I have been inspired lately reading Bessel van der Kolk’s recently published book, The Body Keeps the Score. Highly readable, this specialist in working with trauma describes his journey involving surprising discoveries and research into the neurobiology of trauma and how to effectively work with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One of the chapters most fascinating to me is on how profoundly helpful yoga can be for those suffering from PTSD. I would love to see similar research done with Continuum Movement.
I have been consistently impressed by how valuable Continuum can be as part of one’s journey in healing trauma, both in classes and, perhaps more surprisingly, in Skype sessions. In my workshops and classes, I am touched by how participants begin to relate to their experience differently once they’ve had a chance to deepen into the practice of Continuum. For example, they might comment on how the old familiar fear or pain came up but, instead of being overwhelmed by it, they were able to acknowledge it was there, remember an important question in Continuum of ”What else?” meaning “What else is possible here?” Being in the slow, fluid pace of Continuum, with enhanced space around their experience, they were more in a witness state, and were at choice about how to interact with their experience. They could then remember and try some of the breaths and sounds of Continuum that are particularly useful in shifting patterns and habits.
This freedom of choice is a key aspect of healing our trauma. Whatever happened to us happened. We cannot change that. We all have the history we have. It has influenced us and will continue to be available to us as part of our perspective and understanding of life. We do not however, need to be at the mercy of our history. Our trauma doesn’t need to rule us. Once we begin to create space around it, our relationship with it can begin to change.
This is where a mindfulness approach is so helpful in working with trauma. Research shows how mindful observation changes our neurobiology. Trauma often leaves us with an over-active amygdala. This important part of the limbic brain acts like a sentry, always on guard for any hints of the next attack or threat. When it detects danger, it signals other parts of the nervous system to prepare, setting off a stress response. Our sympathetic, fight flight system is activated, ready for the worst.
This reaction is of course useful when there is actually danger present. The problem occurs when the amygdala and associated sympathetic nervous system are repeatedly or continuously activated, so that the person is hyper-vigilant and unable to relax. With this defensive system active, it becomes difficult to accurately perceive friendly social impulses. For example, a child I treat immediately reacts violently if another child accidentally brushes her shoulder. Once she has recovered, she feels ashamed of her outburst. In that activated state, she is unable to differentiate between friendly or accidental gestures and actual hostility or threat. This requires a different part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, which can calm fear, regulate emotions, and stimulate the social engagement nervous system. Without its support, it becomes almost impossible to have friends.
Mindfulness has been noted to settle the amygdala and activate the pre-frontal cortex. This effectively brings the person more fully into present time, where it is possible to accurately access friendly vs. threatening approaches.
I consider Continuum to be a mindfulness practice. We begin each session with some time in a “baseline,” where we observe our starting point in relation to our breath and ground. We note the qualities of the breath, where it moves in the body, how easily our tissues move with the breath. We also attend to the places where our bodies make contact with the surface we are on. To what extent are we able to rest or yield into the support of gravity, or do we resist and pull away from that support? How much of the body is resting or making contact? This quality of mindful observation can shift our neurobiology.
This, however, is just our beginning. We then enquire with various breaths, sounds and movement, practicing being aware of the sensations they invoke in our bodies as we explore with them. Can we sense the vibrations of an “O” sound, for example? Where do we sense it? How much of the body is resonating with it? This is an indication of how fluid or densified the tissues are. After practicing, we return to our baseline to check how things may have changed. Often, we find our tissues have softened. We have melted more into the floor. Our breath is slower, easier and fuller. We feel remarkably alive, refreshed and relaxed.
Our practice of Continuum has a major effect of slowing us down. When we are drawn into our trauma patterns, we tend to accelerate. Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing, has referred to the “trauma vortex,” where we are pulled into the trauma history or pattern quickly, often before we even realize it is happening. Slowing down can help us to be more at choice in this process. Our perception widens. We can remember what supports or resources us in the midst of our conditions. In Continuum classes, I advise participants to notice when their movement speeds up or is familiar or repetitive. These are times to intentionally slow down, ask “What else?” and apply certain sounds, breaths and movements that can interrupt the pattern.
These kinds of tools can be empowering. Not only do we come more into presence and present time as we mindfully observe our experience; we also can operate less on automatic and habit. We have more freedom to make different choices, which can lead to different outcomes. The result includes changes in not only the nervous system, but also our tissues and our lives.
Emilie Conrad, Founder of Continuum Movement
Photo by Cherionna Menzam-Sills