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The zebra and the lion: yoga and trauma healing

Updated: May 31, 2023


Lion hunting zebra
Trauma release after danger. Image by Pfüderi from Pixabay

A few days ago I had the opportunity to teach yoga during a Healing Trauma Retreat, led by Tess Hunneybell, a British Trauma Consultant and Psychotherapist, in the beautiful hills of Umbria, Italy.


During this intimate retreat there were three women who have been basically frozen, or better blocked, inside for many years.


Tess shared a very good example about what had happened to these women, or what can happen to people in general, who have experienced trauma by sharing a story about the zebra and the lion.


Imagine for a moment a zebra grazing on grass, but all of a sudden, he senses danger. He sees a lion approaching and freezes instantly. He’s staring while instincts and the brain are working out the next move. Then there are three instinctive body responses depending on what is the best survival option in the moment:


Fight - no chance.

Fawn - lion is not interested in dating zebra.

Second freeze/Flag or Faint – then it will be highly possible that the zebra will be the lion’s lunch.


So, the zebra can choose to:

a) Flight - keep running until he has out run lion to safety - Convulsive shake to release trauma - Grazing with no fear

b) Flag - disassociate and drop to the ground staying completely still. Zebra feels less pain and terror while being eaten.

c) Flag - disassociate and Faint drop to the ground staying completely still. Lion loses interest because there is no moving prey and leaves - Disassociates, convulsive shake to release trauma - Grazing with no fear.


With this example and having naturally created a trustful environment at this healing retreat, the women started to explore the following within my yoga classes:

· What it means to be in contact with their own physical bodies

· How it feels to be fully present in their own physical bodies

· That they can touch their own bellies and feel safe

· That they can breathe and control the way they are breathing

· How they can release tension

· How they can bring movement into different parts of and the whole body

· Themselves


Step by step, with tears and laughter, they have embarked on a journey of healing from deeply rooted trauma.


I have experienced teaching at this retreat as very transformative for me as a person and as a teacher. It’s clear that I really work with the wholeness of the person, that I can thoroughly tune into their needs, imagine their experiences and sensations as well as what yoga and the way I teach could do for them. I really see them.


The fact that these women struggled with putting their hands on their own bellies, but felt safe enough to do so during the second class, has made a big impact on me.

So much stuff, so many stories, so many experiences, but our bellies are our environment of life, vital energy, connection, creation and security.

This should be the case for every woman and man.


So, I will be busy developing a yoga course to go: 'from disconnection to connection: beautiful bellies’.

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