Notes From The Trauma-Sensitive Yoga 10 Week Course. Week Nine: Body Memories and Predictions

(Facilitator notes from the 10-week course)

The brain can do more than map present moment body states, it can also predict and create body states based on past experiences. In this way, it anticipates what is going to happen.

As a result, much or our experiences are a combination of what is actually happening and what we predict (consciously or unconsciously) will happen.

It’s thought that this predictive processing saves energy. Specifically, it would take a lot of mental energy to continuously reprocess everything from scratch. Furthermore, it facilitates faster processing as our brain can anticipate what we will need. Essentially as we move about the world, we are continuously using past experiences to understand and predict our present moment situations.

As a result, we can have a physical reaction to anticipated events, which (importantly) might not actually come to pass. Another way of putting this, is that we have a body memory, our body becomes functionally attuned to the environment. That is our body learns to respond in particular ways as a result of what we have experienced. As discussed in our previous sessions (Emotion In Our Bodies Part One and Emotion In Our Bodies Part Two), this physical reaction can then create an emotional feeling.

In recent research, Jung et al. 2020 has shown that attention on a particular body area can bias our present moment experience. They found that focusing on body areas that are activated when in a fearful state biases perception of facial expressions, so they are more likely to be perceived as fearful. This suggests, if we are more attuned to particular parts of our body, for example, if they are holding tension or pain, this influences how we perceive the world.

In line with this, Bessel van der Kolk has suggested that following trauma our bodies can be held/trapped in a defensive trauma response. That is, we have a body memory- we have mentally learnt that the environment is dangerous this in turn results in us holding a physical defensive trauma response. Given the research mentioned above, it seems reasonable to conclude that if our bodies are held in a fear response this can bias our perception of the world towards being more fearful- creating a cycle.

Potential ways in which trauma-sensitive yoga help therapeutically.

1. Changing postural set points. Practicing yoga gives us the opportunity to change the posture and our physical experience of our body. Thus, releasing trauma induced postural patterns.

a. During the practice: We get the opportunity to consciously feel different sensations in our bodies. Some of these sensations may be helpful and therefore give us a new experience of our body. Some of these might also reduce or override the intensity of the sensory signals coming from long held defensive postural patterns.

b. On an unconscious level, the neurologist Antonio Damasio theorises that our conscious experience begins with unconscious processing of body signals. That is, our brain is continuously monitoring the state of our bodies (e.g., posture, stretch receptors, visceral, tactile) and this influences our later, higher order, conscious experience. By changing our posture, by releasing muscle tension and increasing strength, we can likely change this underlie physical state that can bias our conscious experience. This, in turn, can create a shift in our subjective perception of the world, potentially contributing to creating a newfound sense of safety.

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