A Modern Āyurvedic View of Trauma in light of Bhūta Vidya
Āyurveda and yoga therapy (yoga chikitsa) have an integrated mind-body approach to health and healing which indicates that somatic therapies are generally more effective in treating trauma. Āyurveda has three types of psycho-physiological constitutions that influence the personality, each of which processes traumatic experiences differently. Then there is the prāṇic movement of body-mind which is the main root of healing from trauma. Then there are mental capacities which are part of the innate nature (svabhāva) and have qualities of their own, similar to the variation of body shapes and sizes in people. Trauma is rooted in the prāṇic movement within the person, which then creates imbalances in the physical body and the higher mental capacities.
In Āyurveda and yoga therapy there is a much broader concept of prāṇa than is normally translated into English. The mind (affect-emotion and thought process) is prāṇa. Breath (life force) is also prāṇa as there is mind in the body with breath and no mind without breath. Therefore, prāṇa is also physical, emotional and mental movement/change. The way prāṇa works with the affect-emotion-thought process is that when we feel love our heart area feels warm, as this is the location this type of emotion is generated from. When we take a moment and think about someone we really love fondly, we can feel the chest open up and grow warm. We can also take a moment to think about something that we are really worried about and feel our stomach (samāna prāṇa) get disturbed. If we think about a sexual image, the genital organs get filled with blood.
Thoughts change the body and the body changes the emotions and thoughts.[i] Placing the awareness in a certain area of the body will change the emotions and thoughts. In this way, emotions live in the body. Paraplegics have been found to have less affect intensity after their injuries which has supported the theory that the body is producing the stimulus for emotion.[ii] Organ transplant recipients have been found to have desires (specifically tastes) that were not present previously, which have been found to match their donors.[iii] This has been called psychosomatic plasticity[iv] or as cellular memory[v] indicating that the organs retain actual memories as well as preferences from the individual they came from.[vi] Even minor organ changes make a difference in consciousness, such as patients who went through coronary bypass graft surgery are said to have a heightened sense of taste afterwards.[vii] Similarly, a change in posture can change mood, perspective and even senses like eyesight. The Bhela Saṁhitā (Nidānasthāna 7 & 8) specifically describes mental disease (unmada) as being rooted in the body from a somatic perspective.
As the body is held or moved differently, prāṇa moves accordingly. As the mind thinks differently, prāṇa moves within the body accordingly. As awareness is directed in the body, prāṇa-emotions-thoughts move accordingly. Any motion happening in the physical or emotional body is the function of prāṇa. The western concept that thought happens in the brain is not the same in yoga. Thought happens in the entire body, the body is an organism permeated with active consciousness. When we feel emotions, the head is not involved in making these feelings, it is processing them. The brain is a processing organ similar to the heart as a pumping organ. Blood is made in the marrow, oxygenated in the lungs, nourished and hydrated by the stomach, regulated by the liver and kidneys and motivated by the physical heart. In the same way, the body contains various elements of consciousness, affect, memory, and emotion which are orchestrated and regulated by the brain.
The James-Lange theory of emotion states that an emotion is the result of the mind’s perception of a physiological response. While a Cartesian view would think that the mind sees or thinks of something and then choses to have an emotion, the theory says that the body has a reaction and then the mind knows that it is experiencing a particular emotion. James explained that the stimulus has an effect on a sense organ which relays the information to the brain which then motivates the body and then the body sends information back to the brain as an emotionally laden stimulus.[viii]
The Vedic view sees the body and the mind working in unison as a state of consciousness. The affective state (bhāva) is the state of consciousness or condition of a person, there is not a separate experience of the body. The body state is the state of the individual. This physical state becomes an emotion (rasa/anubhāva) as the cognitive part of the mind gives meaning to the experience. For example, the bhāva of anger (krodha) is the trembling of the body (the physical state) and then this becomes the rasa/anubhāva of rage/violence/wildness (raudra).[ix] When we are angry the whole body is tense and shaking, this is the movement of prāṇa and a function of the mind-body unit.
Prāṇa is movement (wind), and mind is constantly moving as an active emotion-thought-image process. As we think, our body starts to feel. When thought gets stuck in a vicious cycle, the prāṇa is also stuck in the body. This is called bādhaka, which means blockage and relates to certain emotions or thoughts that become repetitive when the mind gets stuck. These thought patterns correlate to particular parts or areas of the body that become stuck. When someone feels sad, apāna prāṇa flows excessively downward, and the chest collapses and sinks inward. When the thoughts that are generating this movement of prāṇa get repetitive and become stuck as a perception or belief the body also becomes stuck, supporting the belief structure and how it lives in the body. In this way, somatic body work is a key element of changing emotional and mental patterns.
Van der Kolk say that “dissociation is the essence of trauma. The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own.”[x] In trauma, the blockage (bādhaka) can become a bhūta from this disassociation. Bhūta literally means has-been. The blockage takes on its own life, and takes on its own personality like the other pluralities of the person. The bhūta has its own process and actions that effect consciousness. It can even become so extreme that it can become an entirely different person inside of the individual and create a split personality. The bhūta can begin having as much control as one’s own brain, or in cases of severe mental illness more control. The prāṇa is stuck in this blockage which has become its own dysfunctional entity. In ancient cultures this has been called possession. In the Āyurvedic model, possession (graha) can come from inside such as a traumatic experience or outside such as possession by an external entity.[xi]
In order for the traumatic experience to be destructive (causing mental illness) there must be a weakness in the archetypes (kāraka) of the Sun and the Moon. The Moon archetype is indicative of the first year of life and the nurturance the infant received, and their ability to nurture and be nurtured later in life. This directly corresponds with modern attachment theory. When the Moon archetype is strong, there is more resilience to withstand and heal from a traumatic event or abusive situation. Research has shown that secure attachment indicates a traumatic event is less likely to cause PTSD while other less healthy attachment styles are disadvantaged.[xii] When the Moon archetype is compromised, the prāṇa is not as stable and trauma or abuse are more likely to create disturbances.
The Sun archetype relates to the sense of self, self-respect and personal autonomy. This archetype is most compromised by shame, humiliation or powerlessness which eclipses the spirit of a person and can even create splits in the personality. According to Bessel van der Kolk, one of the major factors in trauma is the inability to control the environment, or escape the trauma stimulus.[xiii] According to Donald Kalsched, shame and humiliation are primary affects associated with trauma and abuse which lead to fragmenting of the personality.[xiv] Both of these archetypes and the factors which compromise them are key factors to work with trauma and need to be addressed for a supportive environment for treating trauma.
Research also shows that trauma victims have less imagination capacities, as if that function of their brain is not working.[xv] Hillman says the soul [I prefer the term mental body] shows itself through images and imagination.[xvi] The lack of imagination indicates a blockage in the mental body. A healthy mind has “the capacity to shape our experience through imagination…”[xvii] In Vedic philosophy, the mental body (śukṣma śarīra) processes images, which means the health of the mental body is based on the quality of its images and its imaginal capacity. These images live in the entire body-mind system, not just the brain.
“Mindfulness” or self-reflective awareness is an important ingredient in somatic work. In Āyurvedic yoga chikitsā it is believed to specifically activate the area of the pre-frontal cortex.[xviii] The Bhela Saṁhitā (Śārīrasthāna 4) discusses the processing and integration of sensory and imaginal material to happen between the eyebrows in the pre-frontal cortex area. It says that information is compared to past experience and the future is imagined. This region controls planning our actions and focusing the mind.[xix] Research has shown that this central part of the brain has decreased activity in trauma victims.[xx] To move with awareness is to bring the less-conscious parts of the body under conscious control, as well as access non-conscious material stored as blockages in the body. As prāṇa is flowing, the thoughts that are prāṇa start moving. So these feelings that were there, that have gotten stuck (bādhaka) start moving again.
Any thought we have is a prāṇic movement. Affect, emotions, feelings are experienced in the body as changes in the state of consciousness. When we feel something, energy is moving. So there is a direct correlation; we cannot have a thought without prāṇic movement (felt as a bodily response) and we can’t have prāṇic movement without a thought.
Let’s say someone is grieving, there is healthy grieving and then there are those who get stuck in the grieving. In both Chinese medicine and yoga chikitsā, you don’t have to speak about your grief to release it. In yoga there are postures that release it, or breathing techniques or rituals that help clear the stuck affect. In Chinese medicine, there are acupuncture meridians where grief can be cleared or conscious movement (chi gong) where stuck energy can be moved. Prāṇa can change, it doesn’t have to come out of us cognitively or rationally. Expressive arts, or movement is another way to move prāṇa-affect-emotion. As long as we can get the prāṇa moving, then the blockage can be cleared and health restored. In Chinese medicine and Āyurvedic yoga chikitsā, the physiology is supported in this process with herbs, massage, postures, acupuncture or other such treatments that help remove the physical structures that have developed to hold the prāṇic blockages.
In most cases, these Asian systems have understood that non-verbal treatment is more effective and therefore place very little emphasis on talking therapies. The process doesn’t have to come through the brain, it can go through the body and come out the big toe. From the western perspective, India doesn’t have a psychological system. But from the Āyurvedic perspective, to put trauma into words and talk about it is considered a lower release valve primarily used for secrets and things that one is holding in and needs to get off their shoulders by sharing. There are multiple treatments which often have primacy for the average case. While something like stuck grief, which has already been talked about many times, doesn’t need more talking, it needs more movement to get the stuck out of the body-mind system.
In Āyurveda, the movement of the mind and the movement of the body correlate to each other. Somatic techniques therefore play an important role in working with trauma and other mental disorders.
[i] Charaka Saṁhitā, Śārīrasthāna IV.36 The body follows the mind and the mind follows the body.
[ii] Lang, Peter J. “The varieties of emotional experience: a meditation on James-Lange theory.” Psychological review 101, no. 2 (1994): 211.
[iii] Pearsall, P., Schwartz, G. E., & Russek, L. G. (2000). Changes in heart transplant recipients that parallel the personalities of their donors. Integrative Medicine, 2(2), 65-72.
[iv] Jawer, M. (2006). Psychosomatic Plasticity: An “Emergent Property” of Personality Research?. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 2(2), 115-121.
[v] D’Alberto, A. Cellular Memory & Zangfu Theory. and Verny, T. R. (2014). What Cells Remember: Toward A Unified Field Theory of Memory. Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health, 29(1). Also see the sceptic’s explanation of either transplant medication or pure coincidence: http://skepdic.com/cellular.html.
[vi] The limitations of this study are less the technical aspects as much as they are the perspective. Western science, while attaining great detail of the material body with various technology has neglected the same level of detail within the mind. Most people are unaware of the frequency they think about different aspects of their life and the tone of these thoughts. The ability to deepen this research would need to take into account a more detailed comparison of the mind before and after organ transplants.
[vii] Keith, M., Mokbel, R., San Emeterio, M., Song, J., & Errett, L. (2010). Evaluation of taste sensitivity in patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110(7), 1072-1077.
[viii] James-Lange Theory, Wikipedia, referenced material from Cannon, Walter, “The James-Lange Theory of Emotions: A Critical Examination and an Alternative Theory”. The American Journal of Psychology. (December 1927) 39: 106–124. accessed 7 August 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James%E2%80%93Lange_theory.
[ix] There is a trigger or a condition (vibhāva) which excites an affect/state of consciousness (bhāva). The vibhāva is the cause (kāraṇa) of the affect. It is composed of the excitant (uddīpana– that which inflames) and the supportive perception (ālambana). For example, the trigger (vibhāva) for shame might be having a cheap and old outfit at a gathering of people in expensive attire. The perception that one needs to have an expensive attire is required to generate the sense of shame associated with the cheap attire. The cheap attire would be the excitant (uddīpana) while the perception that an expensive attire is needed is the supportive perception (ālambana). Gandhi was quite happy in the clothing of commoners even meeting high dignitaries. There was no shame because of his perception that what he wore was proper. In this way, the physiological affects may be cross-cultural but what causes them will vary according to the individual and culture. William James may have run from a bear but an Indigenous person may have done something quite different.
Levine (p.40) discusses that the perception is not a passive imprint but is a creative process. This means that mentally healthy people are able to work with their perceptions. Traumatized individuals, lacking creativity, have a more difficult time altering perception and are stuck in the thought pattern developing around the trauma.
This affective theory was first described in the Nātyaśāstra of Bharata Muni somewhere around 200 BCE. He describes the bodies physical experience of the affects/states of consciousness. This ancient text lists eight variations were described indicative of an affect (bhāva). These were described as rigidity/paralysis (stambha), perspiration (sveda), hair follicle change (romāñca), deviation of voice (svara-vikāra), trembling (vepathu), change in skin tone (varṇavikāra), shedding tears (aśru), and loss of sense or consciousness (pralaya). Western science has taken these aspects of the body’s experience of affect to a very deep level and has also been studying micro movements of the facial muscles. These physical traits and facial movements have indicated how the other emotions arise from these root nine emotions. Vedic science has developed these affects in the realm of drama and poetry. A poem or story will take an extended time elaborating the full experience of an affect-emotion.
[x] Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. (New York, New York: Viking, 2014), 66.
[xi] With external possession, the bhūta of an external event or person is controlling the consciousness. Causal body work or psychodrama, such as family constellations therapy, can show the sane individual how the mind can tap into and be aware of the thoughts and sensations of others they may have never met. In mental disorders where possession is at the root, this same process becomes unregulated by the individual and becomes under the control of a bhūta.
[xii] Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The body keeps the score, 118.
[xiii] Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The body keeps the score, 84.
[xiv] Kalsched, Donald. The inner world of trauma: Archetypal defences of the personal spirit (New York: Routledge, 2014).
[xv] Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The body keeps the score, 17.
[xvi] Levine, Stephen K. Trauma, tragedy, therapy: The arts and human suffering, 26.
[xvii] Levine, Stephen K. Trauma, tragedy, therapy: The arts and human suffering, 19.
[xviii] With mindfulness, prāṇa is brought to the pre-frontal cortex area by nature of the organs function. Mindfulness is considered to activate this area of the brain. The prāṇa that flows in this area and gives conscious control and awareness of what is going on. In the yoga texts, it is called the ājñā chakra, or center of control/authority in the individual. Ājñā has two primary meanings: to perceive, to mind, to notice and to command, direct, or control. When the mental channels (manovaha śrotas) are blocked there is not prāṇa in this region of the brain and those functions cease to work because they don’t have energy. The control, foresight, and planning is lost. In yoga therapy, they are using postures (āsana), breath (prāṇayama) and concentration (dharaṇa). By putting awareness on specific areas prāṇa is brought to that region. In this way, we bring mind to that area between the eyebrows and rejuvenate the executive functions of the brain.
[xix] Ramachandra Roa, S.K. Darśanodaya: Early Indian Thought (Bangalore: Kalpatharu Research Academy), 280.
[xx] Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The body keeps the score, 91.
Yoga as evidence-based practice see the TCTSY study
Copyright Freedom Cole August 2016