Yoga, Science, and Immigration

In the last three years of my teaching-yoga journey, I have integrated science and spirituality more coherently and insightfully. I moved permanently to a different country, Finland, with a faraway culture in terms of social interaction, historical and political background. As a Latin-American cisgender woman, being a yoga student, an instructor, and a therapist became my tool kit of resources to cope with the process of adaptation.

Immigration for me has been one of the most challenging and transformational processes, in which I have not only stepped out of my comfort zone, but I have also discovered new ways to integrate feelings of unsettlement and grief, so as to find new spaces (outside and within me) for authentic growth. 

Immigration involves mourning, a loss. No matter how privileged we are in terms of planning ahead and longing for it. Whether we had planned it or not or, or even if, in the least fortunate cases, immigration has been forced on us, we as immigrants are leaving behind a part of ourselves. Clinically, this is called “migratory grief” or “migratory stress”. It has been described in the specialized literature as “the 7 griefs of migration”: family, language, culture, land, social status, group of belonging, and physical risks (Joseba Achotegui, 2009). Additionally, it has been said to have transgenerational impacts. Experiencing a new start in life and its practical limitations and obstacles may cause a lot of stress and a state of vulnerability. 

Hans Seyle, one of the first endocrinologists to explain stress, initially called it “general adaptation syndrome”. When we experience life events that require our ability to adapt, a whole body-brain process unfolds. Stress itself is neither good nor bad, it is our system’s natural reaction to changes, challenges, and demands. Stress is a physiological response and it is a natural, evolutive and intelligent way our bodies have developed as an open living system to thrive in the world. However, we are not meant to live in stress permanently. Instead, we were “designed” to actively respond to threats and then restore and go back to the way we were when there was safety. It is a cycle. Getting stuck in the cycle of stress (the autonomic and defensive survival strategies of our body) is one of the definitions of trauma. 

This is where science and yoga may resonate with one another. When we are able to come out of the cycle of stress successfully it is called Resilience. Practicing yoga could be a way to help our nervous system build resilience. In my process, I have experienced the need to adapt my usual yoga practice towards one that helped me to cope with stress and, luckily, because of that I got to know and study trauma-informed yoga (TIY). TIY is a science-based practice created to address stress from a body-mind-environment union perspective. 

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All kinds of yoga practices have a direct influence on the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the brain. TIY emphasizes the knowledge of our whole nervous system, and interpersonal neurobiology. In TIY, the most important aspects are the effects of yoga in the ANS and the quality of the relationship between the instructor and the students.

Like stress, trauma happens inseparably in our body-mind dimension and always in a context. Context is crucial to address stress and trauma because safe relationships, social connections, and support are the keys to healing. In the case of immigration, we might need social support and safety to go through an integration and re-balance of our nervous system.

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