yoga, meditation, and dissociation


Cartoon by Daryl Seitchik

For a few months now, I’ve been working with trauma survivors. Yeah, that’s where I’ve been. It’s an Experience. I’ve felt unprepared for the work to an extreme I’ve never known before. So I’ve been talking to trauma survivors and therapists, and reading as much as I can. It has brought things together for me in a way I never expected. It highlights questions I’ve had about repression in meditation practice since my first experiences with it.

I’ve long noticed a strong habit of dissociating (usually non-pathological) in both yoga practitioners and meditators, both myself and others. This is generally is the opposite of the practices’ intentions, to be more aware one’s present experience. But numbing out can be soothing, or sometimes just habit, so we do it anyway. It’s become something of a pop-psych topic in yoga blogs of late (mine included), usually defined as spiritual bypassing.

In a physical yoga practice, this can show up as the “love-and-light-just-be-positive” sheen that some like to polish over difficult emotions and issues, and has somehow become associated with yoga. For me, it occurs as more of a physical bypass. A vigorous yoga practice feels fantastic. “Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators” (Harvard Men’s Health Watch, 2011). It can result in a high that takes me out of my body if I let it.

Is this a problem? On most levels, no. It feels good. It’s great for health. It’s better than most other addictions. But it’s not bringing awareness to the moment or physical experience, which a physical yoga practice can, and arguably should, do.

In a meditation practice, it can be trickier. Like physical yoga, meditation can lower stress and bring better health. “If stress has you anxious, tense and worried, consider trying meditation. Spending even a few minutes in meditation can restore your calm and inner peace [What does that even mean? Are you selling me something??]” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2014).

But many meditation instructions can inadvertently lead to suppressing emotions. “Touch an emotion and let it go. Detach from the emotion and observe it, then return to the breath.” While these practices can be extremely helpful, they can also be an excuse not to feel difficult, painful emotions. And these emotions can’t be “let go” until they’ve been felt and processed.

If you have a habit of dissociating from your emotions, e.g. emotional numbing, this can be counterproductive. At an extreme, detaching from emotion and observing is exactly what some trauma victims do to survive unbearable experiences. When a person cannot escape (flight) or fight, the body will go into a freeze mode, similar to an animal playing dead. Dissociation in its extreme form: muscles go soft, painkilling endorphins and opioids release, and heartbeat and breath slow to all but a stop. Sometimes the person has an experience of floating out of his body and observing from afar (Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1997). To ask this person to detach and observe his emotions is, at best, not helpful. While this physiological response to inescapable terror is not likely to be triggered by meditation, habituating a dissociative response by numbing out difficult emotions exacerbates the problem. This might not be immediately obvious if the practitioner finds it soothing. Yet it inhibits long term recovery. Current models of trauma recovery involve remembering (if dissociative amnesia occurred), experiencing the emotions, and integrating them into conscious awareness and identity (Herman again). Only then can some semblance of “letting go” begin.

So what’s this got to do with the average person? Maybe not so much. While emotional numbing is certainly encouraged in pursuit-of-happiness America, and all meditators fall prey to dissociating (daydreaming is a mild form) now and again, if learned properly, the average practitioner will learn to connect with and experience emotion instead of repress it.

Yet I experience this and see it frequently in others. I don’t know if more trauma survivors are drawn to yoga and meditation in attempt to manage or heal their pain, or if the average person is so accustomed to pushing away hurt and anger that he has totally forgotten how to feel and process it. We’re encouraged to be tough and strong. Socially, we often gloss over our emotions as well as others, because we don’t have the social capacity to handle them. We have so many stories and theories and dances around our pain because the terror of facing it is too high. And for some, it is. Those who lack strong community, long-term, trustworthy intimate relationships, or a stable home life don’t have the support system that makes processing emotional pain possible. If you have trained yourself to detach from your emotions (through meditation or otherwise) you lose the ability to feel even when you want to feel. Unfortunately, you can’t just turn off the painful emotions. The good ones shut down too.

I’ve no empirical evidence to support this, but it seems to me that there are probably more trauma survivors in yoga and meditation communities than the population at large. And that’s a good thing. Because if done properly, these practices can lead us into our experience rather than away from it. But God, it’s hard. The temptation to use meditation to float away and self-sooth is incredible. And it probably has health benefits, if the body calms down as a result. Because many trauma survivors have lost the basic, essential ability to self-sooth, this can be an incredible boon.

So why not? Using meditation or yoga (or anything) to self sooth or numb out can calm you down and keep you okay, and that’s fine. The issue is that it won’t change you. It won’t heal you. It won’t transform you.

I do meditation retreats because it takes me a long time (a few days) to stop dissociating and actually meditate. For the record, I do not find them either peaceful or fun. After a retreat in 2012, I realized that after over a decade of daily practice, and finally being in a pretty good place, my biggest fears were still fully intact. My patterns did not want to budge. So I finally made a commitment to face my pain. It’s not soothing. It’s not easy. And my resistance is often just as massive as my will to face myself. But I try. In a way, yeah, I’ve been trying since my practice started, but only since I made that commitment have my baby steps gotten me somewhere a little bit new. Before that I wanted and expected someone else, something else, to take me out of my pain. “If only this…if only that…” I whined. When I let that go (haha) and owned how I actively, if unconsciously, prohibited this or that from ever becoming a possibility, something started to shift. It’s not exciting or sexy. It’s not saying an affirmation and manifesting a trip to Paris. It’s more like getting to the mat every f***ing day. Like asking for help when I don’t even think I want it, because I need to learn how to trust. And how to ask. Like sitting down and writing an hour a day, even if everything feels inchoate and unsayable. Like sharing parts of myself I’ve hidden for decades because they feel, I feel, too ugly and hateful to share.

Unbelievable. So how do we market this? eh??

We don’t. There’s nothing to market, no one way to break your patterns, if that’s what you want to do. It’s different for everyone, and extremely painful and scary because it requires feeling the unfelt, and for some, integrating unspeakable traumas that often feel better off forgotten.

But yeah, sexy ladies sitting on the beach, or in the middle of Broadway, meditating? Bliss out. Numb out. Self sooth. Buy something. Just ask yourself, why are you doing it? Is it serving you? If it’s not, come back.


*I migrated the site to a different web host last week and am waiting for wordpress support to migrate the email subscribers. Hopefully that will happen soon. Thanks ~Anastasia

2 Responses to “yoga, meditation, and dissociation”

  1. Deb C. says:

    Great post. I’ve been sharing yoga with women who experienced domestic and sexual violence for several years. I have found, that in the beginning, encouraging women to use yoga and meditation to calm and self-soothe is a good thing. But, all of my classes build in yoga philosophy that encourages using yoga and meditation to work with emotions that come up. For those who stick with me a while, transitioning to looking deeper seems to happen. But, looking deeper before their “container” is strong enough can have the opposite effect of what is hoped for. Thanks for sharing.

  2. anastasia says:

    Hi Deb, Thanks so much for commenting. Yours sounds like an excellent approach, and I’m guessing (from a peek at your blog) you also have a strong sense of what is needed and when. Taking the time to build trust is crucial, I think, so that there’s a container for that kind of work. I know I immediately distrust a teacher or leader (in any situation) who wants to force or fake safety and intimacy with a group that just came together 10 minutes earlier. And yeah, I definitely relate to that “those who stick with me…” It can be almost magical what comes together with a little time–it definitely does not happen in an evening. Or at least, shouldn’t be forced. Again, thanks! I’ll keep an eye on your blog. ~Anastasia

Leave a Reply