“Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”
Dr. Bruce Perry penned those words back in 2006 when he wrote, “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog,” a book that would become a seminal influence on our understanding of childhood trauma. Thirteen years later, it appears Dr. Perry was quite prescient. While he wrote of the healing power of relationships on our emotional lives, the scientific community has since demonstrated the healing power of relationships from a physiological and neurological perspective. And this goes beyond their role in recovering from trauma to how positive relationships can help with depression, anxiety and other brain/mental health concerns.
People have always known that it feels good to connect with our fellow humans. We are social animals. Our desire to connect is what keeps families, couples, friends and colleagues working hard to maintain relationships despite petty differences. When stuck, we may not know why therapy helps, but we know it often does, hence the tremendous value many people place on the relationship they have with a trusted therapist or psychologist.
The exciting news is that science is catching up to what we know on an emotional level: Researchers have found that connecting—sharing our stories, being “heard” and “seen” for who we are—does not just feel good, but it also impacts the neurons in our brains.
Brain neurons are malleable and exhibit neuroplasticity, meaning that synapses can change and reorganize based on new learning. With the evolution of the field of epigenetics, we’re talking about bioplasticity, and how our biology and DNA can also change. This means we have the ability to upgrade our “software.” Perception canchange the chemistry and DNA in the body: In other words, our body believes what our mind thinks.
The Newtown Yoga Festival: Experiential Transformation
The emerging science on the healing power of relationships is at the core of why The Newtown Yoga Festival—now in its seventh year—is partnering with non-profit The Avielle Foundation as part of The Avielle Foundation’s Brainstorm Experience.
The Newtown Yoga Festival was established in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The festival promotes well-being, health and community as a holistic solution realized through the transformative wisdom and practice of yoga by anyone and everyone. It is a way to honor lives lost, celebrate the strength and resilience of humankind and offer healing through compassionate practice, conversation and connection.
The Avielle Foundation: The Brainstorm Experience
The Avielle Foundation is named in honor of six-year-old Avielle Richman, who lost her life in the school shooting. Avielle’s parents, both scientists, formed the foundation in an effort to “prevent violence and to build compassion through neuroscience research, community engagement and education.” The Brainstorm Experience, one of the foundation’s local efforts, is an ongoing series bringing the Newtown community together in a stimulating and engaging environment in which learning, connection, and inspiration can provoke imagination as well as enhance understanding of the brain. These experiences bring a diverse group of thought leaders, advocates, and celebrities from across society to Newtown to offer unique perspectives on the care, science, strength, and vulnerability of the brain.
Avielle’s father, Dr. Jeremy Richman, was a neuroscientist more than familiar with the workings of the brain. Through the foundation’s research, Dr. Richman worked to understand not only the risk factors present in the brain of a person prone to violence, but also the protective factors necessary for a person to choose compassion instead.
A scientist through and through, Dr. Richman was not one to accept any therapy that was not “evidence-based.” His embrace of The Newtown Yoga Festival and its mission was swift and passionate because Dr. Richman understood the neurological protective factors offered through yoga, mindfulness, community, connection and education.
Everyone involved with The Newtown Yoga Festival and The Avielle Foundation was shocked that a man immersed in these protective factors could die by suicide. Dr. Richman’s death in March illustrates that while we have learned so much in our quest to better understand and heal the workings of the mind, we still have more to learn. His loss has only strengthened the resolve of The Avielle Foundation and The Newtown Yoga Festival to continue Dr. Richman’s mission and life’s work.
Sharing Common Ground and Building Connections
After the Sandy Hook shooting, an event took place called Community Connections: A Day of Shared Experience, in which families of victims of other mass shootings came to Newtown to speak to members of the community. Families from Virginia Tech, Columbine, and the Amish Community, among others, traveled to Newtown and participated in breakout sessions. Though people found the planned sessions helpful, the surveys distributed following the event found that participants were most soothed by the opportunities to gather together in the hallways between sessions and eating lunch together.
Sharing stories and connecting with others in friendly settings is healing. With this in mind, The Newtown Yoga Festival works to not only facilitate connection but also, through its relationship with The Avielle Foundation, to help participants understand why they are connecting and how such connection impacts their brains and bodies.
Earlier this year, CNN commentator Sally Kohn, author of The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity, visited Newtown as a Brainstorm Experience hosted by The Avielle Foundation. While researching the book, Kohn had talked to leading scientists and researchers who were investigating the evolutionary and cultural roots of how and why we demean and dehumanize each other. Their findings show that humans are wired to see those outside of their circle as “the other,” which historically served as a survival mechanism. To evolve, we must transcend, and to do so, according to another Brainstorm Experience speaker, Brené Brown, we must be willing to feel and sit with the discomfort and vulnerability that arises when we are faced with difficult relationships and people who may not share our politics, our experience or our perspective.
Yoga and mindfulness offer a great starting point for understanding this discomfort; through these practices, we learn to move and/or sit through our own uncomfortable feelings only to come out the other side with more strength and clarity. From there we can move on to practicing sitting through discomfort in our relationships.
The Newtown Yoga Festival has recognized from its inception the healing power of relationships. With headliners that have included Seane Corn, Ray Crist, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Hala Khouri, Stephen Cope and more, the festival has worked to bring people together to move, meditate, learn and connect within a safe space—so they can bring the peace they gain from the day back out into their day-to-day relationships.
After interviewing and connecting with numerous perpetrators and victims of hate, as well as renowned scientists and clinicians, Kohn was asked what she had learned about the opposite of hate. She responded that the opposite of hate is not love; rather, the opposite of hate is connection.