Only in an open, nonjudgmental space can we acknowledge what we are feeling. Only in an open space where we're not all caught up in our own version of reality can we see and hear and feel who others really are, which allows us to be with them and communicate with them properly. —Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart
A Safe, Predictable, and Controllable Environment: Creating SPACE for Recovery and Resilience
by Daniel J. Libby, Ph.d
As yoga therapists, we are tasked with helping our students find that open, nonjudgmental space within themselves so that they can reach greater levels of physical, mental, and spiritual wellness. We do that, in part, by creating this same sort of non-judgmental space in our yoga studio or treatment room so our students will be able to see and hear themselves and others with more accuracy and compassion. But how can we help our students find that space if they are stuck in the spiral of posttraumatic stress (PTS), chronic stress, depression, chronic pain, and/or addiction? (Note that I prefer the term posttraumatic stress instead of posttraumatic stress disorder to recognize that the symptoms that individuals experience can often be normal reactions to extraordinary events.)
This article presents what I have found to be a helpful heuristic for yoga therapists to create the same kind of space in which we can safely and effectively share the practices of embodied conscious awareness with students who are recovering from trauma. Specifically, I will describe how trauma is characterized, both externally and internally, by a lack of a safe, predictable, and controllable environment (SPACE). Next, I describe how this lack of both an external and internal SPACE characterizes the everyday, moment-to-moment existence for many individuals dealing with the symptoms of trauma-related disorders, including PTS. Finally, I describe how yoga practices naturally lead toward the creation of internal SPACE, and how the establishment of the external SPACE during yoga therapy sessions can support and enhance the establishment of this internal SPACE, thus creating the conditions necessary for healing from trauma.
The Body's Self-Healing Mechanisms
When I broke my ankle several years ago, the tissues healed themselves. The doctors did not perform surgery or give me any medication to Fix my ankle. They put my lower leg in a boot that kept my foot in a fixed position, creating the conditions that allowed my body's natural healing mechanisms to repair the bone and ligament on their own. That boot was not my favorite thing, but it created the space needed to allow me to now walk with full range of motion and without pain.
In my experience as a psychotherapist, yoga instructor, and yoga educator, I have found that the mind and spirit work just like the body: given the right conditions, they have the capacity to heal. Just like my ankle, the mind and spirit, when supported by the right conditions, are prewired for self-correction and self-healing. That is what trauma-sensitive or trauma-informed yoga is really about. It is not primarily about preventing the triggering of trauma reactions. Trauma-sensitive yoga is essentially about creating the conditions for healing to occur, and this is the foundation for everything else that occurs during the session.
The conditions that allow psychological and spiritual healing to occur are the same as those that allow physical healing and are created when the body's autonomic nervous system (ANS) is dominated by parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity via the ventral vagus nerve. This state, commonly referred to as "rest and restore" (as opposed to the fight-or-flight behaviors triggered by sympathetic nervous system activity), is the part of the autonomic cycle that allows the body's inherent homeostatic and immune system mechanisms to repair the wear and tear that the sympathetic nervous system causes in the body. However, this is also the part of the ANS that supports an alert, relaxed state where our attention is allowed to abide in the present moment with an attitude of acceptance and welcoming. It also supports our ability to connect and communicate with others, resulting in better perceived social support, which is also a major determinant of health and wellness. For individuals who suffer from the symptoms of PTS and other trauma-related conditions, the dysregulation of the ANS underlies many, if not all, of the symptoms, and regulating this system is a prerequisite for recovery.
Therefore, the therapeutic benefit of a particular yoga practice depends on the extent to which it allows our students to dip into that SPACE where they find a deep sense of calm and rest in the body and mind. This occurs when the PNS is allowed to dominate the ANS so that the body-mind's natural healing mechanisms can flourish.
A Lack of SPACE in Trauma and PTS
Biobehavioral theories of stress and coping posit that traumatic events are perceived as stressful to the extent that they are experienced as being unpredictable, uncontrollable, and threatening. For example, a car accident (the most common cause of PTS) is inherently unsafe, as you cannot predict what your vehicle is going to do or what other vehicles are going to do. Often your vehicle is out of control, and you certainly can't control other vehicles.
In addition to the lack of SPACE in these external circumstances, traumatic events are marked by a lack of SPACE in the individual's experience of their own inner world, including the experience of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. For example, one veteran for whom I provided psychotherapy spoke about how he projectile vomited the first time he had to pick up the body part of one of his brothers. So, in addition to the horrors he was experiencing externally, he was now faced with a physical body—his most personal identification—that was suddenly unpredictable (he had not foreseen his reaction), uncontrollable (he tried, unsuccessfully, to hold it in), and unsafe (he lived in fear that his body would betray him again).
For someone still recovering from PTS after a traumatic event, the internal and external worlds continue to be marked by this perceived lack of safety, predictability, and control. The PTS symptoms are a manifestation of this feeling that other people, places, and things are likely unsafe, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. But the PTS symptoms are also a manifestation of the feeling that one's own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are unsafe, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Common symptoms among individuals recovering control can produce a direct sense of safety in the nervous system.
With the practice of meditation, our students develop a SPACE in the mind, As they learn the practice of concentration, they begin to be able to predict the wanderings of the mind. They become more aware of their habits of thinking and acting. As their practice develops they gain a greater ability to gather their attentional resources. Each time they practice bringing the attention back to the object of concentration, they are exercising their ability to control their own internal environment. Over time the mind becomes a tool that allows context. In disability, from PTS include intrusive thoughts and memories, nightmares, hypervigilance, physiological reactivity, impulsive emotional responses, and compulsive addictions all expressions of a body-mind that is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unsafe.
The lack of a SPACE marks the experience of both the external circumstances of a traumatic event and the individual's reactions to it. For individuals still recovering from PTS, every day is experienced with this same lack of SPACE in both external and internal realms.
Yoga Creates an Internal SPACE
Yoga is effective for those recovering from trauma because it naturally leads toward the creation of an internal SPACE. Each of the practices in and of themselves helps us create a more predictable, controllable, and safer internal environment.
The development of an internal SPACE starts with the initial awareness of the breath. When our students pay attention to their breath, they become aware of the very predictable rhythms of the breath. At the top of every inhale, they can predict with 100% probability an exhale. And at the end of each exhale, an inhale. As they continue to work with the breath, they begin to practice exerting control of the inhale and the exhale. They learn that they can control the depth and rate and rhythm of their breath. This specific control can produce a direct sense of safety in the nervous system.
With the practice of meditation, our students develop a space in the mind. As they learn the practice of concentration, they begin to be able to predict the wanderings of the mind. They become more aware of their habits of thinking and acting. As their practice develops baking a greater ability to gather their attention all resources. Each time they practice bringing the attention back to the object of concentration, they are exercising their ability to control their own internal environment. Over time the mind becomes a tool that allows them to think clearly, solve problems, and see issues in context. In other words, the mind becomes a source of safety, predictability, and control.
The asana practices of yoga create a SPACE in the body. As our students practice mindful movement, they begin to learn what their body feels like and how it works. They become more acquainted with the physical sensations that occur at rest and while in various physical positions. They become able to control their bodies with Less pain and a greater range of motion. They gain an enhanced ability to control balance and coordination. This increased sense of predictability and control creates an internal environment marked by a feeling of being comfortable in one's own skin and of having self-confidence in the ability to move freely and safely through the world.
For all of these reasons, yoga is an ideal practice for those recovering from trauma. The practice of embodied awareness inherently creates the conditions for healing to occur. As the mind and body feel safer, more predictable, and more controllable, the body-mind is able to dip into that quiet parasympathetic space where the conditions for healing are created.
Creating an External SPACE to Facilitate an Internal SPACE
The art of trauma-sensitive yoga is about maximizing the ability for yoga practices to create this internal SPACE in the body-mind. We can facilitate this internal SPACE by maximizing the felt sense of an external SPACE during the yoga experience. This creates the conditions that allow our students to more effectively gather their attentional resources for grounding in the sensations of the breath and body in the present moment.
Yoga therapists who want to develop this ability to enhance clients' internal SPACE need to be especially mindful of all of the ways they may be unconsciously creating an external SPACE or the lack of an external SPACE in the yoga experience, If our students do not feel comfortable enough to devote all of their attentional resources to their internal experience, their ability to create internal SPACE with the practices will be compromised. We should remember also that novel experiences are by nature more unpredictable and uncontrollable and potentially more threatening than experiences that are not novel. For many individuals recovering from trauma, a yoga practice may be a novel experience that can be perceived as lacking safety, predictability, and control. Even the word "yoga" may conjure up images or thoughts that are experienced as uncomfortably foreign and strange. In addition, many individuals recovering from trauma have an exaggerated tendency to focus on potential sources of threat. Therefore, yoga instructors and yoga therapists who want to increase the accessibility and effectiveness of their work should pay mindful attention to potential unconscious threat cues when creating an external SPACE for their students to practice, In my experience, this allows the student to be fully present with his or her body and to achieve the most benefit from practice.
When I train yoga professionals to work with trauma survivors, I focus less on the specific rules about how they should teach yoga and more on the general concepts of creating an external SPACE that allows students to remain focused on their immediate experience. When working with students recovering from trauma, we should be mindful of the ways that 1) we as providers, 2) the space we work in, and 3) the practices we share may or may not affect their felt sense of an internal SPACE. For example, when we greet our students with a friendly face and authentic warmth, their brains process our facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice on an unconscious level as indications of a safe environment. If we are distracted or disinterested, the ANS will detect the unconscious features of our presentation as potential sources of threat. This may make it less possible for students to direct all of their attentional resources to their experience with the practice.
Similarly, the common guidance in trauma-sensitive yoga to teach from the mat" allows students to redirect attentional resources that may have gone to tracking and trying to predict our movements in the room to tracking their own internal experience. And when we tell students at the outset what to expect in the session, we are providing them with predictability; any attentional resources that may have gone to wondering what would happen next can be redirected. to their own immediate experience of body and mind. Yoga therapists working with trauma survivors are strongly encouraged to seek out specialty training to learn how to best create and hold SPACE so they can safely and effectively share the practices of yoga with their students,
The world is often not safe, predictable, or controllable. For individuals recovering from trauma, this lack of certainty is intense and pervasive. When our students practice yoga, they develop a felt sense of safety, predictability; and control of their own body-minds, They learn to feel safer and more comfortable in their own skin in terms of feeling more vitality and less pain, and in feeling less debilitating somatic anxiety. They begin to know their bodies better, being better able to predict how their bodies and minds will be affected by what they eat, how they move, and with whom they connect. And they begin to master control by making better decisions. As yoga therapists, we can facilitate this process by continuously asking ourselves how we can create a sense of a SPACE in the yoga experience. This allows our students to clip into that space between stimulus and response where they are able to choose thoughts and behaviors that promote their own posttraumatic growth.
Daniel J, Libby. Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a licensed clinical psychologist. He is also Founder of Veterans Yoga Project (VYP), a 501(4(3) dedicated to supporting recovery and resilience among veterans, families, and communities. Learn more about VYP's Mindful Resilience Training or download a SPACE-creating breathing practice at VeteransYogaProject.org.