My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem is a body-centered pathway to healing the effects of trauma and our interactions with one another. Menakem highlights experiences throughout the course of history to offer a deeper understanding of how inherited trauma affects the nervous system. While focusing specifically on Black, brown, white and police bodies, he gives tangible tools that inspire inquiry and cultivate a sense of safety and connection. As we heal our own nervous systems, we are more able to harmonize with one another. But, harmony with one another must begin within each of our bodies first.
As a trauma specialist, Menakem begins by specifying that trauma is alive in the body as subconscious impulses and reactions. These impulses and reactions are controlled by the limbic system or “lizard brain,” which serves as a survival impulse.
“Our bodies have a form of knowledge that is different from our cognitive brains. This knowledge is typically experienced as a felt sense of constriction or expansion, pain or ease, energy or numbness. Often, this knowledge is stored in our bodies as wordless stories about what is safe and what is dangerous,” he explains.
We may not consciously think that a person or situation is a threat to our survival, but our bodies may react that way even when there is no real threat. If the body feels unsafe or agitated, cognitive thinking alone may not be enough to settle the nervous system. In short, we cannot think our way into feeling safe in our own bodies, let alone feeling safe and settled around one another.
This is important because each of our bodies have inherited survival impulses based on our ancestry. Studies show that trauma experienced by our ancestors can be passed down to us through our DNA; it’s meant as a built-in survival mechanism. In order to be in harmony with any other body, but specifically bodies that have differing lineages than our own, we must heal the subconscious survival impulses that have been embedded in our DNA for centuries. But just as we inherit subconscious trauma responses, that same process can work in our favor when we choose to heal our bodies.
“When, over time, enough bodies heal from historical, intergenerational and personal trauma and learn to harmonize, that harmony can turn into a culture of resilience and flow,” Menakem shares. This is great news!
Menakem lays out historical context alongside tangible tools for settling bodies across the scope of American history. As yoga students and teachers, this book is an incredible resource for approaching the practice of somatic healing — what we’re ultimately doing on our mats. We can create unity by settling our bodies and healing together over time.
I won’t claim that My Grandmother’s Hands is an easy or glamorous read. But, I can attest that the tools are effective, and the inquiry portions are incredibly powerful. All in all, I believe it’s worth it because “a settled nervous system encourages other nervous systems to settle; a calm, settled presence is the foundation for changing the world,” he writes. And what sounds better these days than a more settled world?
Purchase “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem here.
No healing no change photo by Mark Fleming.
Originally published in the Winter + Spring 2021-22 issue.