Healing Trauma with Yoga
Yoga is an ancient philosophy and practice of body, mind and spirit. Having originated in India over 5,000 years ago, yoga has been used as a portal to healing, spiritual awareness and evolution of consciousness. In more recent years, the Western world has begun to embrace yoga as more than just an exercise routine to keep the body in shape, but instead, it is being revered as a scientifically researched practice with incredible efficacy on mental health and physical disorders.
The most pertinent example of research on the benefits of yoga as treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), was conducted by one of the world’s leading clinicians on PTSD, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
Having worked as a mental health therapist, I have witnessed the effects of trauma professionally with the clients I have treated, as well as in my own sensory experiences. Yoga, experiential therapies, and trauma-informed psychotherapy have been critical and necessary tools of transformation with traumatized individuals.
The definition of yoga asana in Sanskrit is “Sthiram Sukram Asana,” meaning steady and comfortable pose. Each posture must be steady and comfortable in order to achieve the full benefits of yoga. Steadiness refers to the connection of body and mind, or in other words, holding a position with your body, and perhaps more importantly, focusing with your mind while utilizing your breath. Moving the breath from the chest to the diaphragm slows down breathing and the workings of the nervous system. The body begins to calm when respiration is slow and deep in the diaphragm. Most people suffering from PTSD and anxiety disorders experience shortness, or shallowness, of breath in the chest area. Any intense discomfort or pain during yoga should be avoided or used as an indicator that a variation or modification is necessary. This methodology is perfect for any human being seeking flexibility and mastery of the body and mind, but especially so for the traumatized person who needs to be met where they are, not where they “should,” or are expected to be. This gentle invitation of starting from where you are reflects the philosophical and psychological sensitivity needed for most people to heal. When one advances in yogic practices, it evolves into more than sensory experiences, it transforms into a lifestyle.
More About Trauma
Trauma is an immobilizing experience that leaves lasting imprints on the autonomic nervous system and brain. It often compromises one’s ability to keep her or himself safe because they are experiencing increased, or decreased, arousal on a sensory level in the body. Life is experienced as constant survival mode, i.e. fight, flight, freeze, submit, attach. These defense mechanisms manifest into symptoms such as depression, anxiety, helplessness, loss of sense of “who I am”, nightmares, flashbacks, irritability, emotional overwhelm, substance abuse, mistrust, shame and worthlessness, numbing, and the list goes on.
These individuals lose the capacity to use emotions as effective guides for necessary action. This leaves the person paralyzed and helpless. They are hijacked and unable to take effective action that would potentially protect the self- but instead, end up hurting the self over and over again.
Do you remember being asked to hold a pose, like Warrior II or Tree, for a few breaths, and depending on your ability, these few seconds morph into feeling like an eternity? The tingly sensations that run up and down your body, the impulse to breathe faster consumes you while you’re told to slow down and deepen your breath, and all while racing thoughts of impending doom torment you? And that’s only five seconds of one pose! Imagine living like that 24 hours a day, in relationship to yourself, others and the world. THAT is trauma.
As expert trauma psychologist, Dr. Janina Fisher states, “trauma survivors have symptoms instead of memories.” We must learn to observe these intrusive thoughts, feelings and overwhelming sensations as symptoms- not as a definition of who we are.
Yoga Is The Way
Yoga literally means “to join” and thus helps aid the process of a person becoming an observer of their symptoms/experiences to join back into relationship with their body, mind, and spirit in a safe and loving way.
The first stage of treating traumatized individuals always requires providing safety and stabilization to overcome emotional and psychological dysregulation. Gentle practices of Hatha, Yin and Restorative yoga support the balance and regulation of these symptoms.
Through Dr. van der Kolk’s research, yoga has been shown to be an integral healing technique. Yoga brings attention and direction to the breath (pranayama), which contains life force (prana) to move and shift energy in the body and mind. By bringing awareness to the breath, one can also observe physical sensations in holding the postures (asanas). Dr. van der Kolk’s book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” beautifully describes the implications of trauma on the nervous system (how it is stored in the body) and brain and how yoga and other experiential modalities, such as EMDR, are utilized to integrate traumatic memories that keep people “stuck” in the past or in fear of the future. Yoga enables these individuals to come to terms with the past, recover by developing awareness of the here-and-now and tolerate moment-to-moment experiences in the present no matter the level of stress attached to it.
Yoga empowers the individual to learn to self-regulate their discomfort by holding poses and consciously regulating the breath.
The consistent practice of yoga reprograms the brain and removes engrained physical responses that are automatic and self-destructive. Yoga becomes the tuning fork of the mind and body. It tunes the person into being present with what is by accepting things as they are with curiosity and non-judgment. It removes the shame and blame often correlated to mental health disorders.
Yoga brings understanding and awareness to these constant disturbances by balancing pranayama and asanas, as they are meditative states of transformation. The breath helps us master our physiology and create safety and stabilization from within. A person learns to live from the inside-out, as opposed to the fear and danger from the outside-in. Individuals also learn to tolerate uncomfortable experiences by shifting into different postures and realizing that discomfort can be limited in time and space- it doesn’t have to last forever! This is crucial awareness for the trauma survivor who is constantly reliving the past as if it were happening now, appearing to have no end in sight.
True Healing Cannot be Undone
A deeper relationship starts to form in yoga that connects the person to their body and mind in positive ways- instead of a relationship that has sabotaged, betrayed and terrorized the experience of their bodies in their everyday lives.
People start to view themselves with compassion, love and forgiveness as they shift their perspective from fear-based thinking into awareness, consciousness, love and gentleness.
We are so lucky we are human beings, born with the ability to self-develop, i.e. evolve our consciousness and reach our fullest potential, Samadhi or Self-Realization. It is our aim and purpose to achieve peace and happiness.
Should it call to you, allow yoga to be the way of getting you there. It has worked for millions of people all over the world.
It requires only one ingredient: your willingness.
Will yourself into happiness and prosperity.
“What you think you will become.” Buddha