Trauma Tools: Yoga

“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” ~B.K.S. Iyengar

“If you want to use yoga to heal emotional pain, you must find out where it resides in your body and learn to take your breath there. I don’t teach yoga to help people to transcend. I want people’s spirits to reside in their body. I literally want to help people embody their spirit. Not go through life fragmented.” ~Ana Forrest

“Yoga cultivates your witness consciousness. It allows you to observe yourself on the mat. You aren’t numbing out or going into default mode by overworking, watching TV, or reaching for the alcohol or carbs. For a trauma survivor, yoga, when practiced with awareness of breath and sensation, can be a gentle way to begin to reoccupy her body. When living in a body feels safe again, yoga postures can be used therapeutically to hold and then release the trauma stored there. Often the emotional and physical releases happen without reference to the story, so the survivor is no longer trapped in the victim role.” ~Amy Weintraub

The Theory 

“A living organism is a vast sea of energy and information that flows through the myofascial system as a hologram. It is dynamic and fluid with all components, always in instant and continuous communication. ... Repeated postural and traumatic insults of a lifetime, combined with the tensions of emotional and psychological origin, result in tense, contracted and painful fibrous tissue.” (John F Barnes, P.T., L.M.T.)

The effects of trauma are primarily physiological — leaving an indelible biological imprint. Trauma can cause inflammatory response which leads to increased fibrosis; loss of available movement between layers; and stickiness to interstitial elements resulting in chronic conditions of structural abnormality. Trauma disrupts clients’ relationships to their bodies and emotions, leaving them feeling constricted, tense, helpless, disconnected, hurt, agitated, frantic, and in conflict with themselves, others and the world. 

By now, there can be little doubt that one’s state of mind and one’s body are intimately related. When the mind is relaxed, the muscles relax. When stressed, a state of physical and mental tension is produced.

"All systems of the body exchange neuropeptide information, and it is the internal feeling state (emotions) that elicits the neuropeptide response. This is the mind-body connection in which every change in the mental-emotional state causes a change in the body physiology. Likewise, every change in the body physiology causes a change in the mental-emotional state." (Pert, 1997)

Addressing the body’s deep sensations and emotions, Hatha Yoga facilitates clients in; addressing their autonomic nervous system symptoms of hyperarousal; processing their traumatic memories; promoting mastery over the posttraumatic legacy of self-doubt and despair; appreciably changing how they organize themselves in relation to the world; and aiding in the reclamation of autonomy and authority over their own lives.

The Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute (JRI) in Massachusetts has conducted preliminary research investigating Hatha Yoga’s effect on some common symptomatology of PTSD. The research bears out yoga’s efficacy on core physiology associated with PTSD including Heart Rate Variability (HRV). Although there are different types of yoga, most Westerners already identify yoga with Hatha Yoga — a yoga that seeks to promote health and well-being through physical exercise. With its profound effect on the circulation and on the functioning of the inner organs, glands, and nerves, a regular practice of asanas (postures), and breathing exercises (pranayama) makes the physical body strong, supple, and healthy. In addition, yoga offers psychological and spiritual benefits as well.

Yoga for PTSD
An essential aspect of recovering from trauma is learning ways to calm down, or self-regulate. For thousands of years, Yoga has been offered as a practice that helps one calm the mind and body. More recently, research has shown that Yoga practices, including meditation, relaxation, and physical postures, can reduce autonomic sympathetic activation, muscle tension, and blood pressure, improve neuroendocrine and hormonal activity, decrease physical symptoms and emotional distress, and increase quality of life. For these reasons, Yoga is a promising treatment or adjunctive therapy for addressing the cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated with trauma, and PTSD specifically.
(Excerpted from the INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF YOGA THERAPY: Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Therapy in Practice: Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research  Emerson, D., Sharma, R., Chaudry, S., Turner, J., International Journal of Yoga Therapy, No. 19 (2009), pp. 123-128

Yoga is recognized as a form of mind-body medicine. The relaxation induced by meditation helps to stabilize the autonomic nervous system with a tendency towards either sympathetic or parasympathetic dominance. Because yoga decreases the amount of catecholamines produced by the adrenal glands during stress, yoga offers a host of psychological benefits.  By lowering the hormone levels of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and epinephrine, yoga produces an increased feeling of calm and well-being. Additionally, by boosting oxygen levels to the brain, yoga is likely to reduce anxiety and depression.

Spiritually, a yoga practice can counter the sense of isolation often experienced by trauma clients, offering, instead a sense of connection to the Divine Being or a feeling of transcendence. Yoga is the one single technique that combines and provides the benefits of breathing exercises, stretching, fitness programs and meditation. Because it is a system for restoring balance to the body, mind and spirit, Yoga is an ideal modality for trauma clients. By working with the body and the breath in a series of postures (asanas), yoga enables them to release muscle tension, gain flexibility and strength, and quiet the mind. Additionally, yoga practitioners become more resilient to stressful conditions and reduce a variety of important risk factors for various diseases, especially cardio-respiratory diseases.

The Tools

Below are some examples of posture (asana) groups with some basic instruction. Feel free to experiment, ....

View More »