How effective are yoga and meditation at healing old traumas?

(Originally published on Quora on October 21st, 2012)
I can only speak from personal experience with my own meditation practice, as I’m not involved in any type of research and have not looked at any statistics on the subject.
So here goes: After reading about Vipassana, or Insight Meditation in a post on Sam Harris’s blog (see here –…), I became curious and took an 8 week class at a local center.

The technique, though very challenging in practice, is very simple in principle. You stabilize and concentrate your mind by focusing only on your breath. Whenever your attention wanders, you proceed to look at the new object of attention – be it a sensation, an emotion, or a thought – with your full attention. You then name it, and  gently and without judgment return to focusing on the breath, where you try to remain most of the time. I was instructed to sit for 20, then 30, and eventually 45 minutes a day doing just this, though some further guidance was of course provided, and my questions answered.

Within a week, I was noticing patterns in my own thinking that had been there all along but which I had never noticed before. Within a couple of weeks, I could see some of the reasons for these patterns. By the third week I had vivid memories of past traumas, and could see very clearly the connections between those traumas and some of my unproductive behaviors.

I’ve had moments of personal revelation or “sudden clarity” throughout my adult life, long before meditation, and those had always helped me grow. But nothing had prepared me for the consistency and sheer breadth of the insights I’ve gotten from practicing Vipassana meditation. For a couple of months, it was like a reliable assembly line was producing insights day in and day out. As if those insights were waiting just under the surface and came gushing out as soon as I had payed stable, nonjudgmental attention to them.

Those insights, moreover, were of a different kind than any I’ve experience before. The trigger for most of my past insights was intellectual: I would be thinking about an idea and suddenly realize that I had been wrong. Or I would realize intellectually that I was acting irrationally in some instance, and would force myself to think it through. In meditation though, much of my insights felt more like undirected observations: I would observe my own thinking and noticed it was tinged with a certain emotion. I would look at that emotion and see it was actually three different emotions, all mashed up together, but in actuality arising because of different causes and conditions. I would look at each one in turn and see how it arose, and often time remember, for the first time in years, a traumatic event that gave rise to it. And by seeing the connection so clearly, I could start laying down new foundations and weakening the old ones.

As weeks went by I was aware that I was beginning to let go of many of these patterns, little by little, and that the unproductive behaviors were significantly reduced or stopped completely. I continue to practice and reap the benefits of meditation daily. I have not tried other forms of meditation, and cannot vouch for their effectiveness. I can’t even guarantee that Vipassana meditation would work for you. But I do believe that paying calm and nonjudgmental attention to the content of your mind once a day is a great first step in coming to terms with trauma.