Of Trauma and Emotional Freedom
When I was about sixteen, squirrels invaded our house. They came and went freely and inhabited the attic, where they could be heard running wind sprints across the eaves, usually late at night when we were trying to sleep. F—ing bastards, my Dad would growl. We tried several methods to lure them back into their natural habitat; the more dramatic of these I won’t describe. But the squirrels, of course, were smarter. They’d outwit the mechanism, chow down on $7.99 all-natural peanut butter, and clamber back into the rafters. They were well-fed, these squirrels—and that’s what led, finally, to their demise.
One spring day, in response to the sound of panicked squealing, we climbed the attic stairs to find a young, chubby, grass-and-peanut-fed squirrel inside one of the traps. My Dad and I elected my brother to place the cage in the back seat of the family Volvo and we drove, squirrel in tow, to a small preserve in the suburbs of Boston. We rolled the windows down and played Mozart at top volume to drown out the sounds of his (the squirrel, not my brother) high-pitched protest. We named him General McAllister, for the voracity of the orders he executed from the back seat of the car.
In time we arrived. We parked near a stately willow tree and wasted no time separating cage from car, hoping for the General’s speedy transition back into nature. By this time, though, he was silent. My brother carefully opened the cage, fully expecting him to leap wildly out and attack anyone in his path.
Nothing happened. The General remained in the cage, nose protruding just past the wide-open entrance, plump haunches quivering in fear and outrage. We jumped up and down and waved our arms, hoping to infuse him with the energy and incentive needed for escape. Still nothing. What is he waiting for? we wondered. We had just decided to leave both squirrel and cage behind when suddenly, with the force of a projectile missile, the General shot out and ran for the woods.
On the way back, conversation was minimal. We were sobered at the sight of that squirrel who, despite the opening right in front of his eyes, remained caged for over 5 minutes, neither processing nor trusting the sudden advent of freedom. We were also, perhaps, disquieted by the chord of familiarity the incident struck in us, an echo of resonance with our own direct experience. After all, who among us hasn’t remained in an untenable situation far too long for want of the awareness that in fact, we are free to walk away?
Here in Boston, the worst winter in modern history has surrendered to spring. And yet, in my own body and the bodies of the yogis who come to my classes, I see something that puts me in mind of the long-delayed flight of General McAllister. Many of us retain the posture of winter: a deep contraction in the front body, a collapse in the chest, a tightening of the scalene and trapezius muscles, a hunching of the shoulders toward the ears, all guarding against a further onslaught of snow and cold. This stance exacts a toll on the body, as all forms of protection do. With the repeated assaults of winter safely in the past and May just ahead, the armor that once got us through winter now guards against spring.
The modern yoga world is peppered with information about trauma-sensitive yoga training. It heartens me to see that we’ve become more aware of ways to reach growing numbers of practitioners in public and private settings who contend with chronic stress, anxiety, depression, pain syndromes, trauma histories, and more.
At the same time, witnessing others’ still-guarded bodies and inhabiting my own, I reflect on how many of us harbor hidden trauma. It’s tough to reach adulthood without something “big” living in our body. This something can take many forms: The insidious perpetration of unthinkable acts from someone we trusted. A constant emotional battery and shaming throughout childhood. A parent who doles out love every so often only to take it away hours or even minutes later. We pitch our tents on a mental battlefield and camp out, drawing a multitude of predators who threaten to devour us. Shards of criticism and the shrapnel of “not good enough” burrow into our bodies where they fester and cause us to cower and contract in perpetual fear. Not all of these experiences may make the “cut” of post-traumatic stress criteria, but they too are forms of trauma.
I think about how often the mind unwittingly reenacts traumatic memories, emotions, and experiences long after the events themselves have passed. The body, for its part, continues to incubate them. Both mind and body do this countless times each day. We’re not so very different from General McAllister, who stayed in his cage while the door to freedom yawned open just centimeters away from his quivering whiskers. And it evokes our springtime body shapes, which continue to react to the spectre of winter even as magnolias bloom around us.
Trauma has multiple origins. And it has many facets. In these first moments of spring, I’m reminded of one of the most destructive of these: how often and easily we stand before an open door and think it closed. One of trauma’s legacies is that we don’t know, in mind or body, that we are actually free.