The Ayurvedic Approach to Taming Trauma

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the ringbearer and his companions face danger, dread and exhaustion on their long journey. Yet when they reach Rivendell, the elves give them a drink called miruvor that restores them in body and spirit. Their despair is replaced with feelings of hope, and they gain energy to travel on in their quest. When Frodo is stabbed with a magical evil knife by a black rider, Aragorn crushes the leaves of the kingsfoil plant and puts them in water so the aroma can ward off the enemy’s hold on him. These remedies not only restored the weary travelers’ bodies, they strengthened their spirits, warded away negative forces and brought calm to their sad and anxious minds.

In modern times, there are numerous medical treatments for those who are injured or ill, but the treatments don’t offer much to help with the effects of trauma on the mind or the deeper levels of the body. After a car accident, your broken arm may be set, your neck supported as it recovers from whiplash. A sedative may be given if you are anxious and upset. But the wisdom of other healing traditions has something else to offer: an awareness of how to address the energetic disturbance that a person has suffered. This knowledge is an inherent part of Chinese and Indian traditions that acknowledge the connection of body, mind and spirit, as well as the energy (qi in China or prana in India) within each human being.

The Ayurvedic Angle
In the Ayurvedic view, a person who has narrowly escaped death, been injured or suffered an emotional shock is disturbed in body, mind and spirit. “Whenever anything unexpected happens, vata is provoked,” says Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga therapist Sarasvati Buhrman of the Rocky Mountain Institute of Yoga and Ayurveda in Boulder, Colorado. Vata is the air element (Ayurveda says the elements of ether, air, fire, water and earth comprise the universe and the human being), and its qualities in the body are cold, dry, active and subtle. When it is provoked, a person may feel “spacey” or restless and notice pain that moves throughout the body. She may feel anxious or depressed or experience chills, heart palpitations or constipation. She may think painful thoughts continuously.

If someone has been in a car accident or experienced a loss, the trauma can cause vata to “ricochet through the body/mind complex,” Buhrman says. Sometimes a person may feel physically fine after a trauma, only to find weeks later that he or she has a backache or other symptoms. Such problems may show up weeks after an accident if the disturbed vata is not addressed, Buhrman, who has experienced a delayed response to a car accident, says. “It is important for people to take measures [to reduce vata] as soon as possible after experiencing a traumatic event,” she notes. Otherwise, the air element will continue to disturb the balance of the body and mind in the long term, possibly causing back or joint problems or disturbing digestion. If the problem is not addressed, the immune system may be weakened.

Normally, in Ayurveda, a practitioner will assess the constitution of a person and determine his or her predominant dosha before prescribing herbs, Buhrman says. Ayurveda defines different doshas — principles or elements that give us our constitutions: vata, the principle of movement; pitta, the principle of fire or metabolism; and kapha, the principle of solidity and liquidity. It describes different qualities that comprise our constitutions, such as sattva, rajas and tamas, referring to peace, movement and inertia. In addition to the gross physical body, in Ayurveda several more subtle bodies are described as energy, mental and wisdom sheaths. In this tradition, herbs also embody a consciousness and energy of their own that include an ability to nurture, restore and heal.

“For trauma of any type,” Buhrman says, “you can almost be sure that vata is provoked, and there’s a certain protocol that is helpful for all people.” According to Buhrman, this protocol includes Brahmi tea and nurturing foods. Brahmi, or gotu kola (Centella asiatica) as it is known in Chinese medicine, can be found in health-food stores that sell bulk herbs. To brew tea with it, place 2 teaspoons of the herb in a quart of filtered or purified water and boil it for 5 to 10 minutes, then strain and drink the tea throughout the day. Ayurvedic practitioners believe honey added to the tea carries the herb deeper into the tissues and enhances its effects, or milk can be added to the tea if it is taken between meals. Brahmi is not a sedative, Buhrman notes. “It creates a state of balance, clarity and peacefulness. The person feels comforted and can process the experience in a more calm and clear way. Then they can release emotions more easily.”
Calm your Vata

In contrast to Western medicines that suppress feelings, Ayurvedic medicines influence sattva guna in the mind, Buhrman says. Sattva is one of the attributes or qualities of the mental and wisdom sheaths. Sattva guna expresses the qualities of essence, purity, understanding, clarity, compassion and love. The other gunas are rajas (movement, passion and extroversion) and tamas (ignorance, inertia, heaviness and dullness).

There are other helpful ways to calm vata, Buhrman says. In addition to drinking Brahmi tea, a cup of warm milk (almond or rice milk if you are lactose intolerant) with country mallow (Sida cordifolia, known as bala in Ayurveda) or ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) and a touch of nutmeg and honey before bed can encourage good sleep. This mixture, Buhrman says, soothes vata and stabilizes the nervous system. Bala has mild pain-reducing qualities.

Foods that calm vata are warm, oily or soupy, such as winter squash with butter, yams and cooked vegetables. They should be mildly spiced with salty, sour and sweet flavors. Protein from eggs and dairy products are good for calming vata, as is ghee (clarified butter). Oils such as almond or sesame are good, as is tahini, a spread made from sesame seeds that can be spread with honey on bread or rice cakes. In addition to eating these foods, a warm oil massage quiets vata. Sesame oil is best in cool weather and coconut oil in hot.

If the symptoms of disturbed vata persist, a person should see an Ayurvedic practitioner for an individualized formula, Buhrman notes. If there has been physical trauma, she says, the person should work with a yoga therapist. The therapist first may recommend restorative yoga, the use of props and pillows to support the body so it can experience the benefits of the poses without exertion. The therapist also can guide the person in breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation to help heal the body and mind. Eventually, the person may be able to do slow, gentle vinyasa (a series of yoga poses) with attention to breath.

The fictional healing wisdom the elves of Rivendell knew has factual roots in the medicine of Eastern cultures as well as the folk medicine of Western cultures. For trauma, treatment with herbs, foods and yoga encourages healing to occur within several layers of our being. As Buhrman says, the key is addressing the vata provocation, which creates peace in the mind.

Lynda McCullough is a freelance writer living in Colorado.

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