Yoga has gained popularity over the last few years with the development of many non-traditional styles – silent yoga, beer yoga, yoga with goats. But one method which fortunately has developed, yet unfortunate that there is such a need for it, is yoga for trauma recovery.
Yoga touches every level of our being – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Many people are out of touch with at least one of these areas. But for trauma survivors, the disconnect may be intensified and in more than one area.
After a trauma, many survivors cannot connect with their body and lose the ability to calm themselves. This lack of connection, or disassociation, causes an internal struggle creating stress, anxiety and trauma triggers. However, yoga activates the area of the brain involving self-awareness thus opening a path for healing which the trauma blocked out.
There are many types of trauma. It might be a car accident, being in a war zone, being a victim or witnessing a violent crime, death of a loved one or even thinking about the possibility of something bad happening can cause trauma to someone. Years ago PTSD wasn’t identified nor was there help for it. However, now there is treatment and help for those dealing with it. And yoga for trauma recovery is playing a significant role in this healing.
When trauma is not resolved many issues manifest physically in the form of migraines, clenching of muscles in the neck, jaws and shoulders, nervous tics. There might even be flashbacks, insomnia, and nightmares, anger, irritability, depression, substance use and abuse, relationship issues. If still not resolved, they may take an even harder toll on the body in the form of heart disease, diabetes, panic attacks, fibromyalgia and autoimmune disorders.
So how exactly can yoga help with recovery from trauma?
When someone is involved in a trauma, their sympathetic nervous systems go into high gear – that’s the “fight or flight” response. However, yoga increases the parasympathetic response – the “rest and digest” response– through deep breathing and relaxation. Focusing on the breath is the core of yoga (although many people think it’s more about standing on your head). Learning to slow down and focus on your breathing brings a person into the present moment. It allows you to observe and understand what’s going on in your body, so you gain control of your thoughts and actions, thus helping to reduce stress.
Moving from breathing into active poses (asnas) helps to stretch and strengthen the physical body. Many survivors retreat within themselves and are afraid to move or stretch. But there are asnas to help open the heart, which is so vital for healing, stretches which slowly help to bring the body back to life in a non-threating way and asnas for physical and emotional strength. Keeping the asnas simple with no competition helps a victim to regain a sense of self-worth.
The meditation aspect of yoga takes it one step further.
Using the breathing with movement is an emotional and physical form of meditation. By combining the two elements to work together, it helps to bring the body into balance.
There is also meditation without physical movement. It’s the relaxation (savasana) at the end of a yoga class where you just sit or lay in stillness. However for some trauma survivors stillness can be a trigger, so the instructor may need to make it more of a guided, or talking, meditation.
Also, there are some other issues which may come up in a class for trauma survivors which are not necessarily an issue in a regular yoga class. Things such a touching to help a student with an asna, verbiage when cueing, music and, as I mentioned earlier, silence are some of the things which can trigger a trauma victim.
If anyone is considering working in this area, I would highly recommend getting specific training in some trauma yoga. The clients are just too fragile, emotionally and physically, to undertake a regular yoga class. As a yoga instructor myself for many years, I have studied the YogaFit for Warriors program, Prison Yoga Project and was recently certified in Trauma Recovery Yoga.
This Trauma Recovery Yoga program was developed by a woman who knows trauma first hand and is using her experience to help others. The classes are offered at the VA in Las Vegas, an addiction recovery center (where I volunteer teaching the program), UNLV school of medicine, Title 1 schools and due to the Route 91 tragedy here, at the coroner’s office and for First Responders.
So while yoga might not be for everyone, it definitely can help trauma survivors help heal the pain and create a loving and nurturing relationship with their bodies and their life.