have received messages that you’re lazy if you’re not working hard or being productive. These ingrained messages can cause you to neglect your health or believe that “hard work” is what brings happiness. Sadly, this can lead you to feel disconnected from your deeper self, and you might question the point of all this hard work.

Over time, an addiction to busyness can also lead to burnout, which can affect your endocrine system functioning and overall physical health. Cultivating a nourishing relationship to rest takes consistency and practice. Paradoxically, when you do embrace the need for rest, you tend to be more focused and attentive during the day, which can ultimately allow you to be more productive.

Nourish your Nervous System

Nourish your nervous system Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Arriving (IC Jes Kimak)

Our yoga practice can become essential any time of year to help us maintain balance and stay realistic about what we can actually accomplish. The softer side of yoga invites you into restorative shapes that allow you to rest into stillness to support your parasympathetic nervous system.

A sense of safety is always rooted in choice, and resting in stillness can never be forced. Just as you may need to build up tolerance to engage in strength training or endurance exercises, you may also need to build up a tolerance for restful states. As you work to build this tolerance, you might find that when your body becomes still that your mind speeds up. Or you might feel restless or notice the urge to fidget. Or you might feel collapsed or immobilized. 

Remember that you can move your body freely as needed and that you can turn toward cues that help you recognize that you are safe now. Once you recognize that you are safe, you can practice learning to let go of your vigilance and soften into stillness.

Yin and Restorative Yoga

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Restorative Reset
Yin and Restorative Yoga (IC: Jes Kimak)

Restorative yoga focuses on longer holds in restful poses. You might hold a pose for five minutes while allowing yourself to soften into the stillness of the shape. Often, these poses are supported through the use of bolsters, blankets, and blocks.

One form of restorative yoga is called yin yoga, which integrates the Taoist understanding that all of nature carries polarities of yin and yang. Yang represents all that is active, moving, and changing. Yang yoga practices emphasize moving and strengthening the muscles of your body. On the other hand, yin represents that which is stable and unmoving. A yin practice can be thought of as a complement to any active or strengthening practice; it is the soft side of yoga.

Yin postures focus on your ligaments, tendons, and connective tissue. Since the capacity to stretch the tendons and ligaments is limited compared to the muscles, the joints benefit from longer holds in stillness, which creates healthy stress in these tissues of your body. This is facilitated by engaging in shapes that intelligently, and safely, compress the joints of your hips and lower back by using the weight of your own body in hip-opening, twisting, and forward-folding positions.

At the end of the post, you can explore a short guided restorative practice video to guide you to find “Zen at the wall.”

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The Vagus Nerve and Eye Movements: Tools for Trauma Recovery | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

The Window to your Soul

Eye Movements and Vagus Nerve Stimulation Dr. Arielle Schwartz
IC: Eyes by Bruno Henrique

It is often said that the eyes are a window to your soul. Indeed, your eyes provide great insight into how you are feeling. When we are stressed we tend to furrow our brow which contracts the muscles around your eyes making them appear smaller. When we are tired our eyelids grow heavy. When we feel connected and excited to see someone our eyebrows lift and our eyes appear brighter and larger. While you might try to hide your true emotions by controlling the muscles of your face, you really can’t stop your eyes from revealing how you really feel. This is because the eyes are closely tied to your autonomic nervous system.

When you are on alert, your pupils dilate helping you scan your environment. This is one reason why individuals who have experienced traumatic events at night are often able to describe the scene as if it was in broad daylight. And when you feel safe, your eyes tend to sparkle and express warmth as a signal that you are engaging your social nervous system. This is because four of your cranial nerves are directly associated with vision or eye movements and your vagus nerve connects your eyes to your heart.

Eye movements have been integrated into many healing practices such as in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy and Yoga. This post shares more about the Vagus Nerve and eye movements, how they can facilitate health through natural vagus nerve stimulation, and how they help with trauma recovery. The video at the end guides you into a simple practice for self-care…

The Neurochemistry of Courage

Catch the Upward Spiral Build Resilience-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
IC: Courage by Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Our eyes naturally move from side to side as we walk through the world; it is a way of observing our environment. From an evolutionary perspective, this action is necessary for survival for it allows us to scan the world for food and potential predators. This action evokes the neurochemistry of courage because the pairing of physical movement and lateral eye-movements appears to suppress the amygdala’s role in initiating a fear-response while simultaneously signaling the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps increase a felt sense of pleasure and reward (See Dr. Andrew Huberman discuss his research on eye movements).

Adding eye movements while confronting a difficult memory helps to reduce the fear response in the body and mind and helps to distance you from the negative emotions related to historical traumatic events. EMDR Therapy engages bilateral eye movements to facilitate communications across left and right hemispheres in a way that mimics REM sleep. Dr. Francine Shapiro discovered the power of eye movements for trauma recovery purely by chance during a walk in the park when she noticed that her eyes were moving back and forth. She was talking with a friend about something difficult and the disturbance went away. Over time she developed EMDR Therapy as a trauma treatment model that helps clients to process traumatic life experiences and related symptoms.

Eye Yoga and the Vagus Nerve

Eye Movements
IC: Gerd Altmann w/ Pixabay

Many yogic practices also facilitate integration between left and right hemispheres of the brain through movements that engage left and right sides of the body. For example, eye yoga typically involves lowering and lifting your gaze from the tip of your nose to the center of your forehead, moving your eyes back and forth from left to right, and circling your eyes in both directions.

Yoga also incorporates use of a single point for your gaze, or drishti, to help settle your mind. It is also recommended that you spend some time each day allowing your eyes to rest in total darkness by placing a light eye pillow or resting your palms gently over your eyes which allows your eyes to recover from strain.

The vagus nerve and eye movements are interconnected. Oculocardiac convergence visual therapy helps reset vagal tone and reduce anxiety through shifting the focal point of the eyes from close-in to far-off in the distance. If you would like, explore stretching and engaging the eye muscles, which can ultimately help these muscles relax. You can start by holding a pencil or small object about four to six inches in front of your face. Allow your eyes to focus on this object for about 20 seconds, and then shift your focus to look off in the distance for about 20 seconds. Continue back and forth for about four cycles, and then softly relax your eyes.

The Vagus Nerve and Eye Movements

Vagus Nerve Stimulation and Eye Movements
IC: John Hain w/ Pixabay

Your vagus nerve passes through your belly, diaphragm, lungs, throat, inner ear, and facial muscles. Therefore, practices that stimulate or relax these areas of the body can influence the tone of your vagus nerve through the mind-body feedback loop. Within the medical field, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), also referred to as neuromodulation, involves surgically implanting a bioelectronic device or using a non-surgical transcutaneous (through the skin) device which sends a stimulating yet undetectable electrical current to the vagus nerve. You can also naturally stimulate your vagus nerve to relieve keyed up or shut down nervous system states.

You can Naturally stimulate your vagus with techniques such as altering the rhythm of your breath, practicing mindful body awareness, and exploring gentle yoga postures to create greater balance in your body and mind. Learn more about Vagus Nerve Yoga.

Eye movements are particularly powerful because they have a direct connection to the suboccipital muscles that sit at the base of your skull. As you move your eyes you create subtle movements that help to release tight muscles in your neck which in turn can reduce tension around the first and second cervical vertebrae. In his book, Accessing The Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve, Stanley Rosenberg combines eye movements with gentle movements that release the muscles of your neck help to increase blood flow to your vertebral artery which supplies blood to the brainstem and vagus nerve.

This video explains more about the vagus nerve and eye movements and invites you to try an exercise for your own self-care:

Learn more about The Vagus Nerve:

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Arielle Schwartz, PhD, is a psychologist, internationally sought-out teacher, yoga instructor, and leading voice in the healing of PTSD and complex trauma. She is the author of five books, including The Complex PTSD WorkbookEMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology, and The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook. Dr. Schwartz is an accomplished teacher who guides therapists in the application of EMDR, somatic psychology, parts work therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of trauma and complex PTSD. She has a depth of understanding, passion, kindness, compassion, joy, and a succinct way of speaking about very complex topics. She is the founder of the Center for Resilience Informed Therapy in Boulder, Colorado where she maintains a private practice providing psychotherapy, supervision, and consultation. Dr. Schwartz believes that that the journey of trauma recovery is an awakening of the spiritual heart.

Books by Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Learn more about Books by Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Coping with Climate Grief

A Backpacking Travelogue

Coping with Climate Grief Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Alongside the ongoing weight of the global pandemic, another area of distress that is increasingly coming up for people is climate grief as we face fires, hurricanes with greater intensity or frequency or intensity, as well as rising waters and flooding. It is easy to feel helpless and a looming existential fear now referred to as “eco-anxiety.” 

Even if you haven’t been directly impacted by one of these events, you have likely been exposed to images and stories through the media leading to a form of anticipatory fears or about the potential for additional disasters or the extinction of species and ecosystems such as coral reefs or glaciers. Or maybe, you too have had eerie orange skies at sunset from fires far away. Just like any ongoing stressor, it is important to have strategies to cope with climate grief.

Recently, I had an opportunity to go backpacking on one of my favorite trails here in Colorado. For the second summer in a row, my trips to the hills have been colored by a backdrop of haze and smoke. However, I found some tools that helped me work through my feelings while walking on the trail that I’ll share in this post. My hope is that my own feelings about climate grief might help you know that you are not alone and that my sharing of coping strategies might help you find a path forward. 

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Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga

Embodiment Strategies for Trauma Recovery

Dr. Arielle Schwartz polyvagal theory in yoga

Healing from trauma invites you to befriend your body; and this needs to occur at a pace that honors your unique needs. Initially, this involves developing the resources to handle challenging emotions, disturbing symptoms, and distressing memories. The goal is help you find your ground through a felt sense of stability and safety. Within applied polyvagal theory in yoga, you learn to trust the predictability of the support that your yoga mat provides. 

A Sacred Pilgrimage

The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook Dr. Arielle Schwartz

One of the defining features of traumatic events is the loss of choice over what happened to you. They can leave you feeling trapped, helpless, or powerless. Therefore, recovery from trauma involves realizing that you do have choices available to you now (Emerson & West, 2015). A therapeutic approach to yoga involves recognizing that you have choice now. Throughout each practice, you can decide how to move and breathe. You can decide whether you want your eyes open or closed. 

When we do not feel as though we have choices, we can begin to feel trapped our nervous system perceives a threat.

I invite you to think of your yoga space as a sacred ground…and each time you return is a pilgrimage to your body, mind, heart, and soul. Therapeutic yoga for trauma recovery is best supported when you have a calm, peaceful, and safe environment for your practice. You might find this within a class; however, if you are choosing to begin a home-based practice, I encourage you to take some time to create a space that feels nourishing to your body and mind.

A sacred space, whether it is found in nature or created by humans, provides a sense of solace and respite from the unpredictable or chaotic aspects of life.

Ideally, your space feels safe enough for you to relax. This baseline of safety will then allow you to observe your body and mind for patterns of tension or changes in how you are breathing that are arise as you release trauma related emotions from your body. See if you can allow yourself the gift to feel held within your peaceful, calm space.

Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga | An Orienting Practice:

  • Take a moment to arrive on your mat and look around your space. You can turn your head to look right and left and you might even turn your whole body to observe the space behind you. Notice any cues that serve as reminders that this is a safe and sacred healing space for your practice.

Neuroception and the Polyvagal Theory

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Applied Polyvagal theory in yoga

Applied polyvagal theory in yoga guides you to become a compassionate witness to your body and mind. This provides a powerful foundation for self-knowledge. At times, your body might react to a stressful event even before you are aware of the trigger. Even without conscious awareness, your brain and body have released a cascade of stress chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline. This is one reason why you cannot simply think your way out of the symptoms of trauma; rather, you must work with the body to maximize healing. Having a regular yoga practice can play an instrumental role in this process. 

Dr. Stephen Porges coined the term neuroception to reflect the process by which the your vagus nerve is communicating internal and external cues about whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening. Your nervous system will find these cues within the body, in our external environment, or in the body language, facial expressions, or voice tones or other people. For example, changes in heart rate or subtle shifts in muscle tone impact your sense of self but you might not be aware of these changes as they occur.

The vagus nerve plays a key role in neuroception because of the many extensions throughout your body. It is the tenth cranial nerve and can best be described as a bidirectional communication highway between your body and your brain. The term vagus is Latin for “wandering,” which is an apt descriptor for a nerve that extends from the brainstem into the stomach, intestines, heart, lungs, throat, and facial muscles. Approximately 85 to 90 percent of vagus nerve fibers are afferent which means that they bring sensory information from your body to your brain.

Read more about Vagus Nerve Yoga here

Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga | An Awareness Practice:

You can learn to pay attention to neuroceptive cues by consciously observing signs that your body is responding to a threat. For example, you furrow your brow, tighten you jaw, grip your hands, or clench your buttocks. You have an opportunity to engage in this practice awareness in any yoga practice whether you are moving in asana, resting in savasana, practicing pranayama, or seated in meditation. 

  • Begin to notice to whether it feels easy or difficult for you to sit still. Are you moving more or less than usual? Do you feel the urge to fidget? Do you feel restless or jittery? Do you feel lethargic or sluggish? Do you feel collapsed or slumped? Do you feel frozen or excessively still? Do you feel relaxed and at ease?
  • Begin to notice how you are breathing. Do you notice a tendency to hold your breath? Are you breathing in a shallow manner? Does your breath feel quickened or do you notice a shortness of breath, like you cannot get enough oxygen? Are you breathing freely and easily?
  • Do you notice any tension around your eyes? Do they narrowed or is your brow furrowed? Do you have tension in your forehead or around your temples?
  • Bring awareness to your jaw and mouth. Do you notice that you purse your lips or clench your teeth together? Is your tongue pressed firmly against the roof of your mouth? 
  • Notice if you feel tension in your throat, neck or base of your skull. Perhaps roll your shoulders forward and back and notice any tightness or constriction around your shoulders, upper back, or chest.
  • Bring awareness to your belly. Do you notice any tension around your diaphragm, stomach, or low back? 
  • If you feel comfortable, bring awareness to your pelvis and hips. Do you notice a tendency to clench the gluteal muscles in your buttocks or to grip in your pelvic floor. 
  • Notice your legs and feet and see if you tend to carry tension by gripping the muscles in your thighs. Perhaps you carry habitual tension in your calf muscles. Do you tend to grip your feet or curl your toes? 
  • When you feel complete, take the time to notice any observations about yourself during this awareness practice. 

Breathing for your Vagus Nerve

Dr. Arielle Schwartz yoga

The breath plays a key role in your health in part because the vagus nerve extends into the smooth muscle of the lungs and heart. The nerves connecting to the heart and lungs have both sympathetic and parasympathetic functions. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with quick, intense breaths into the upper lungs, a condition often referred to as over-breathing or hyperventilation. During times of stress, your nervous system initiates the release of cortisol via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis) to mobilize your self-protective defenses through an increase in heart rate and respiration. When this continues overtime, rapid upper chest breathing leads to over-breathing or hyperventilation which is associated with panic attacks and anxiety.

While changes in breathing happen automatically in response to stress, we also have the ability to alter our physiology through conscious, mindful changes in our breath rate. Long, slow exhalations engage the vagal break and the parasympathetic relaxation response slows down your heart rate.

The health of the autonomic nervous system is measured through vagal tone and vagal efficiency. Vagal tone is measured by changes in heart rate in relationship to the breath. The heart rate typically increases on each inhalation which reflects a subtle engagement of the sympathetic nervous system and decreases during each exhalation as the parasympathetic nervous system re-engages. The relationship between your breath and these changes in heart rate is referred to as heart rate variability (HRV). Having higher vagal tone means that you have greater variability between the number of heartbeats on the inhalation as compared to the number of heartbeats measured on the exhalation. Simply put, vagal tone is measured by your ability to move between stress and relaxation efficiently and easily. You can think of this as the physiological basis for resilience which allows you to flexibly respond to inevitable challenges of life.

Read more about Breathing for your Vagus Nerve Yoga here

Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga | A Breathing Practice:

This practice involves creating an even length of your inhalation and your exhalation with diaphragmatic or “belly” breathing. I encourage you to study the effect that a simple practice has on your body and mind. 

  • Find a comfortable place to sit where you feel supported and at ease. Begin by simply noticing your breath. Notice the length of your inhalations and exhalations. Notice the transitions between the inhales and exhales. Notice if you are feeling any physical, emotional, or mental distress or tension. 
  • I recommend bringing one or both hands over your navel and focusing each inhale into your lower lungs by expanding this area like a balloon and exhaling as your draw your navel back toward your spine.
  • When you are ready, begin to create a measured length of your breath with a count of four on each inhale and a count of four on each exhale. You can easily tailor this breath to meet your needs by increasing or decreasing your count.
  • When you feel complete, take the time to notice any observations about yourself during this breathing practice. 

Posture and Vagal Tone

Dr. Arielle Schwartz yoga

Postural shifts also influences your vagal tone through blood pressure receptors called baroreceptors which send signals to your brainstem. These signals will either increase or decrease your vagal tone in order to regulate your heart rate. For example, sitting or standing up quickly will temporarily decrease vagal tone which will increase your heart rate and a visceral feeling of activation. Ideally, this is followed by re-engagement of your ventral vagal complex which allows you to return to a calm and relaxed state. 

Tolerating postural changes such as moving from laying down, to sitting, to standing, can provide a good measure for resilience of your nervous system. Yoga practices often involve moving through postural transitions in a repeated, rhythmic manner that allow you to alternately increase and decrease your heart rate. You might think of this as strengthening the resilience of your nervous system in addition to the physical endurance required in these actions.

Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga | A Movement Practice:

  • I invite you to build the resiliency of your vagus nerve as you move between standing in mountain pose to a standing forward fold. Move slowly enough to notice the subtle ways that your nervous system accommodates these transitions.
  • From standing, inhale as you bring your arms up overhead.
  • Exhale as you fold forward over your legs. Keep your knees slightly bent to reduce tension in your lower back or legs.
  • Slowly, inhale as you explore coming to a half-way lift by placing your fingertips on the floor, your shins, or on blocks in front of you.
  • Exhale, as you return to the forward fold.
  • Inhale, return to standing in mountains as you lower your hands by your sides. Take several breaths here and notice how you feel.
  • If you would like, repeat the forward fold sequence as you mindfully stay connected to your body and breath.
  • When you feel complete, take the time to rest in stillness either sitting or lying down and notice any observations about yourself during this simple movement practice. 

Focusing Inward

Dr. Arielle Schwartz yoga

Focusing inward invites you to gently soften or close your eyes so that you can notice your internal sensations. For example, you can pause while reading this and bring your awareness to the sensations of your body as you make contact with your chair. Or you might notice the feeling of your belly rising and falling with your breath. From a yogic perspective, you can think of this process as directing your life force energy toward yourself. Ideally, this can be offered as a way to nourish yourself with self-awareness.

This next practice invites you to focus your attention inward while in a child’s pose. For some, the name “child’s pose” brings up discomfort because it evokes memories from a vulnerable time. If this is the case, you can choose to rename this pose giving it a new meaning for you. For example, you might call it “wisdom” or “resting” pose.

Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga | A Resting Practice

  • Begin to settle your hips toward your heels. There is no single right way to create this shape. Take your time to adjust your shape until it feels supportive for you. You might place your knees close together which will allow your chest to rest on your thighs or, if you widen your knees, your chest might soften closer to the floor. You might prefer to have a folded blanket or bolster between your hips and your heels to reduce pressure behind your knees. You might choose to rest your forehead on the floor in front of you or on a soft pillow. You can also explore whether you prefer to have your arms outstretched in front of you alongside your head or resting back beside your torso. 
  • Child’s pose is a forward fold that naturally draws your attention inward. Your belly and vital organs are protected in this shape. How does your mind respond as you slow down? As you allow your forehead to make contact with the floor or on a blanket see if you can allow the muscles in your neck to relax. This inward turn, invites you to soften your vigilance and let go into a sense of support and safety. Take a few more deep breaths and whenever you feel ready to come out of this shape, place your hands underneath your shoulders and slowly press into your hands to lift your spine until you have returned to sitting up. 
  • When you feel complete, take the time to rest in stillness either sitting or lying down and notice any observations about yourself during this simple movement practice. 

A Path to Freedom

A Path to freedom Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Eventually, you will develop the inner strength to attend to your suffering with greater compassion. With applied polyvagal theory in yoga, you can build your capacity to turn toward your emotions, sensations, and memories associated with traumatic events. As you sense the weight of traumatic events held in your body, you can begin to deepen your experience by following how your body wants to breathe or move in response to what you are feeling.

As you release burdens and grieve the past you will also begin to cultivate a new felt sense of freedom and possibility.

Curious to Learn More about Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga?

polyvagal institite yoga webinar

In collaboration with the Polyvagal Institute, I created a 4-hour training which provides 2 hours of on-demand recorded lectures sharing the application of the polyvagal theory to the practice of yoga. These lectures are accompanied by a 1-hour guided physical yoga practice in which you are invited to move and breathe allowing you to experientially embody and integrate the course material. This course concludes with a 1-hour recorded discussion between Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Porges which explores topics such as:

  • compassion based practices to facilitate greater resilience within the nervous system
  • conscious breathing to work with imbalances in the autonomic nervous system
  • how yoga asana and movement can assist in reducing physical and emotional pain
  • the key role of co-regulation in facilitating an optimal healing relationship

Through the lens of polyvagal theory, you will learn all about how the vagus nerve is a bi-directional information highway between mind and body—more importantly, you will learn to fine-tune your health with breath, movement, and awareness practices that become the building blocks of a life-changing daily practice.

Learn more and Sign up for the Polyvagal Yoga course here!

Arielle Schwartz, PhD, is a psychologist, internationally sought-out teacher, yoga instructor, and leading voice in the healing of PTSD and complex trauma. She is the author of five books, including The Complex PTSD WorkbookEMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology, and The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook. Dr. Schwartz is an accomplished teacher who guides therapists in the application of EMDR, somatic psychology, parts work therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of trauma and complex PTSD. She has a depth of understanding, passion, kindness, compassion, joy, and a succinct way of speaking about very complex topics. She is the founder of the Center for Resilience Informed Therapy in Boulder, Colorado where she maintains a private practice providing psychotherapy, supervision, and consultation. Dr. Schwartz believes that that the journey of trauma recovery is an awakening of the spiritual heart.

Books by Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Learn more about Books by Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Trauma Recovery: A Mind Body Approach to Becoming Whole

A Podcast with Sounds True

Trauma Recovery and Post Traumatic Growth Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Recently, I had the honor to have a heartfelt conversation with Tami Simon with Sounds True, host of Insights at the Edge Podcast. Within this podcast, I share aspects of my personal journey through trauma recovery. You will learn some of my favorite healing resources and tools to help you find your own sense of being at home in your body. Discover the healing power of choice, movement, imagination, and how grounding can be a relational experience.

We deepen into a conversation about my passion for resilience and The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook which explores some of the key ingredients to transform trauma into the gold of self-awareness by walking your own Hero or Heroine’s journey.

Listen to this enriching podcast with Sounds True

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Fascia and the Vagus Nerve | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Healing from the Inside Out

Fascia and your Vagus Nerve Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Connective Tissue tendon, Berkshire Bioscience Library

Have you ever had a morning in which you wake up with a painful knot in your neck? What happened? Did you sleep in a funny position or was it the wild dream that had you tossing and turning? Maybe it was due to the stressful work meeting you had the day before or because you feel worried about something in the future. While this may sound strange, your tight neck could even be related to what you ate the night before or an event that happened many years ago.

Intuitively, we all know that stress shows up in our bodies as muscular tension. But, when we look more closely at the body-mind connection we recognize that fascia plays a key role in how we physically experience stress and heal from traumatic events. Furthermore, since the vagus nerve plays an important role in communicating changes in fascia to your brain, we explore how attending to vagal tone helps you to heal. 

Fascia also plays a key role in your resilience. You can nourish fascia and the vagus nerve by attending to your body and mind through sensory awareness, conscious breathing, and mindful movement. These tools help you to recover more quickly from stressful experiences and heal traumatic events from your past. 

Understanding Fascia

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