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Can exercise really release trauma stored in your body? | Zoe Williams

If you want to understand bioenergetics, you first have to put aside your judgmental inner voice. It is the theory that trauma is stored in the body, that every repressed emotion from early childhood onwards alters your musculature and fascia (the fibrous tissue covering the body, like a spider-web); and that by exerting pressure on muscles with specific exercises, you can release the holding patterns and dead zones that they’ve sickened into.

My inner cynic raised the following objections: pah, trauma is for war zones, I’ve never been traumatised; the set text, Bioenergetics, by Devaraj Sandberg, feels very new agey and some of the responses Sandberg describes – uncontrollable shaking, after an exercise – sound very improbable.

But there were a few nagging counterpoints. First, trauma doesn’t have to be a war, it can be anything from a car accident (tick) to a moment of intense insecurity when you were a baby. Second, it is quite a well-established belief even in conventional medicine that when you have an intense negative experience, your body stores it in its neurological pathways and hormonal responses. Why shouldn’t muscles also have a memory, especially given that the phrase “muscle memory” already exists? Third, I have done a huge number of experimental exercises in the aerobic space (piloxing, Zumba Strong), so why should I be sceptical of new agery?

The cornerstone of bioenergetic practice is the bow and arch, which is good for anxiety, but worthwhile even if you’re not anxious. To get into the arch, stand with your feet parallel, 30cm apart; drop your head to your chest, or as close as it will go, and roll down, rag-doll style, until your tailbone points to the sky and you get a stretch in the back of your thighs – don’t lock your knees; hang your hands on or near the floor. Stay there for as long as you feel comfortable, note how long that is, then repeat for this amount of time twice more.

For the bow, from a standing start straighten your arms, hands together, above your head and lean back, pushing your chest and pelvis forward, with your knees slightly bent. You can do both of these with expression – the gargoyle (eyes wide, mouth wide, sticking your tongue out and making a hissing sound) or laughing (a classic Santa ho-ho-ho is recommended). This sounds wild but it encourages you to release. Your aim with both exercises is to put your muscles under controlled stress, so they let go of the holding patterns they have stored up from the past.

For a beginner, it’s enough to start every day with 15 minutes of bow and arch. I did something bizarre to my back on day six; it didn’t hurt, but every time I moved in a certain way, it felt momentarily like an elephant was standing on me. A week before, I would have booked a Covid test. Instead, I decided that I was letting go of grief. So maybe there’s something in this; maybe anxiety is like a constant, ambient alarm – you only notice it when it stops.

What I learned

One tension-relieving exercise, the tantrum, involves lying on your bed, banging your fists against the mattress while waggling your legs.

Source: TheGuardian