Waking the Tiger: the Evolutionary Value of Yoga and Long Holds
In his book, Waking the Tiger , Peter Levine examines trauma from an evolutionary perspective. He argues that trauma is basically the result of a flight-or-flight response that has not been completed. If you’re not familiar with the fight-or-flight response (which most people are these days), its a series of events that occurs when our sympathetic nervous system is activated by stress. In nature, this occurs when an animal experiences a threat to it’s safety. Unfortunately, as human beings, our brains have become so evolved that we can activate this response without experiencing an actual threat. Just the perception of a threat can turn on our parasympathetic nervous systems.
In nature, when an animal is threatened, one of three things occurs:
1) The fight-or-flight response is activated, the animal experiences increased heart rate, increased respiration, and increased cortisol levels, and expends this energy by running away from the threat.
2) The animal experiences the same nervous system activation and uses this energy to fight off whatever threat it has encountered
3) The animal freezes or “play’s dead”
The freeze response is something we don’t often hear as much about. Yet, Levine argues that it serves a very important evolutionary role. By freezing, animals go into shock and protect themselves from the physical harm and trauma of whatever pain is inflicted on them. If it’s a gazelle being eaten by a lion, then the gazelle is (at least) spared the physical pain of death. There’s also the possibility that the predator will become disinterested in the “dead” animal, in which case the animal will eventually pop back to it’s feet, shake off the trauma, and escape back to the herd.
This “shaking off” of trauma is something Levine argues we observe regularly in the animal kingdom. He gives the example of a bird flying into a pane of glass and appearing dead, only to return to life, give a few wing flaps, and eventually fly away. However, as human beings, we often prevent trauma from running it’s natural course. In fact, many of us have learned to inhibit the “shaking off,” part of the fight-flight-freeze response. As a result, Levine argues, our nervous systems are unable to complete the trauma response and this energy gets stuck within our bodies. Our heart rates stay elevated, cortisol continues to flood our blood streams, and with no physiological release of this energy, our bodies eventually store this excess energy as trauma.
To complete this response, Levine prescribes a variety of techniques rooted in somatic psychology and advocates for clients to tap into their “felt sense.” Basically, he encourages clients to get out of their heads and into their bodies, and to learn how to let this nervous system activation run its course.
The goal of Levine’s version of somatic psychology and of many yoga practices is therefore the same – to be Mindful of your body, to sit with discomfort, and to allow sensations to arise without inhibition or judgment. Nowhere is this more real than on your yoga mat, in the midst of a long hold of an asana posture.
Amy Weintraub provides similar insight and advice in her book Yoga for Depression . In one chapter, she instructs the reader to practice an extended hold of bridge pose – holding anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. During this time, she instructs, you will start to feel muscular energy build, experience nervous system activation, and (with practice) eventually allow all of this energy to release. She cautions readers that it is not uncommon during this time to experience muscular contractions, twitching, emotional release, sudden shifts in temperature or respiration, or to have the urge to vocalize. After practicing the pose, she encourages readers to take time to allow the body to rest and incorporate whatever occurred in the pose. This, to me, sounds very similar to the experience recounted by Levine in Waking the Tiger .
Whether it’s through somatic psychology interventions or yoga holds – getting into the body and allowing the nervous system to complete its natural response can be a valuable component of trauma recovery and stress management. The point isn’t to stop feeling discomfort, but to allow yourself to feel the discomfort for long enough that it can release and move on. You can do this through developing your own yoga practice, reading Levine’s book, or under the guidance of a skilled therapist or yoga instructor. If at any time you find yourself trying to tackle this work and are feeling overwhelmed, stop, take a breath, and reach out to a trusted friend or consider working in conjunction with a mental health professional. The key to resolving trauma isn’t to push yourself to the point of re-traumatization, but to connect with your body and work at your own pace