When language becomes a habit, it's essential to pause and reflect on its implications. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it defines "release" as "allowing or enabling to escape from confinement; setting free." However, before focusing on releasing tension, we must understand the reasons behind its presence – why do we feel tense in the first place?
In situations of severe stress or trauma recovery, solely concentrating on releasing tension may lead us astray. In evolution, bodily tension serves a purpose of signaling danger. Our fascia, a network of connective tissue, works intelligently by sending signals to the brain to regulate the nervous system in response to our environment. If we sense danger, the body may tense up and mobilize the sympathetic branch to prepare for fight or flight.
Our mammalian nervous systems instinctively determine the most intelligent course of action. If escape or defense is impossible, we have a built-in mechanism to go limp, simulating death, which makes us less appealing to potential predators. In the unfortunate event that the predator persists, our bodies release a surge of natural painkillers, numbing the sensation of teeth sinking into us. For trauma survivors, dissociation is a way to numb out the pain of their past experiences.
Yoga, in particular yin yoga, promotes healing through deep reflection, inner connection, and relaxation. Often teachers habitually cue students to ‘let go’ and open the body/mind in ways that may ‘free’ them physically, emotionally and spiritually. However, in trauma recovery, surrendering completely might not be appropriate for those who are already too collapsed. Surrendering may have been a survival mechanism in the past for trauma survivors, yet releasing tension habitually can exacerbate the sense of collapse, immobility, and helplessness.
In trauma recovery, it is important to understand the fascial system mirrors the autonomic nervous system's threat response. In the case of a collapsed state, these individuals need to rediscover their physical power, agency, and strength to access their "life force" (prana or Qi) and possibly their repressed anger to break the cycle of collapse. It is challenging to escape a chronically collapsed state if there is no energy or tension to mobilize ourselves. Hence the obsession of ‘letting go’ in yin yoga does not serve its purpose here.
After all, our coping mechanisms, may it be fight/flight or numbing, help us function in life. Releasing emotional or physical tension may feel good and cathartic, but relying solely on catharsis can lead to chasing highs and returning to previous patterns once the feelings subside. As well, removing these survival resources too quickly can cause us to fall apart, unable to handle daily demands. Emphasizing flexibility, softness, and openness in yin yoga without addressing the need for stability might leave practitioners feeling vulnerable and less safe.
As yin yoga teachers, it might be helpful to replace the concept of release and letting go with the idea of nervous system regulation. Releasing physical and emotional tension without considering where it goes might oversimplify the complexities of healing our bodies and minds. True release can only happen when we have a solid physical and psychological container to let go into. Releasing without these containers can lead to a perpetual cycle of collapse and reassembly.
Therefore, the first step to healing through yin yoga is to create a sense of stability and safety, both physically and emotionally. Understand the physical practice of yin yoga and the specific energetic outcomes of each yin yoga posture, would allow for a safe container to release tension into. Only when we feel safer and more stable can we let go of maladaptive movement patterns, muscle tension, or psychological survival strategies. This way, alignment with our bodies' and minds' healthiest states can
occur with ease and flow.
Interested in learning about trauma recovery and yin yoga? I’ll be leading a 50hr Trauma-Informed Yin Yoga Online Teacher Training. Don’t miss out on this training on trauma physiology and sensitivity teaching. Click here for more information.
E-RYT 500 | YACEP
Annie is the founder of Soulful Yin Yoga, an exclusive trauma-informed Yin Yoga teacher training program that teaches trauma physiology and sensitivity teaching. Annie infuses Chinese meridians and yogic wisdom into her teachings offering a holistic healing in our modern lives. Learn more about her training here.