Yoga and Healing Trauma

Applications of Yoga in Healing Trauma 

By: Diana Justl

Written on 12/12/12

New trauma research helps us understand that one of the most powerful and effective ways to release trauma is through the body. Somatic awareness gives space for the effects of trauma to be felt and released. Mindful yoga practice holds profound potential for body awareness and when applied in a trauma sensitive way, can provide the keys for overcoming and healing trauma.

The space that yoga offers gives the practitioner the ability to observe heart rate patterns and helps to detect how our nervous system is regulating our bodies. Yoga can give us a bridge to our hearts and nervous systems. “I would say the foundation of all effective treatments involves some way for people to learn that they can change their arousal system..”  Bessel Van der Kolk for Integral Yoga Magazine. In Ogden and Pain’s Trauma and the Body, they write about the necessity of mindfulness in releasing trauma. “To uncover latent acts of triumph, it is necessary to re-evoke a sliver of the nonverbal memory, slowly and mindfully in a step-by-step manner, with meticulous attention to the body’s responses. Often the somatic components of implicit memory emerge even when talking about working with the memory.” (p. 249, Ogden & Pain, 2006).

This tracking of the nervous systems responses is key in keeping someone in their window of tolerance. This allows them to be present to their sensations without reliving them.

“Mindfulness questions are asked… because these questions compel the client to observe and report internal organization of experience, they maintain dual awareness and prevent reliving. When clients remember the trauma, immobilizing defenses of freeze or submission/ collapse are usually aroused. The somatic indicators of these defenses are noted by the therapist, who is also looking for indicators of orienting and mobilizing defensive responses that were not fully executed  or were unsuccessful during the original trauma.” (p. 249, Ogden & Pain page 2006).

We see in new trauma research that trauma is not about the past – it’s about a body that continues to behave and organize itself as if the trauma is happening right now. To work effectively with traumatized people we must help them to be present to tolerate whatever goes on. The past is only relevant in as far as it stirs up current sensations, feelings, emotions and thoughts. Body awareness is key to staying present.

This kind of therapy can be non-verbal with the main task of the therapist being to help people to feel what they feel – to notice what they notice, to see how things flow within themselves, and to reestablish their sense of time inside. Bessel Van der Kolk talks about the effectiveness of yoga practice in this way; “Yoga helps regulate emotional and physiological states. It allows the body to regain its natural movement and teaches the use of breath for self-regulation. What is beautiful about Yoga is that it teaches us—and this is a critical point for those who feel trapped in their memory sensations—that things come to an end.” He goes on to say that  doing certain postures in yoga, uncomfortable sensations arise and when focusing on breath and sensation, practitioners observe that the discomfort can be tolerated until they shift into a different posture. The process of being in a safe space and staying with whatever sensations arise and seeing how they come to an end is a positive imprint. Yoga can help create this imprint of safety in the present awareness of the body, giving people a sense of the way out of trauma as the way in. The breath is a valuable conduit for present moment awareness.

“Another important aspect of Yoga is utilizing the breath. It’s very striking that there’s nothing in western culture that teaches us that we can learn to master our own physiology— solutions always come from outside, starting with relationships, and if those fail, alcohol or drugs. Yoga teaches us that there are things we can do to change our brainstem arousal system, our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and to quiet the brain” Bessel Van Der Kolk for Integral Yoga Magazine.

Therapeutic yoga differs from the regular yoga classes seen at large studios. There is increasing research and application of yoga therapy in small groups and in one on one sessions.

“Therapeutic yoga approaches the emotions from the doorway of the body, or, more precisely, from the residue left in the body by trauma and loss and the everyday challenges of daily life.  It meets the constrictions held and helps the client release them, without words.  This can be especially valuable when trauma has occurred pre-verbally or when trauma memories are stored intrinsically and cannot be recalled chronologically.   This is also often the case in shock trauma, when the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol floods the limbic brain and disrupts the natural memory-arranging function of the hippocampus.” Weintraub, Amy. (2012) p. 12.

Trainings in Yoga Therapy are increasingly popular and a new field of Trauma Sensitive Yoga is arising. (Emerson, David).

In an article on Application of Yoga in Residential Treatment of Traumatized Youth, I read of a very important program using yoga to help youth with trauma and addiction. A adapted a form of Hatha yoga was used as an intervention with complexly traumatized individuals. They exhibited chronic affective and somatic dysregulation and associated behavioral, functioning, and health complaints.

“Our clinical experience with this population over the past several years has demonstrated the potential for yoga to play an important role in helping shift chronically traumatized adolescents’ relationship to their bodies from negligence, gross indulgence,  numbing, or self-harm toward the capacity to feel safe in and accepting of their bodies, to increase tolerance and regulation of painful affect states and behavior impulses, and begin to identify, cultivate, and positively appraise physical competencies.”

(Spinazzola, p. 432, 2011).

The results found that yoga practice was effective in reducing traumatic symptoms and included breath- work, asana (the physical postures), and meditation. Yogic breathwork involves controlling the depth and rate of breathing. Research indicates that breathwork can improve emotional regulation and modulate the sympathetic nervous system, and improve heart rate variability.

Taking matters into their own hands, trauma survivors can feel they are no longer a victim of what happens. Yoga practice ultimately changes our thought process. This is very contrary to the medical system where, if you can’t stand something you can take a pill and make it go away. The core of this trauma sensitive yoga treatment is that when an experience is frightening you can change the sensation by moving and breathing. Yoga helps people feel what they feel and  psychotherapy comes in to find the language for the internal experience. An article interviewing Bessel Van der Kolk on Yoga and PTSD states him as saying:

“I began my [yoga] practice six years ago. I was looking for a way for people to regulate the core arousal system in the brain and feel safe inside their bodies. My interest came from doing research that discovered how trauma affects the brain. Yoga turned out to be a way to get people to safely feel their physical sensations and to develop a quiet practice of stillness. Yoga teaches us that there are things we can do to change our brainstem arousal system, our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and to quiet the brain. Memory of trauma is stored, so when you are stilled, demons come out. Those with PTSD should first learn to regulate their physiology with breath, postures and relaxation and work toward meditation.” Bessel Van der Kolk for Integral Yoga Magazine.

Yoga has helped me cultivate a healthier sense of self. It has been continuously life changing, since I started practicing as a 17 year old. A heightened sense of awareness through yoga has instilled tremendous hope and inspiration in my life. When I connect with the present moment I feel a deep sense of freedom and ease, regardless of what life has presented to me. Space and clarity is created and I can choose to act from this place rather than react from a place of fear. This has created profound change in my inner and outer life. I can see how this would be beneficial to trauma survivors. I am excited to apply this new field of yoga in trauma treatment in my own psychotherapy practice.

Works Cited:

Yoga and PTSD, an interview with Bessel Van der Kolk. Integral Yoga Magazine.
Minton, K., Ogden, P, & Pain, C. (2006) Trauma and the Body: a Sensorimotor approach to Psychotherapy (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology. New York WW Norton & Company.
Weintraub, Amy. (2012). Yoga Skills for Therapists. W.W. Norton and Co; New York.

Emerson, David. Toward Becoming a Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Teacher: Best Practice Guidelines
Joseph Spinazzola, Alison M. Rhodes, David Emerson, Ellen Earle and Kathryn Monroe.

Application of Yoga in Residential Treatment of Traumatized Youth. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association. 2011.

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