Healing Trauma with Yoga

Trauma is a small word, with a lot of weight. It is a word that can be feared, minimized, mocked; seen as sexy and intriguing; or offer explanation and hope.

The reality of the matter, however, is that no matter who you are, trauma is not that far from home. Statistics show that an estimated 70% of adults in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes (Sidran, 2017) and at least 20% of these have gone on to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is predicted that 8% of Americans will develop PTSD in their lifetime (Sidran, 2017).

So this IS relevant…

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, world-renowned trauma researcher, defines trauma as “an experience that overwhelms your capacity to cope. People feel hopeless, overwhelmed, scared, horrified; at the core of trauma is horror.”

So where does Yoga come in? 

Here is the WHY in terms of trauma and traumatic stress.

The more trauma is studied, the more evidence there is that proves that trauma impacts every area of human functioning (physical, mental, spiritual, behavioral and social), and that it is often stored more in the body than in the mind. According Bessel van der Kolk, “trauma is not the story we tell about the violence we endured, or the horrible accident we witnessed; it’s not even the event itself. Instead its the stuff we can’t let go of – the residue of imprints,” or what yogis refer to as the samskaras, which get left behind in our neurophysiology (our sensory and hormonal systems). These “unresolved issues in our tissues” can manifest as migraines, nervous tics, clinched muscles, etc… and left unresolved can become even more detrimental in the forms of heart disease, diabetes, panic attacks, ADHD, IBS, etc… Van der Kolk’s research shows that people fear the sensations in their bodies that are associated with the trauma, therefore that body work is an essential element of healing (Sparrowe, 2011).

Yoga provides a safe and accessible way for individuals to explore what is happening internally. It allows a person to move beyond words as a form of expression, not having to find language to articulate what they feel, using their body instead. It offers the opportunity to feel strong and stable again, giving individuals the opportunity to regain a felt sense of control, which is often lost after traumatic events.

One beautiful example of how to use yoga in such a way can be seen in the work of Dana Moore, a Santa Fe-based psychotherapist and Kripalu Yoga teacher who specializes in trauma therapy. She emphasizes the importance of allowing her clients/students to get to know their bodies, a little bit at a time. In her classes, she asks her students to go back and forth between interception (sensations in the body) and exteroception (stimuli outside of the body), reminding them that they can feel something deeply and then shift the focus, coming out of the discomfort, anytime they want. By learning to sit in discomfort or pain until it is unbearable, and then finding the relief they need when necessary, people gain comfort in the discomfort. ON THE MAT, people gain more confidence in their ability to cope OFF THE MAT. This not only helps to regain a sense of comfort in the body, but also helps to avoid numbing or dissociation as a result of fear, pain or discomfort (Sparrowe, 2011).

In addition to the power of movement, research from Harvard shows that practicing mindfulness (many yoga practices are forms of mindfulness – paying attention to thoughts, feelings and sensations throughout the practice, without judgment) decreases the activity of the amygdala (Yamasaki, n.d.). The amygdala is the “alarm system” of the body, which is designed to keep us safe. After a trauma, however, a person’s amygdala often stays in over drive, constantly on the look out for, or identifying danger, although there may be no real imminent threat. Studies show that the combination of active asanas, breath work (with an emphasis on the exhale), and deep relaxation help to decrease the reactive response of the sympathetic nervous system, while increasing the parasympathetic relaxation response, therefore mitigating  an over-active fight-or-flight response. By decreasing the activity of the amygdala, people are capable of finding a sense of felt safety (Sparrowe, 2011).

One specific breath practice is pranayama, or the practice of controlling the breath. This is a practice that can be taught in a yoga class, and offered as a tool for individuals to take home with them, practicing it whenever they may need. This control of the breath can have an energizing or calming effect on the nervous system, and can help to quiet the brain. Different types of pranayama can be used to combat anxiety, depression, dissociation, or any other psychological responses, which often lead trauma survivors to seek self-medication through drugs and/or alcohol (Sparrowe, 2011).

The benefits of a regular yoga practice go far beyond   the aforementioned, but this is an overview of why yoga must continue being implemented as an alternative means of healing.

I think the words of Bessel van der Kolk summarize it all very nicely:

“Trauma is much more than a story about something that happened long ago. The emotions and physical sensations that we imprinted during the trauma are experienced not as memories but as disruptive physical reactions in the present…in contrast with the rational brain, which expresses itself in thoughts, the emotional brain manifests itself in physical reactions. The fundamental issue in resolving traumatic stress is to restore the proper balance between the rational and emotional brains. Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.”

Works Cited:
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved October 05, 2017, from   https://www.sidran.org/resources/for-survivors-and-loved-ones/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-fact-sheet/
Sparrowe, L. (2011). Transcending Trauma [PDF]. Yoga International.
Yamasaki, Z. (n.d.). Trauma Informed Yoga Teacher Training Manual [PDF]. The Breath Network.

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