On the first day of my yoga teacher training, my teacher repeated the phrase, “Yoga is the practice of inquiry.” She emphasized the “journey” with and through oneself and demonstrated a healthy yoga practice as a way to open doors, break down walls, and express vulnerability.
But how do you do this when you’re disconnected from yourself? What do you do when self-awareness triggers memories from a past emotional trauma?
The effects of trauma
Trauma is emotional shock that follows a deeply distressing or disturbing incident such as: war, crime, accident, assault, or natural disaster. While shock and denial tend to immediately follow a traumatic event, its long-term effects can include: unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships (due to anxiety, depression, and/or isolation), and a number of stress-related physical symptoms.1 Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, founder of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass., and a clinical psychiatrist specializing in post-traumatic stress, calls these physical symptoms “issues in our tissues.”2 Unresolved emotional trauma can manifest in the body as migraines, nervous ticks, clenched shoulders/neck/jaw, a sunken chest, and/or a heavy heart.
The long-term symptoms and effects of trauma often reflect post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress and/or dissociation occurring after a traumatic event. Those diagnosed with PTSD “may relive the event via intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares; avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma; and have anxious feelings they didn’t have before that are so intense their lives are disrupted.”3
Within the course of a given year, around 3.6% of Americans aged 18 to 54 (5.2 million people) live with PTSD. Sadly, this number represents only a small portion of Americans who have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives: 60.7% of men and 51.2% of women.4
In recovering from emotional trauma, the American Psychological Association suggests to “engage in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress.”5 In addition to proper rest, nutrition, and the avoidance of drugs and alcohol, the APA suggests using relaxation techniques.
However, given the effects of trauma, we can understand why relaxation might not come easily to those suffering from PTSD. This is where trauma-sensitive yoga comes in. Dr. van der Kolk explains that, with the proper approach, yoga can greatly benefit trauma survivors: “Yoga really attends to the body and the breath, attends to stillness. It allows you to feel everything you feel, to tolerate every sensation, and to live and move with it.”
According to David Emerson, founder and director of Yoga Services for the Trauma Center, and colleague of Dr. van der Kolk, trauma-sensitive yoga “adapts the environment in which yoga is delivered in order to fit the needs of the client population [by] removing strongly suggestive language, de-emphasizing posture intensity, emphasizing feeling, and eliminating hands-on assists from the teacher. In addition, four key themes are emphasized during the practice including: experiencing the present moment, making choices, taking effective action, and creating rhythms.”6
For those who have endured trauma, yoga–especially done with this approach–can be incredibly beneficial. In a review7 of 13 randomized control studies on the effectiveness of yoga in trauma recovery, 10 studies yielded significant positive results in reducing PTSD, depression, and schizophrenia.
Association through meditation
Through trauma-sensitive yoga, students can reconnect to themselves and the present moment in a safe environment. Certain meditation techniques encourage students to acknowledge thoughts and feelings that arise without having the pressure to react to them. This creates a controlled self-dialogue for students, as they learn to be present with their thoughts, memories, and emotions.
Breathing for relaxation
People who suffer from PTSD often experience difficulty regulating their fight-or-flight response. When we sense that we are unsafe, our sympathetic nervous system prepares us for fight or flight by triggering an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone production. Those having experienced trauma can feel stuck in this response or experience it at random times.
Trauma-sensitive yoga works to control this response and calm the nervous system through deep, controlled diaphragmatic breathing. Not only does this allow students to regulate their breathing and emotional response; it also increases connection with both the body and mind.
Control through movement
Trauma-sensitive yoga is a way to communicate with yourself when words only cause more trauma. Dr. van der Kolk states that, “It’s great to be able to put your feelings into words… But it doesn’t make your body know that you are safe. The real method is resetting your physiology.”
Moving through postures – especially in connection with breath – is a huge accomplishment for those who previously felt frozen in or disconnected from their bodies. Dr. van der Kolk states that this allowance of movement and connection “can rewire your brain stem, and change the fear system in your brain. It can regulate the balance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems and activate the cranial nerves so your body doesn’t respond to everything as if it’s getting hurt.”
With an emphasis on feeling and connection, trauma-sensitive yoga empowers students to gain awareness and control. Through gaining control over one’s breath, body, thoughts, and emotions, a yoga practice can be a powerful tool in helping to rewire physiology and psychology to come to a place of safety and comfort.
NOTE: In all his research and publications, Dr. van der Kolk (alongside many other PTSD and trauma-sensitive researchers) recommends beginning one’s yoga practice with a teacher who has special training in trauma therapy. As yoga is, indeed, a journey through vulnerable self-inquiry, Dr. van der Kolk states, “None of my patients have been able to tolerate a yoga program if they weren’t in therapy at the same time. Too much painful stuff comes up.”
1. American Psychological Association
2. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
3. American Psychological Association
4. Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs
5. American Psychological Association
6. Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson
7. Yoga as an Ancillary Treatment for Neurological and Psychiatric Disorders: A Review