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Yoga as a mindbody practice to to heal trauma



Trauma is an all-encompassing experience that affects behavior, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and the physical body. While traditional therapy and medications help people heal, current research shows that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a body based disorder, with the brain and nervous system actually physically affected. No, trauma is not all in your head.


As research reveals the brain and body component of trauma, the role of somatic therapies in healing PTSD has been examined more thoroughly. Yoga is one such therapy. Yoga is a practice that focuses on breathwork, movement, and connecting the body and mind. Integrating yoga into the treatment plan for PTSD shows the individual a path to mindfulness skills through the body. The mindfulness skills are about managing strong emotions, remaining in the present, learning to stay calm when faced with flashbacks, memories, places, and people that remind them of their trauma.


What is trauma?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and post-traumatic stress (PTS) is linked to many types of events. These conditions occur as a result of abuse, violence, loss, neglect, war, car crash, immigration, natural disasters, or a serious illness. Trauma is widespread across all races, ethnicities, genders, age, socioeconomic statuses, locations, and sexual orientations.


There is a wide constellation of psychological, emotional and physical symptoms that accompany a trauma diagnosis. Research has shown that exposure to trauma can increase the risk of medical and mental health issues —anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance abuse.



Behavioral Symptoms

  • Withdrawal from family, friends, and hobbies/activities

  • Avoid people or places that remind them of their trauma

  • Compulsions or impulsive behavior

  • Self-destructive behavior

  • Argumentative

Cognitive Symptoms

  • Confusion

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Disconnecting from reality

  • Intrusive thoughts

  • Nightmares

  • Flashbacks to the traumatic event

  • Trouble remembering the event

Emotional Symptoms

  • Feelings of shock, fear, denial, and anger

  • Easy to startle

  • Hyper-vigilance

  • Emotional numbness

  • Mood swings

Physical Symptoms

  • Difficulty eating

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep

  • Low energy levels

  • Unexplained aches and pains



Why trauma-informed yoga?

When an individual experiences trauma, it physically alters their central nervous system (CNS)—the brain, spinal cord, and millions of nerves throughout the entire body. Because trauma-based disorders deeply affect the body, adjunctive complementary therapies which address the somatic symptoms can help trauma survivors successfully recover.


Recovery from trauma needs to focus on the neural networks—pathways—of the body and brain. Memories are in our bodies; just think back to any sport you’ve played. Chances are you still remember how to hit a tennis forehand, jump rope, or throw a baseball—that’s muscle memory. Thus, trauma can live in both the mind and body.


While traditional talk therapy and medication are an important component to a treatment plan, yoga is emerging as an important part of an integrative approach to healing trauma due to its calming effects on physiology and emotion.


Research indicates that yoga is an important self-care option for trauma survivors to manage their symptoms. The main principles of trauma-informed yoga are to foster a sense of safety, support, and be inclusive to everyone.


A trauma-informed yoga practice helps trauma survivors manage their dissociative symptoms. Dissociation is a common symptom of trauma. Truma-informed yoga practice is all about creating a safe space where mindfully learning to stay present in the body is possible.


How do you practice trauma-informed yoga?


Yoga for Veterans Event at the Intrepid in New York City


The goal of trauma-informed yoga is to create a safe space. It has nothing to do with proper pose form. This practice is about feeling accepted and safe and learning to be and stay present in the body and improving body awareness.


A trauma-informed yoga class is designed to reduce sensory stimulation and to provide a sense of predictability. This helps trauma survivors manage symptoms of overstimulation and hyperarousal.


Unlike in a regular yoga studio classes, in a trauma-informed yoga class, the teacher does not play music. This limits sensory stimulation, which helps trauma survivors manage their reactive symptoms of hypervigilance. In addition, in order to create a sense of predictability, instructors use little variance between classes.


Amy Weintraub, licensed mental health therapist and yoga teacher, in her book, Yoga Skills for Therapists, says that trauma-informed yoga instructors focus on moving through poses and positions in a relaxed, slow, deliberate way. This helps the entire central nervous system to slow down and learn to be calm. It helps quiet the mind and allows the myofascial structures, which are the tough membranes that connect and support muscles, to relax.


The benefits of trauma-informed yoga
  • Improves the mind-body connection

In general, the practice of yoga is about connecting body to mind and mind to body. Yoga is an awareness and relaxation practice, that focuses on the mind-body connection that is always there, but is often hidden from conscious awareness.


Some examples of how the mind and body are related: how your mouth waters when thinking about a delicious meal, or how your body reacts when thinking about an evening with your significant other. Notice how tightly the mind, the emotions and the body are connected.


Some other examples of this connection are how anxiety about a big event interferes with sleep, or how dissociation kicks in as a defense mechanism, when tough feelings or past trauma arises.


Trauma survivors have learned to dissociate from their thoughts and feelings when perceiving negative memories, feelings, people or places associated with their trauma. The dissociative experience feels like an out of body experience or a numbing of all feeling and thought.


Yoga is about mindfully slowing down and bringing awareness to the breath and to the present moment, and to what is actually happening internally and externally. Yoga, through slow movement and mindfulness, increases the powers of observation and increases self-awareness.


Trauma survivors tend to react strongly or dissociate to escape the hard feelings or memories. Yoga teaches them to sit with their uncomfortable feelings without judgement.


Self- acceptance is a yogic practice.



  • Calms the nervous system

Trauma survivors have a somatic tendency towards a reactive nervous system. Many trauma survivors live with an overactive sympathetic nervous system which control’s the body’s fight or flight response. So, it's hard to get back to baseline and it's difficult to calm down.


Yoga is a relaxation practice. Yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system which controls the body’s ability to relax.


Current research shows that yoga relaxes muscle tension, teaches proper diaphragmatic breathing, balances the autonomic nervous system, and reduces the stress hormone, cortisol. Yoga has also been shown to reduce amygdala activation. The amygdala is gatekeeper of the fear response.


How mental health professionals use yoga to support PTSD healing


Many mental health professionals are seeing the benefits in treating PTSD and trauma-related disorder by integrating yoga into their practice by becoming or partnering with a certified yoga therapist.


Dan Libby, Ph.D. created the Veteran’s Yoga Project (VYP) and believes in a holistic approach to mental health. When he was clinical director for a 30-bed military treatment center, he hired a yoga teacher who had no background in trauma yet the veterans who were taking yoga classes began to see a reduction in their PTSD symptoms.


Seeing the immediate and prolonged benefits of yoga on the veterans he worked with is what brought the VYP to life. He focuses his yoga classes on teaching correct breathing, how to incorporate yoga into daily life, skills to help improve sleep, and how to calm down when presented with daily stress.


The Veteran’s Yoga Practice has over 84 programs throughout the United States with 50 programs located in VAs. Visit their website for more information.


Takeaway - Self-care and lifestyle changes are important to healing

An important takeaway from this new information about healing from trauma is that you can adopt lifestyle changes in order to help heal.


Self-care becomes important in the form of lifestyle management, in adopting intentional forms of movement and body maintenance.



Sources


Chicago Behavioral Hospital (2022). Psychological trauma, understanding, treatment and help. Retrieved November 2022 from


Kamenetz, A. (2017). The role of yoga in healing trauma. Retrieved September 2022 from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/06/02/527570310/the-role-of-yoga-in-healing-trauma


Mayo Clinic (2020). Post-traumatic stress disorder - Symptoms and causes. Retrieved November 2022 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967


Morelli, K. (2021.) PTSD 5: How emotions are processed. Retrieved March 2023 from https://www.heartlifeholistic.com/post/ptsd-5-how-emotions-are-processed


Morelli, K. (2019). Veterans Yoga Project: Interview with Dr. Dan Libby.


Mercey Livingston, M. (2021). How Trauma-Informed Yoga Can Help Survivors Heal.


SAMSHA's Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. Retrieved September 2022 from


Van Der Kolk, B., Stone, L., West, J., Rhodes, A., Emerson, D., Suvak, M. and Spinnazolla, J. (2014). Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 75(6)., June, 2014. https://www.besselvanderkolk.com/uploads/docs/Yoga-F-J-Clin-Psychiat-1.pdf


Weintraub, A. (2012). Yoga skills for therapists: Effective practices for mood management. New York: W.W. Norton and Company




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