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Unveiling the Potential of The Five Tibetans in Healing Childhood Trauma

Embrace the Restorative Power of Simple Exercises for Profound Wellness and Trauma Recovery

I. Introduction

Defining Childhood Trauma and Its Various Forms

Childhood trauma refers to childhood experiences that are emotionally painful or stressful and lead to lasting psychological and physical effects.

Exploring Causes of Childhood Trauma

Trauma in children stems from various sources, scaffolded in three levels. The deeper the trauma, the more difficult it is to recognise and the more insidious it becomes:

1.     Violence in All Its Forms: Physical, Sexual, Emotional, and Spiritual:

Violence is the most obvious among causes of childhood trauma.

  • Physical Violence: Involves the use of physical force that may result in bodily injury, pain, or impairment. That includes hitting, shaking, burning, or other forms of physical harm.
  • Sexualised Violence: Refers to any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act by violence or coercion, acts to traffic a person or acts directed against a person’s sexuality, regardless of the relationship to the victim.

2.     All Encompassing Abuse: Verbal, Emotional, and Spiritual:

As abuse may happen only behind closed doors in a toxic family background, it may deprive children of any outsider to turn to with their suffering, as they are told not to talk badly about their loving family.

  • Verbal Abuse: Encompasses the use of words to harm others through insults, threats, shaming, denigration, or harassment. Verbal abuse often contributes to psychological trauma and can profoundly impact a child’s self-esteem and emotional development.
  • Emotional Abuse: Involves the exposure of a child to behaviour that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or CPTSD. Emotional abuse is often present alongside other forms of abuse but can occur on its own.
  • Spiritual Abuse: Occurs when a child is coerced into following a set of beliefs or practices or when religion is used to manipulate, control, or demean them.

3.     The Neglect Spectrum: Physical, Emotional, and Verbal:

The deepest level of trauma is neglect, as it starts already during the first three or four years of life, which are decisive for a child building the basic trust that the child is lovable and beautiful, the world is a safe and fun place, and that life is worth living and enjoyable. Next to this, there are no conscious memories about that period as they sink into what is called childhood amnesia. There is a common inability of adults to remember the earliest years of their childhood. While adults may retain fragments of experiences from those early years, detailed memories are often scarce or absent.

Despite childhood amnesia, events from those early years still influence a child’s development. Implicit memories, such as emotional responses and learned behaviours, can remain. Early experiences, even those that cannot be consciously remembered, have a profound effect on personality, preferences, and attachment styles.

  • Physical Neglect: The failure to meet a child’s basic physical needs, including food, shelter, clothing, hygiene, and protection from harm.
  • Emotional Neglect: The consistent failure to provide a child emotional support, love, and affection. This neglect can interfere with a child’s cognitive and emotional development and attachment formation.
  • Verbal Neglect: This can occur when a child’s need for communication is not met, which includes a lack of conversation, encouragement, or engagement from parents or caregivers. It also encompasses the absence of positive verbal interaction.

These three levels of causes are not mutually exclusive; they often overlap, and a child might experience multiple forms of trauma simultaneously. In opposition to acute trauma like accidents (unforeseen incidents that cause physical injury and emotional shock), natural disasters or war (events that disrupt normalcy and present life-threatening situations), and loss (the death of a loved one or profound grief-inducing occurrences), childhood trauma events are ongoing, chronic issues. They involve exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events of an invasive, interpersonal nature.

The Persistent Impact of Childhood Trauma on Health

The repercussions of childhood trauma can extend far beyond the initial events, potentially leading to a host of long-term effects that compromise both mental and physical health. They build a trauma identity that buries everyday life like heavy stone with layered unconscious defence mechanisms against a child’s most horrible fear – abandonment:

  • Emotional and Psychological Effects: emotional dysregulation, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociation, and difficulties with emotion regulation and self-concept.
  • Behavioural Consequences: Substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, and involvement in high-risk activities.
  • Physical Health Issues: Childhood trauma can manifest physically, resulting in chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune diseases. It can also lead to somatic symptoms without a clear medical cause.
  • Social and Interpersonal Impacts: Challenges in forming healthy relationships, attachment issues, trust difficulties, and social withdrawal.

Understanding these lasting impacts is critical for survivors and therapists alike to select effective interventions that address not only the emotional and psychological dimensions of trauma but also its pervasive physical aftermath.

II. Introducing The Five Tibetans

A Curious History and Mysterious Origins

We should look into the history of The Five Tibetans because it is rather quirky and entertaining. In the beginning, a curious chap named Peter Kelder decided to craft a story about the Fountain of Youth he claimed to have discovered.

He fancied himself a bit of an Indiana Jones minus the fear of snakes and spun a yarn about a retired British army officer who stumbled upon a hidden Himalayan monastery. The monks there, who apparently had the secret to eternal youth, could do backflips at 100 and play hide and seek better than any five-year-old. This secret, Peter declared, was a series of five exercises, which he termed “rites,” promising the vitality of a spry gazelle to anyone who practised them daily.

Then came the other authors, a band of merry myth-builders who found Kelder’s story irresistible. They took the baton, or rather, the prayer wheel, and ran with it with adventurous claims of the sort that the original text was written on ancient scrolls made from a mix of unicorn hair and the recycled paper from Da Vinci’s rough drafts. Others declared that the rites were so powerful they had to be passed down in a secret code, like a culinary recipe for a potion of immortality. The gist, as it turned out, was just: “Do these exercises, maybe you’ll feel better and live forever.”

With each new author, the myth grew. Book after book rolled out, each with a new, even more sensational claim. And so nowadays, some claim that there is a remarkable similarity between the postures of the Five Rites and the ‘phrul ‘khor exercises. However, a closer examination reveals that these similarities are misleading. Others claim that the Rites are a genuine form of yoga taken from an authentic Indo-Tibetan tantric lineage, while yet others argue that they are more likely derived from a system called Kum Nye.

The potential benefits that can be obtained from practising the Five Tibetan Rites are touted to be increased energy, stress reduction, enhanced sense of calm and clarity of thought, increased strength and flexibility, and an overall improvement in health and well-being. They are also declared to promote longevity and vitality. Some practitioners have reported improved eyesight, memory, potency, hair growth, and restoration of full colour from grey hair.

You get it: Kelder’s smokescreen about the exercises’ mystical origin and the magic health claims about them belong in the marketing toolbox, and the fantasy category of Harry Potter, the exaggerated fountain of youth claims included.

A series of five body posture exercises remains, which you can conduct either 21 times or 25, or just a few times – as you wish. For a beginner, the total time might be about 10-15 minutes if you do just a few repetitions of each exercise. Once you work up to a full 21 repetitions for each posture, the routine could take about 30-40 minutes to complete, especially if you include rest and a cooldown period. The exercises involve the whole muscular system and cleverly reverse the usual gravitational influence on the body, thereby intensely stimulating breathing and blood circulation without needing any device or gadget.

Summarizing the Exercises of The Five Tibetans

While the claims of eternal youth and longevity are far-fetched, these exercises encompass movements that, when performed regularly and with proper technique, can contribute to one’s overall health and wellness.

Exercise 1: Twirling
  • Improves balance and coordination.
  • Stimulates the vestibular system, which can enhance equilibrium.
  • It may also promote better circulation and increase alertness due to the stimulating effect on the vestibular system.
Exercise 2: Leg Raise
  • Strengthens the core muscles, which can help prevent back pain.
  • Enhances muscle tone in the abdomen and thighs.
  • This exercise improves posture, strengthens the lower back, and enhances balance and stability.
Exercise 3: Kneeling Backbend
  • Increases spinal flexibility and may alleviate tension in the back.
  • Strengthens the muscles in the shoulders, chest, and thighs.
  • Improves posture.
  • Arching strengthens the lower back muscles and opens up the chest and throat. That leads to improved respiratory function.
Exercise 4: Tabletop
  • Builds strength in the arms, legs, and core.
  • Encourages a stable and strong shoulder girdle.
  • Enhances hip flexibility.
  • This exercise also stretches the shoulders and the front of the ankles, improving flexibility in these areas.
Exercise 5: Upward/Downward Dog
  • Strengthens and tones the arms and legs.
  • Improves flexibility in the spine and hips.
  • Stimulates circulation throughout the body.
  • Is a calming, meditative practice due to rhythmic breathing.
  • These exercises stretch and strengthen the entire body, especially the spine, hamstrings, calves, and the arches of your feet.

While the Five Tibetan Rites certainly do not provide mystical anti-ageing effects, they serve as a mild exercise routine that promotes flexibility, strength, and balance. However, proper form and breathing are essential for gaining the benefits and avoiding injury.

III. Detailed Explanation of The Five Tibetans

1. The Spinning: Exploring the First Tibetan (Exercise 1)

Position: Begin by standing straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Extend your arms out to the sides at shoulder level, palms facing down.

Movement: Spin around clockwise, from right to left. The movement should be steady and at a constant speed to maintain balance. Spotting, a technique used in dance where you fix your gaze on a single point to prevent dizziness, can be helpful.

Breathing: Breathe deeply and regularly as you twirl. Try to coordinate your breathing with the spinning, such as inhaling for a certain number of spins and exhaling for the same.

Duration: Start with 3 complete rotations and increase gradually, aiming for up to 21 rotations as your dexterity improves.

2. The Leg-Raising Rite: Understanding the Second Tibetan (Exercise 2)

Position: Lie on your back on a comfortable surface with your legs straight and your arms by your sides, palms facing down.

Movement: Inhale deeply, lift your head off the floor and bring your chin towards your chest. Simultaneously, raise your legs to a perpendicular position. If possible, extend them over your body, trying to bring them toward your head while keeping your knees straight.

Breathing: Inhale as you lift your legs and head, and exhale as you lower them back to the floor.

Duration: Begin with 3 repetitions of this movement and progress up to 21 over time.

3. The Arching: Delving into the Third Tibetan (Exercise 3)

Position: Kneel on the floor with your knees hip-width apart. Place your hands on the back of your thighs, fingers pointing downwards.

Movement: As you inhale, arch your back, and slide your hands down your legs, tilting your head and shoulders backwards as far as is comfortable.

Breathing: Inhale as you arch back and exhale as you return to the starting position, with the chin returning to the chest.

Duration: Start with 3 repetitions of the arching exercise, with the aim of performing up to 21 repetitions as you gain flexibility.

4. The Tabletop: Analyzing the Fourth Tibetan (Exercise 4)

Position: Sit on the ground with your legs extended in front of you. Place your hands on the ground behind you; fingers pointed towards your feet or out to the sides for better wrist comfort.

Movement: Press into your hands and feet, lifting your hips until your knees, hips, and shoulders form a straight line resembling the shape of a table. Your arms and shins should be vertical to the floor.

Breathing: Inhale as you lift into the tabletop position, hold your breath for a moment at the peak, then exhale as you lower your hips back to the starting position.

Duration: Initially, perform this exercise for 3 repetitions, and work up to 21 as your strength increases.

5. The Upward and Downward Dog Rites: Examining the Fifth Tibetan (Exercise 5)

Position for Upward Dog: Start by lying face down on the floor with your hands positioned under your shoulders and elbows close to your body.

Movement: Engage your arms and straighten them, lifting your chest off the floor while your hips and legs remain in contact with the ground. You can lift your thighs and hips off the floor for a more advanced variation, coming into a full Upward Dog position.

Position for Downward Dog: From the Upward Dog, transition by lifting your hips upwards and back, aiming to create an inverted ‘V’ shape with your body. Your hands and feet remain in place, and your head is between your arms, looking back toward your feet.

Breathing: Inhale as you move into Upward Dog, and exhale as you push back into Downward Dog.

Duration: Transition between the Upward and Downward Dog positions for 3 repetitions initially, working up to 21 repetitions as your strength and flexibility improve.

IV. Establishing a Healing Routine with The Five Tibetans for Trauma Survivors

Embarking on a journey of healing and recovery from trauma is a profound commitment to self-care.

  • Intention-Setting: Before beginning The Five Tibetans, set a clear intention. This intention can be a simple affirmation of healing, a commitment to being present in the body, or a dedication to releasing the grip of past experiences. Intention acts as a grounding anchor that guides the practice.
  • Gradual Progression: Trauma survivors should approach The Five Tibetans patiently, honouring their body’s signals. Starting with a small number of repetitions for each exercise is key. They might begin with as few as one or two repetitions and slowly build up to more, never exceeding their comfort zone. This gradual increase allows the nervous system to adjust without becoming overwhelmed, fostering a sense of safety and control.
  • Cultivating Mindfulness: Mindfulness involves maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and environment. During The Five Tibetans, practitioners are encouraged to pay close attention to their breath, the sensations in their muscles, and even the subtle shifts in energy. This acute focus on the present moment helps to anchor the mind, preventing it from wandering to traumatic memories or future anxieties.
  • Staying Present: Staying present in the practice can also mean acknowledging and accepting any emotions or memories that may arise without judgment. It is not uncommon for bodywork to release pent-up emotions, and The Five Tibetans are no exception. Practitioners should allow themselves to notice these experiences and treat themselves with compassion, using the exercises to work through and release these feelings at their own pace.

Building a routine with The Five Tibetans can be very stabilising for individuals who have grown up in the chaos of trauma. Moreover, it encourages a kind and compassionate relationship with one’s body, which is often needed after trauma’s disconnection.

V. The Five Tibetans and the Mind-Body Connection

The experience of childhood trauma causes the body’s stress response to become stuck in hypervigilance, a “high alert” state. That comes with a hyperarousal of the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response) and dampens the parasympathetic nervous system (which promotes ‘rest and digest’ activities). Over time, this imbalance results in a range of physical symptoms like chronic pain, fatigue, and gastrointestinal issues, as the body remains locked in a state of perceived threat.

Exercises like The Five Tibetans use physical movement to aid the body in releasing and moving through stored trauma. Individuals reconnect with their bodies, establish a sense of safety and groundedness, and begin to recalibrate their nervous systems away from constant alarm by engaging in deliberate, repetitive movements.

Pay attention to the present moment and observe your bodily sensations without judgment. When performing The Five Tibetans, mindfulness can enhance the connection to the body and help individuals become aware of tension and trauma held within their muscles and tissues. This awareness is the first step toward releasing those patterns. Mindful movement can thus promote a more profound sense of inner peace and emotional resilience and encourage a more harmonious balance within the nervous system.

Through regular exercise, trauma survivors experience not just physical strengthening, improved coordination and flexibility but also profound shifts in their emotional well-being. This mind-body connection through physical exercise will lead to an integrated and whole sense of self.

The Five Tibetans’ Role in Trauma Recovery

Trauma manifests in both the mind and the body, where it is stored and perpetuated through tension and chronic stress responses. The Five Tibetans, emphasising fluid, repetitive movements and focused breathing, may offer a form of body meditation that can help release this embodied trauma.

As any physical activity, The Five Tibetans exercises offer a way to enhance bodily and emotional regulation and foster a powerful sense of empowerment and reclamation of one’s body and autonomy.

  • Trauma tightens and locks the body’s musculature, reducing mobility and creating a persistent fight-or-flight state. By stretching and strengthening movements, survivors may gradually reintroduce movement into their daily routine in a safe and controlled way, helping to alleviate the physical imprint of trauma.
  • Each exercise encourages deep, rhythmic breathing, which is a powerful tool in managing anxiety and stress responses. Mindfulness during these exercises also diverts attention from distressing thoughts and helps survivors become more attuned to their bodily sensations in the present moment.
  • By engaging in these exercises, trauma survivors who do not practice physical exercise regularly might find a welcome addition to trauma therapy and medication, one that softly introduces exercise into their daily routines while empowering the connection between body and mind in their healing journey.
  • Engaging in a daily routine fosters a sense of structure and predictability, comforting for trauma survivors. The progression in the exercises, as one gains strength and flexibility, also builds self-efficacy—a belief in one’s ability to execute actions required to manage prospective situations.
  • Regular practice of The Five Tibetans may help in moderating the body’s stress response, which is pivotal for trauma survivors. The focused movements and controlled breathing can encourage the body to shift from a state of hyperarousal to one of relaxation. This modulation can train the nervous system to transition between states of alertness and rest more easily, which is often compromised after traumatic experiences. Over time, this can lead to a more balanced autonomic nervous system response, reducing instances of anxiety and panic.
  • As practitioners become more adept at managing their physiological responses through The Five Tibetans, they may also find improvements in emotional regulation. The mindfulness component of the practice helps individuals observe their emotional state without immediate reaction, providing the space needed to choose how to respond to feelings of distress. That can enhance their ability to navigate emotional highs and lows with greater ease, fostering resilience in the face of stressors.
  • Trauma often leads to a disconnection from the body. Engaging in The Five Tibetans allows individuals to reconnect with their physical selves in a positive and nurturing way. Through regular practice, survivors can begin to reclaim their body, recognising it as their own space, which they control and for which they can care. This process can be incredibly empowering for those who may have felt disempowered by their traumatic experiences.
  • Learning and mastering new skills can be a significant confidence booster. As trauma survivors practice and observe their progression in strength, flexibility, and endurance, they often experience an increase in self-esteem. That is not just due to the physical improvements but also because each step in their progress reinforces the idea that they are capable of change and growth. Moreover, the sense of achievement gained from setting a goal (like completing a certain number of repetitions or practising daily) and reaching it can be incredibly satisfying and reinforcing.

VI. Precautions and Adaptations with The Five Tibetans

While The Five Tibetans are a very mild exercise, it is crucial to pay attention to limiting health conditions or trauma-related concerns.

Addressing Physical Challenges and Contraindications

  • Individuals with spinal problems, high blood pressure, or heart conditions should consult a healthcare provider before beginning physical exercise.
  • Those recovering from surgery or severe injury should wait until they have fully healed or have received approval from their medical practitioner.
  • Pregnant women should seek advice from their healthcare provider, as some of the exercises involve movements that may not be recommended.

Navigating Trauma Triggers with The Five Tibetans

  • Specific movements in The Five Tibetans may inadvertently trigger an emotional flashback in those with CPTSD or an intrusion in those who have experienced physical abuse.
  • The practice involves intense focus and body awareness, which can sometimes surface suppressed emotions and memories related to trauma.

Cultivating a Supportive Environment for The Five Tibetans Practice

  • Honour your boundaries; if a particular movement feels triggering, it is okay to modify or skip it.
    • The environment in which you practice should be a place where you feel safe and free from judgment or interruption.
    • If practising in a group setting, select a group that understands and respects each participant’s journey and boundaries.
    • Professional guidance can also help create a sense of safety by ensuring that the pacing and intensity of the exercises are appropriate for the individual’s current state of healing.

VII. Conclusion: Embracing The Five Tibetans for Comprehensive Healing from Childhood Trauma

The Five Tibetans exercises offer a complement to trauma recovery through their ability to enhance physical strength and flexibility and promote a sense of connection between the mind and body. By encouraging self-regulation, resilience, and empowerment, they can play a role in helping individuals reclaim control over their physiological and emotional states, contributing to a holistic healing journey.

The Five Tibetans are not one-size-fits-all exercises. If you play sports regularly, there is no need to give up your training level. The Five Tibetans are supportive and nourishing, rather than overwhelming or re-traumatising for those who have been too ashamed or overwhelmed to practice any physical exercise regularly.

VIII. References: An Annotated Bibliography of The Five Tibetans Literature

  1. “The Eye of Revelation” by Peter Kelder – This is the original book that introduced The Five Tibetans to the West.
  2. “The Five Tibetans Yoga Workshop” by Susan L. Westbrook, Ph.D. – A book that can provide insight into incorporating The Five Tibetans into a therapeutic practice.
  3. “Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body” by Peter A. Levine – While not specifically about The Five Tibetans, this book can give insight into body-centred trauma recovery methods.
  4. “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk – A fundamental read for understanding trauma’s effects on the body and potential paths to recovery.

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